Two international rights groups called on Egyptian authorities on Saturday to halt their crackdown on people suspected of homosexuality following the waving of the LGBT rainbow flag at a recent concert in Cairo.
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Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International also urged Egypt, a majority Muslim country of some 95 million people, to call off the anal examination of people detained on suspicion of homosexuality to determine whether they were engaged in same-sex sexual relations.
They said the practice amounted to torture and called it "abhorrent" and scientifically unsound.
Homosexuality is highly taboo in Egypt among Muslims and minority Christians alike, but it is not explicitly prohibited by law. Egypt regularly arrests gay men, with large police raids on private parties or locations such as public baths, restaurants and bars. In practice, they prosecute individuals under such charges as "immorality" and "debauchery."
Egypt arrested at least seven people last week after footage of the rainbow flag raising surfaced on social media. The incident took place during a Sept. 22 concert by Lebanese indie rock band Mashrou' Leila, a jazzy, electro-Arabesque group whose lead singer is openly gay.
Most Egyptians see homosexuality as a practice that goes against nature and religion and insist that it's a social disease exported by a decadent West. At home, most homosexuals keep their sexual orientation a secret known only to close friends, fearing social stigma.
Local fiction and films with homosexual characters are rare and typically accompanied by their share of controversy. Scenes involving sex or displays of affection between same-sex couples in foreign movies are censored.
The media, particularly celebrity hosts of TV talk shows, routinely feed on stories about the arrest of homosexuals, taking the high moral ground and inciting authorities to do more to "cleanse" the streets.
Both Amnesty and HRW said in their Saturday statements that a total of 11 people had been arrested since the concert, held at an upscale mall in an eastern Cairo suburb.
"These men should be released immediately and unconditionally — not put on trial," said Najia Bounaim, Amnesty's North Africa Campaigns Director. "A sinister smear campaign by Egyptian media against those believed to have raised the rainbow flag at the Mashrou' Leila concert, has given security forces a green light to carry out arrests of at least 11 people based on their alleged sexual orientation," said Bounaim.
Egypt should stop devoting state resources to hunting down people for their sexual orientation and instead focus on improving its rights record, said HRW, alluding to the ongoing crackdown by authorities on Islamists and secular pro-democracy activists while slapping draconian restrictions on street demonstrations and freedom of speech.
"Whether they were waving a rainbow flag, chatting on a dating app, or minding their own business in the streets, all these debauchery arrest victims should be immediately released," HRW's Sarah Leah Whitson said.
"The Egyptian government, by rounding people up based on their presumed sexual orientation, is showing flagrant disregard for their rights."
The government maintains that its top priorities are improving the economy and defeating Islamic militants waging an insurgency whose epicenter is in the Sinai Peninsula.