Metro Weekly

Human rights groups concerned about anti-gay crackdowns in Muslim nations

Even in places where homosexuality is not technically illegal, LGBTQ people can be targeted by local police

Indonesian poice officers – Photo: CEphoto, Uwe Aranas, via Wikimedia.

Major human rights organizations are expressing concern at several anti-gay arrests, detentions, and prosecutions of people suspected of homosexuality in a handful of majority-Muslim nations.

In Egypt, police have arrested 33 people in relation to an incident on Sept. 22, in which several people were seen raising a rainbow flag during a concert by Mashrou’ Leila, a popular Lebanese alternative rock band with an openly gay lead singer.

In the weeks since that incident, police have arrested several young men and one women, including 16 men who went on trial last week for “promoting sexual deviancy” and “debauchery,” reports Haaretz.

A verdict in the case of those 16 men is expected to be handed down on Oct. 29. One man who faced similar charges has been sentenced to six years in jail, not an uncommon occurrence under Egypt’s conservative laws. While homosexuality is not technically criminalized, gay men are frequently targeted and arrested on other charges such as “promoting deviancy”  if authorities know them to be gay or bisexual.

“The scale of the latest arrests highlights how dangerously entrenched homophobia is within the country,” Najia Bounaim, the director of North Africa Campaigns at Amnesty International, said in a statement. “Instead of stepping up arrests and carrying out anal examinations, the authorities must urgently halt this ruthless crackdown and release all those arrested immediately and unconditionally.”

Of particular concern to human rights advocates is the use of torturous anal examinations on prisoners arrested on such charges to “prove” whether they have engaged in anal sex. Even though the procedure has no medical merit, the use of such exams continues, with at least five of the 33 arrestees having been subjected to it since the rainbow flag incident.

Both Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have decried the imprisonment of men suspected of being gay and particularly the use of anal exams, which they say amount to a form of torture.

In Azerbaijan, more than 50 gay and transgender people were detained and abused in a series of raids in the capital city of Baku during September, purportedly to combat prostitution. However, lawyers and activists say that the majority of those detained were not engaged in prostitution, but were accused of solicitation due to anti-LGBTQ animus on the part of police, reports The New York Times.

Ekhsan Zakhidov, a spokesman for the Azeri Interior Ministry, has said the raids were “justified” to stop the spread of venereal disease. He claimed that 16 of those arrested had AIDS or syphilis, saying that sexually transmitted diseases “pose a threat to [the] lives and health of young people.”

His claims about the prisoners’ HIV status or other infections could not be verified.

Samed Rahimli, a lawyer for those arrested, claims that the detainees were subjected to torture and electroshock treatment while in custody. While few detainees are willing to be outed — and may even face threats of “honor killings” at the hands of family members if they are — one man told the Nefes LGBT Azerbaijan Alliance of how he was beaten by police and told to give up customers who had solicited sex from him, even though he insists he is not a prostitute.

Similar to Egypt, homosexuality is not technically illegal in Azerbaijan, but police often use other laws to detain and mistreat those they suspect of being gay.

Most of those arrested in the raids were sentenced up to 30 days in jail and were charged with disobeying police orders, according to local activists who are helping appeal the sentences. Some activists have alleged that police entrapped some of the arrestees using social media by posing as gay or transgender people looking for dates.

Last week, in Indonesia, 51 men, including several foreigners, were arrested in a raid on a “gay spa” and accused of violating the country’s pornography and prostitution laws, reports The Guardian

Human Rights Watch has reported that most of those arrested were released Saturday, including the foreigners, but police have detained five sauna employees, who could face official charges. If charged, they — or any of the remaining men in custody — could face up to six years in prison under the country’s strict pornography laws, which prohibit sex parties, the use of pornography, and “deviant sexual acts,” including the promotion of homosexual sex.

The raid marks the sixth such incident this year in which police have arrested people on suspicion of being gay or lesbian, even though there are technically no laws prohibiting homosexuality, except in the country’s Aceh province, where homosexuality is illegal under Sharia law.

In March, two men in Aceh province were arrested on suspicion of engaging in homosexuality and found guilty, resulting in a public caning. In April, police arrested 14 men in a hotel room in Surabaya and forcibly subjected them to take HIV tests. In May, police arrested 141 men at a gay sauna in Jakarta, in a raid similar to the one carried out last week. In June, police in Medan apprehended five “suspected lesbians” and ordered their parents to supervise them to ensure they were not engaging in sex, leaking their names to the press in the process. In September, police in West Java forcibly evicted 12 women living together from a private home under suspicion that they were lesbians.

Andrees Harsono, a Jakarta-based researcher for Human Rights Watch, told The Guardian that it is commonplace for police to engage in such raids, profiling and discriminating against people suspected of being LGBTQ. 

“If [police] raided [this club] because they are gay, it is abusive, it is abuse of power,” Harsono said. “If there is no victim, there is no crime.”

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John Riley is the local news reporter for Metro Weekly. He can be reached at jriley@metroweekly.com