CAIRO — An Egyptian court on Monday acquitted 26 men arrested in a televised raid last month by police looking for gays at a Cairo public bathhouse, a ruling that set off deafening cheers and jubilation inside the courtroom as some of the defendants uncovered their faces and wept openly in relief.
Others, however, kept their faces hidden behind jacket hoods and scarves, still traumatized by the humiliation they and their families had endured during the highly publicized case, which caught the public’s attention after a pro-government TV network aired scenes of half-naked men being pulled from the bathhouse by police during the Dec. 7 raid.
Monday’s ruling was a climax in Egypt’s ongoing crackdown on the gay community, and also recently on atheists – a crackdown that goes hand in hand with a wider campaign against all forms of dissent and diversity in a country gripped by rising nationalism and a militant insurgency.
Same-sex relations are not explicitly prohibited under Egyptian law but homosexuality is a social taboo in the conservative, Muslim-majority country and same-sex marriage is unheard of. Only in recent years have movies and fiction included gay characters.
“They destroyed our lives. God rescued us,” said one of the defendants, who would not give his name to protect his privacy, as he broke into tears after the verdict.
Scenes of half-naked men being dragged from the bathhouse after police descended on the hammam in a narrow alley of an old downtown Cairo district caused an uproar among activists and rights groups.
Activists, defendants and their families were doubly outraged by the deep involvement in the case of Egyptian TV presenter Mona al-Iraqi, who claimed she actually triggered the raid by tipping off the police about alleged gay activity in the bathhouse – which she described as a “den of mass perversion spreading AIDS in Egypt.”
The men faced various charges, including debauchery and performing indecent public acts. Monday’s verdict came after only four hearings, during which families quarreled with journalists who tried to photograph their relatives in the dock.
The courtroom erupted into a frenzy after the word “acquittal” was heard from the judge and women ululated. Several defendants inside the cage and their relatives vowed to seek legal action against al-Iraqi.
Scott Long, an American researcher who had followed the case said he was both “shocked and delighted” by the outcome.
“I hope this is a sign that these raids will come to an end,” Long told The Associated Press in the courtroom. “Finally, there was a judge who listened to the evidence.”