Este artículo se publica en castellano aquí.
Today I went to the trial, with two Egyptian human rights activists — Dalia Abd El Hameed of the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights (EIPR), and Ramy Youssef, a law student and anti-violence campaigner. El Galaa courthouse, on a grey street in Azbekeya in central Cairo, held the first session in the trial of 26 men, all picked up in journalist-informer Mona Iraqi’s bathhouse raid. As we took a taxi there, a friend phoned with a rumor that Mona Iraqi herself was in the court. She wasn’t. She hasn’t enough courage to confront the victims, the families, the destruction she’s accomplished.
I’ve always said human rights work is nine-tenths waiting. Today, too. You stand in a decrepit hallway while a crowd grows: lawyers in dusty robes, the families — mostly women, mostly old, each in a black dress and severe hijab — and, to let you know something prurient is up, the camera crew setting up a tripod in a corner. There were security agents too, in unusual numbers, in sunglasses and cheap leather jackets. 82 cases clogged the judge’s docket. The bathhouse trial came last, in acknowledgment of its special status. It tells you something about Egyptian justice that the other 81 took just two hours.
By the time the case finally came the crowd had swelled to fill the hallway. Police opened the courtroom doors at about 1:40 and let 60 or 70 people press through. The next twenty minutes were pure chaos. Guards hustled the cowed defendants in, bowed and chained in a line at the wrists, while the bailiff at the door beat them over the shoulders. The men were locked in the courtroom cage. Then, having admitted the families to see their sons humiliated, the guards decided to throw them out. This I remember from the Queen Boat trial in 2001 — the first time I ever attended a court in Egypt: in high-profile cases, the families are brutally barred from the hearing, while journalists are let in, as if the state wants to show off its achievements. The screaming and wailing were unbearable. To call the scene heartrending gives life to the cliché. Even my old heart, ragged as an ancient land deed, was shredded to scraps and kindling. One mother, while the cops forced her out of the room, shouted to her son in the cage: “Remember you’re a man! Don’t be afraid! Don’t be afraid of anyone except God!”
Another woman had come with a daughter and a boy of about 10. The child cried uncontrollably as he crouched on the benches, and he cried still more as he watched his mother manhandled and thrown out just before he was.
The police said that only lawyers and “licensed journalists” would be allowed in the room, but they checked press cards only desultorily in the chaos. What mattered was looking middle-class and respectable, or poor and powerless. The defendants are mostly working-class men, their families scared and defenseless before the authority of injustice. (A lawyer told us one of the men was due to be married the day after the raid. He had come to the bathhouse that night to cleanse himself before his wedding.)
The hearing was brief. More than a dozen defense lawyers crowded in front of the bench. One lawyer warned us he was afraid the judge might deliver a decision that day — the state was visibly anxious to move this forward; a quick guilty verdict would give Mona Iraqi a defense against the furious criticism she’s encountered in Egypt. After ten minutes the judge retired to his chambers. A few attorneys pushed in after him. The defendants were crying in their cage. A lawyer emerged to shout that they’d presented the judge their requests, and started to list what they’d asked for, including the defendants’ release. In the confusion the crowd took him to mean that the men were actually going to be freed. People rushed to tell the families outside, who gasped exultantly. Other lawyers screamed contrary stories. The false news of the men’s release hit Twitter in a few minutes.
In fact, the judge postponed the next hearing till January 4, and the men will stay jailed until then. In a bad but predictable sign, he rejected defense lawyers’ requests to call Mona Iraqi and the head doctor of the Forensic Medical Authority as witnesses.
A few points:
1) The lawyers still hadn’t seen the prosecutors’ or police reports, so we don’t know definitely what the charges are. It seems likely, though, that 21 men were customers at the bathhouse; they will be charged with the “habitual practice of debauchery” (article 9c of Law 10/1061), or homosexual conduct, facing up to three years in prison. The owner and staff probably make up the other five prisoners. They’re likely to be tried for some combination of:
- keeping a residence for purposes of debauchery (article 9a, three years),
- or facilitating the practice of debauchery (article 9b, three years),
- or profiting from the practice of debauchery (article 11, two years),
- or “working or residing in premises used for debauchery” (article 13: one year).
That could add up nine years in prison. Contrary to Mona Iraqi’s lies, there was no mention of “sex trafficking.”
2) The state paper Al Ahram reported last week that forensic anal exams were inflicted on 21 of the prisoners, probably the alleged customers. 18 were apparently found “unused,” while Hisham Abdel Hameed, the spokesman of the Forensic Medical Authority, claimed that three were discovered to have been sexually assaulted. Mona Iraqi promptly advertised this result, claiming that she had saved rape victims. The allegation is horrifying and demands investigation, but there is no indication of any investigation. Neither the news story nor the hearing offered any suggestion that the men had actually said they were assaulted. The assault was not mentioned in the hearing at all, and there was no hint why rape victims should still be jailed and facing trial. Nor was there any indication of where the assault happened; it could well have taken place in the police lockup, where prisoners accused of homosexual conduct regularly face sexual abuse.
In 2003, Hossam Bahgat (founder of the EIPR) and I interviewed Dr. Ayman Fouda, then deputy director of Egypt’s Forensic Medical Authority (he later rose to head it). Fouda was genuinely obsessed with anuses, and he spent hours explaining the theory behind the anal examinations. Homosexual sex, he told us, is always rape. When a penis nears an anus (he illustrated this with spontaneous hand puppetry), the anus clenches in instinctive rejection of the unnatural intrusion; hence the penetration is always violent, and leaves the same marks as an assault. The violence makes the breached anus funnel-shaped. Even if the pervert consents, his anus doesn’t. We inquired whether a person inserting a dildo into himself would leave the same traces. No, Dr. Fouda said gravely. “The anus recognizes a friendly object, and unclenches itself.”
This might be funny, if it weren’t for real. Fouda’s examiners constantly claim that they can detect anal deformities as “evidence” of consensual homosexual sex, even weeks after it allegedly happened — complete medical humbug. But this official understanding of anal sex fosters doubt whether the Forensic Medical Authority can detect the evidence (or bothers to) when a man has actually been raped. In this case, there’s been no attempt to treat the alleged victims as victims, to exonerate them from charges of consensual sex, or even to obtain their stories. It sounds suspiciously like a state attempt to produce a justification for Mona Iraqi’s raid.
Outside the courtroom, a younger woman holding a baby approached my colleague Ramy, desperately. She may have been the sister or wife of a defendant. She wanted to know what the forensic exams had found. She wanted, in other words, to know: will he be found guilty? He told her most of the defendants were “unused.” We didn’t have the heart to say: the state will probably convict them anyway.
We left in the late afternoon. In the street, supplicants in other cases thronged helplessly. Does Mona Iraqi have any idea of the horrors she has caused? Across from the courthouse, a parking lot holds neat ranks of yellow motorcycles; it’s the distribution center for Al Ahram, and the bikes deliver the city’s kiosks their daily supplement of lies. When I was a child, my mother sometimes read Lord Byron’s lines to me:
I stood in Venice, on the Bridge of Sighs,
A palace and a prison on each hand …
— telling how power and degradation are in perverse proximity: Then I saw that there was a way to hell, even from the gates of heaven, as well as from the City of Destruction. In Egypt, it’s the police and the press who copulate perversely. Justice and deceit bed down together. The prison and the publicity machine go hand in hand.