A Campaign of Persecution, Torture, and Murder

*Originally published November 23, 2003.*

CAIRO, Egypt – The old woman sits cross-legged on a dirty floor, moaning and weeping. A cockroach scuttles across her bare foot but she doesn’t notice, lost as she is in the memory of a murdered son. “He never made trouble,” Karima sobs, her thin body swaying back and forth. “He was such a prince. He was such a sweet man.”

Her face suddenly turns hard and bitter. “May the people who deprived me of him be deprived of the breath of life,” she spits.

Karima’s oath is meant for the police officers of Tanta, a small city about an hour’s drive from Cairo. In September, 2002, she believes, the police arrested her 31-year-old son, Shebl and tortured him to death. Then they threw his body out the fifth-floor window of the police station to make it look like a suicide.

The truth slipped out in whispers, Karima says. “Good people told us that he’d been tortured.” First, came a police officer “who was in tears” as he described how Shebl had been beaten and repeatedly shocked with electricity. Then an ambulance driver arrived, followed by a morgue attendant who told them how the corpse was broken and bruised in ways that didn’t fit the official story.

The family never saw Shebl’s body. A mob of police officers blocked the entrance to the morgue and a line of police trucks formed Shebl’s funeral procession. “If you’d seen the number of officers who came to bury my son you’d have thought a general had died.” The police interred the body. “They wouldn’t even let us go to the graveyard to bury our son,” Karima moans.

It is Friday, the Muslim holy day, and Karima has just returned from Shebl’s grave. Her black robe and black head scarf contrast with her milky-white eyes. She is blind, a frail, old woman, although she’s not sure how old. “I’m about 60 or 65, I think.” Three of her five children are dead and a fourth is dying of a brain tumour. She and her husband live in a stifling little room, part of a warren of tiny spaces where her surviving children and extended family live in the midst of a Tanta slum.

As Karima talks, a few of her seven grandchildren scamper in and out, their bare feet and clothes as filthy as the narrow streets. “Look at this,” she says, clutching at two of the children. “They’re orphans. All young. How are we going to eat?” The economy is dreadful and unemployment high. Shebl had only worked at whatever odd jobs turned up but he worked so hard he was the family’s main breadwinner, Karima says. “He was a good boy.”

Karima thinks she knows why the police took her son: “It was because of a cell phone.” Shebl had gone out to buy food, she says, and a police officer stopped him on the street. The officer said the cell phone Shebl carried had been stolen.

Shebl showed him the receipt but he was still arrested and taken to the station where he died.

Mohamed, a friend of the family, listens quietly. Later, he takes me to Shebl’s grave in a dusty, barren cemetery.

“OK,” he says with a sigh after we pay our respects. “Now, I’ll tell you the truth about why it happened.”

It had nothing to do with a cell phone, he says. Shebl wasn’t buying food. He was arrested in a public washroom where men often go to have sex with other men.

The police arrested Shebl and tortured him to death because he was gay.

Since early 2001, says a forthcoming report from Human Rights Watch, the respected international non-governmental watchdog, Egyptian authorities have pursued a fierce campaign against those the Egyptian press routinely call “perverts.” The campaign takes many forms. Sometimes gay men are grabbed in public sweeps of reputed gay bars or cruising areas; sometimes they are taken from private apartments. Often, they are brought in for questioning as potential “witnesses” in the investigation of other crimes. In some cases, the police press charges of prostitution or “habitual debauchery,” while in others they simply let the men go after a week or two in detention.

The one constant in every case is brutality. Gay men are subjected to insults and slaps. Beatings. Soul-destroying torture. Some, like Shebl, do not survive.

In the most infamous case, Egyptian police raided a Cairo discotheque known as the “Queen Boat” in May, 2001. Fifty-two men were accused of being members of a homosexual cult that reviled Islam, worshiped Satan, spread European ideas and took orders from Israel. The sensational trials that followed, says Human Rights Watch, “were less a judicial exercise than a serial extravaganza.” Foreign governments and international human rights groups protested and the bizarre case got considerable news coverage outside Egypt.

The Queen Boat incident was not, as the western press implied, a single, strange case. It was more like a dam bursting after years of rising persecution and after it came a flood of similar police sweeps and hysterical media reports throughout Egypt. According to Human Rights Watch, there are no signs the persecution is letting up.

Observers agree there are no simple explanations but one factor is certainly profit: Egyptian police are profoundly corrupt and will often arrest people simply to squeeze them for cash, making sweeps that net scores or even hundreds of homosexuals, something of a gold rush.

Human Rights Watch also notes that the crackdown fits a pattern of the Egyptian government skilfully promoting what sociologists call “moral panics:” Volatile outbreaks of popular fear that some thing or some group threatens the moral order. Moral panics usually act as lightning rods for much larger social or economic fears — which is what makes them attractive to governments eager to take people’s minds off a failing economy and other social ills.

In Egypt, gay men make an ideal lightning rod. Egyptian culture is deeply conservative about all sexuality and homosexuality is almost universally despised. Compounding this is the belief many Egyptians have that homosexuality is an alien practise imported from the morally corrupt West. Gay men are doubly hated, both for being “perverts” and for being infected by the West. (Lesbians don’t attract the same hostility mainly because most Egyptians prefer to believe that lesbianism, like female sexuality in general, does not exist.)

A more precise political calculation may also be at work. For more than a decade, the government has been locked in a furious fight with radical Islamists who want to turn Egypt into a theocracy like Iran. A key prize in this struggle is the support of religious conservatives, whose numbers and influence are rapidly growing. The Islamists appeal to this group by denouncing the government as decadent and westernized. The government is keen to deny it — which makes it good politics to crack down on a decadent, westernized minority like gay men.

This witches’ brew of influences, rather than any single direction, is the source of the assault on Egypt’s homosexuals, says Hossam Bahgat, director of the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights, a non-governmental human rights group that has documented the persecution. “I don’t think it’s a state policy to go after and try to find every homosexual in Egypt. But definitely the state has condoned these arrests.”

Whatever the reasons behind the campaign of the past two-and-a-half years, gay Egyptians know they are being hunted like never before. “We used to be able to go out any time. But now we can’t leave our houses,” one gay man told me in Cairo. “They’re always watching us.”

It could be a blackmailer. It could be a robber. It could be the police.

It could be an informer picking them out on the street. It could be a friend phoning to lure them into a sting. Or the new guy in the Internet chat room who is really a vice squad officer.

It could just be that they are in the wrong bar at the wrong time, or that they wore the wrong clothes or walked the wrong way.

Mohamed knows all this because he too is gay. “You see on the right?” he calls out as we drive back from the Tanta cemetery and Shebl’s grave. “I stayed in that police station for 14 days.”

The cell was filthy and stank of sweat and urine and was so crowded prisoners often couldn’t lie down. “To let us go to the toilet, they would take money. We had to chip in to help each other go to the bathroom. Or even get a glass of water.”

A gay man had been murdered, Mohamed later learned, so the police investigated the usual way: They arrested every gay man they could put handcuffs on. The torture started at night. “We were stripped naked. They would handcuff us and shackle our feet. They would bring this metal skewer and hang us up like lambs being roasted.”

The police had a device that looked like an old hand-cranked phone with two wires attached. As one officer cranked, another touched the wires to the prisoners. “They electrocuted your tongue and your anus. Your penis. Your ears. This would start at 2 o’clock in the morning,” says Mohamed. “We had to confess who we had had sex with.”

As the men gave up names, the named were tracked down, arrested and squeez-ed into the cell. The police never caught the killer but they did add to their extensive registry of known homosexuals in Tanta.

This nightmarish experience wasn’t unique, Mohamed insists. It’s not even rare. Of his gay friends, he says, “80 per cent have been arrested.” Of those, “100 per cent” have been tortured. “I wish they would treat us like animals because they treat animals better.”

Even what happened to Shebl really wasn’t unusual, at least up until the moment he died. To police, it was just another “faggot” being tortured but then an officer likely got a little too excited. The police generally don’t want victims to die because then they have a body to explain.

This isn’t how most of us think of the nation by the Nile. Egypt, the largest Arab nation with 75 million people, is a key western ally, the second-largest recipient of foreign aid and a stabilizing force in the world’s most volatile region. Egypt is the land of the Pharaohs, of Luxor and the Valley of the Kings. It’s a place where western tourists dressed like amateur archeologists march through the Hilton lobby every day and board air-conditioned buses bound for the Pyramids. In the popular view, Egypt may not be a perfect liberal democracy, but it just isn’t in the same brutal league as Syria, Iran or Saudi Arabia — three nations recently made notorious in Canada for torturing Canadians.

Informed reports suggest Egypt does not deserve its relatively benign reputation.

Amnesty International and other non-governmental organizations believe that torture in Egypt is “systematic and widespread.” The United Nations Human Rights Committee and the UN Committee Against Torture have both expressed official concern about the “widespread evidence of torture and ill-treatment” and “many reports related to numerous cases of death in custody.”

Even the U.S. State Department, which sees Egypt as a critical ally, was harsh in its 2002 human rights report: “In combating terrorism, the security forces continued to mistreat and torture prisoners … and occasionally engaged in mass arrests. In actions unrelated to the antiterrorist campaign, local police killed, tortured, and otherwise abused both criminal suspects and other persons.”

“In the early ’90s, the government gave the green light to torture Islamists,” says Hossam Baghat of the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights. “The international community just looked the other way because there was an Islamist threat. But afterward, it just expanded.” Torture has always existed in Egypt but the ferocious treatment of Islamists fanned the brutality and it intensified throughout the criminal justice system. Now, it is the norm.

“It does not raise eyebrows,” says Baghat. Beatings are so common now that Egyptian human rights groups no longer investigate them as rights violations and “not even the victim” takes them seriously. Egyptians even talk of “beatings or torture,” as if one does not qualify as the other.

The police are so free to be brutal that they have become lazy and abandoned other methods of investigation. “The officer responsible for a division goes out at about 6 or 7 p.m. to 10 p.m. and sweeps in a lot of people from the streets, from cafes, from street corners,” says Gamal Eid, an Egyptian lawyer and human rights activist as he draws on a cigarette in a Cairo cafe. At night, the officer sorts his catch. Those who pay a bribe can go. So can those with a wasta, a powerful friend. But those with neither money nor influence, or those with police records or outstanding cases, or simply those who annoy the officer in any way, remain.

In a single police station, scores of people are netted this way every night and “all of them without exception are humiliated and cruelly treated,” says Eid. “When a citizen is hit by an officer, he is happy that he only got a couple of slaps in the face and a few insults and was allowed to go home.”

Those who spend the night in the station can expect some sort of torture. “The most common methods reported,” notes Amnesty International in its 2002 report, “were electric shocks, beatings, suspension by the wrists or ankles and various forms of psychological torture, including death threats and threats of rape or sexual abuse of the detainee or a female relative.” Torture is used to get the victim to sign a bogus confession, cough up names, pay a bribe or do some task for the police. Sometimes it’s just used to terrify the victim, his family or his neighbourhood.

The Egyptian government insists these charges are all terribly exaggerated. “We don’t deny that (torture) exists. There are individual cases where some police officers use force,” says Gehad Madi, Egypt’s deputy assistant foreign minister for human rights. But Egypt has signed all the international anti-torture covenants, Madi says, and in compliance with those agreements, Egypt has banned torture under domestic law. “Many of the police officers have been referred to courts where it is proved that they have used force, or used torture methods against accused.”

Madi also notes that Egypt recently created an independent human rights commission and many police, prosecutors and judges have been given UN-sponsored classes in human rights. As a result, says Madi, the situation is “much, much better.”

Nonsense, responds Eid, who insists the government’s official opposition to torture is nothing more than a charade designed to protect its international reputation. In reality, the government condones torture and protects those who commit it. “Out of the thousands who are tortured, in the past 10 years, 30 officers have been brought to trial. That’s a rate of three a year. In Egypt, annually, not less than 15 people die of torture every year, and these are just the ones we can document.”

Charges are typically only brought in unusual cases where the authorities risk public embarrassment. “Many of these cases happened where the citizen died because of the torture and they were extensively covered by the press, even the government press,” says Eid.

In a recent case, 12 police officers in Alexandria were charged with torturing a man who went to the police in 1996 to report that his nine-year-old daughter was missing. The police investigated and the father quickly confessed to murdering his daughter. Based on that confession, the father was convicted and sent to prison. Not long after, the daughter turned up alive and well. The police chose to hide the whole awkward business by imprisoning the girl and her mother. Only the intervention of a state prosecutor got the family released and it took five years of concerted pressure from human rights groups and the United Nations before charges were finally laid this September against the officers.

In the Alexandria case, only low-ranking offices were charged, which is typical, says Eid. Senior officers are untouchable. So are officers of State Security, the branch of the interior ministry responsible for fighting Islamists that is consistently singled out by international observers as Egypt’s worst violator of human rights. “Not a single State Security officer” has been prosecuted, Eid says. “Not one.”

The punishment of offenders is just as weak as the effort to prosecute them. “No one has been sentenced to more than six months,” Eid says. The longest sentence cited in the latest report of the UN’s special investigator on torture was five years — given to police officers who publicly beat a man then tortured him to death.

In October, 2002, the UN Human Rights Committee expressed alarm “at the general lack of investigations (of torture), punishment of those responsible, and reparation for the victims.” In the polite language of the UN, that’s an indictment.

Not surprisingly, most victims never report their abuse. To improve that record, Egyptian human rights activists requested government permission — mandatory under Egyptian law — to create the Egyptian Association Against Torture, a non-governmental group that would investigate torture claims and push to hold the perpetrators accountable. In August, the government rejected the application.

Individuals who do proceed with complaints run into a wall of threats and sheer obstinacy, a reality Gamal Eid has personally experienced. In March, while participating in a protest against the Iraq war, he was arrested and savagely beaten with wooden chair legs. On his release, he immediately went to the prosecutor to complain but the prosecutor refused to take his statement. Eid told him he would go elsewhere and add the prosecutor to the complaint. Then, says Eid, the prosecutor “spoke to me in a friendly manner and he said, ‘I’m not refusing but I get so many claims about torture and after I start work people give up these claims. I know that the officer is going to call you and he’s going to put pressure on you and you’re going to drop it.'”

The papers were filed and the police did call, first to his father and then to colleagues in the bar association. “Then, they offered me money,” Eid says. When he still refused to let go, they threatened his 12-year-old daughter. “They said, ‘finish this. You have a daughter and we’re sure you care about her welfare.'”

Still, Eid pushed ahead. But then he ran into the most formidable obstacle — the Egyptian bureaucracy, where unwelcome claims are simply lost or forgotten. His complaint hasn’t prompted any action so far, Eid says, and he expects it never will.

The United Nations knows something about Egyptian bureaucracy. Since 1996, the UN special investigator on torture — whose job is to investigate whether countries are fulfilling their obligation to fight torture — has requested permission to visit Egypt. The Egyptian government has always refused. The problem, the Egyptians told the UN, is “incompatibility of timetables.”

In the most succinct description of the viciousness of the Egyptian justice system, Amnesty International has declared that every person taken into custody “is at risk of torture.” But in Egypt, as in many other countries, a gay man is rarely seen as a person. He is something different, something lower. He is a khawal — a word like “faggot” but with the sting of “nigger.”

And when the Egyptian justice system takes hold of a khawal, it lowers its already brutal standards accordingly.

Hani, a thin, slight, gay man living in Cairo, knows better than anybody how common it is for gay men to be swept up and tortured by the police. He is only 24 but he has already been arrested and brutalized more times than he can count. His latest arrest ended two days before he spoke to me. Always, the offence that gets him into trouble is the same: As an officer once put it, “your crime is being a khawal.”

His first arrest came when he was spotted walking out of a bar that has a reputation for tolerating gays. “They said that my clothes were against public morals. Even my underwear. How can my underwear be against public morals?” For reasons known only to themselves, police believe that wearing coloured underwear is proof that a man is gay.

Another time, he was celebrating a birthday with six friends at a private apartment when the vice squad stormed in and handcuffed them all. “We were just sitting having a drink together,” says Hani, sounding as astonished as the day it happened. When Hani asked the police why they were being arrested, he was told they had reports “there were faggots in the apartment.”

Each time Hani was arrested, he was tortured. Once, the police suspended him by the wrists and hung butane cylinders to his body to add weight and stretch him more painfully. An officer sodomized him with a broom handle. Another burned lit cigarettes into his legs and genitals. Following another arrest, officers “would stand on our backs. Sometimes three were on the back of one person.” And after yet another arrest, Hani was whipped for several nights in a station not far from the Pyramids and its busloads of tourists. “Now I hate to go to the Pyramids because of that police station.”

In the holding cells, the police often try “to make the other prisoners do things to the gay prisoners,” Hani says, including beating and rape.

The point of this assaults is not merely to inflict physical pain, but to humiliate.

Ramzy, a 25-year-old gay man, was netted along with 150 others when police swept through central Cairo arresting gays fingered by informers. For a week, he was savagely beaten with nightsticks and whips but what haunts him are the words he heard when he finally agreed to sign a false police statement claiming he had been having gay sex in public. “It was terrible. I’m never going to forget it,” he says, taking a deep breath as if to brace himself. “I was leaning over the desk, about to sign, and the officer hit me on the back of the head. I said, I’m signing, what’s the matter? He said, you have to know what you’re signing. You’re signing away your honour.”

Ramzy had been calm describing his physical suffering but recalling this insult is too much for him. Tears spill and he gasps for air, struggling to continue: “After a physical beating, your scars can heal. But the emotional scars, nobody can take them out. Emotions can flare up at any moment. Like when I describe this interrogation with the police officer. You try to bury it. You think it’s buried but then it comes up again. The humiliation.” He sobs and hides his face in his hands.

One victim told Human Rights Watch of how the police “brought a class of boys from school, six or seven years old. They made us lie face down on our stomachs and the small boys watched the policemen walking on our backs. Then the boys walked on us … The police told the boys, ‘this is how faggots end.’ It was like a school trip.”

In Tanta, Mohamed recalls that when the police tired of beating and shocking their prisoners, “they took us handcuffed into the streets with everybody watching.” These are khawals, they shouted. These are faggots.

Stories like these have earned the Egyptian government fierce international condemnation but just as with the larger issue of torture, the Egyptians reject this criticism.

“If a person is gay or lesbian, it is his own choice,” insists Gehad Madi. “There is no law incriminating him or her as being a gay or lesbian, as long as they are in private. If you go public, it’s against the law. It is called in the law, ‘habitual debauchery.’ If they do it for money, it becomes prostitution and that is criminal like in any legal system anywhere in the world.”

It is true that the law against “habitual debauchery” says nothing about homosexuality. But in reality, police, prosecutors and judges routinely interpret that law to forbid private, non-commercial, homosexual sex. Arrests are often made in private apartments and police informers –usually gay men who have been tortured into co-operation — are routinely used to lure victims outdoors.

Police entrapment has even gone high-tech, with officers pretending to be gay cruising Internet chat rooms. “They exchange e-mails. They make an appointment to meet. The victim goes out to meet the person but the person never shows up. Instead, vice squad officers show up and arrest him,” says Hossam Baghat, whose organization has documented 30 cases of Internet entrapment but suspects there are far more. “In the majority of cases, he is beaten into confessing that he is a homosexual.”

The ministry of the interior has staff doctors whose task is to give anal examinations to determine if a prisoner has been penetrated and is therefore gay. It’s a pseudo-science but the results are critical. “The judge doesn’t look at any evidence,” says Fawzy el Haggan, a lawyer who has represented clients accused of habitual debauchery. “He doesn’t look at the lawyer’s brief. He just looks at the forensic report. The doctor is effectively sentencing you to imprisonment.”

The law says men may refuse the exam but “they don’t apply it,” says el Haggan. If a man balks, “the doctor could call for the police officers to beat you until you agree. Or else, the doctor will just pull out the report and say that you have been penetrated.”

Even if the law were changed to explicitly exclude private, consensual, non-commercial sex, it wouldn’t stop the persecution. The police routinely write false reports alleging that the men they arrest were also involved in prostitution or that some of the sex had occurred in public. Then they torture the prisoner into signing.

It’s the job of prosecutors to stop these frauds, but el Haggan says that rarely happens. “The only thing they ask you is, is this your signature or not? Even if you tell them I was beaten to make me sign, they won’t believe you. Well, that’s not quite right. They believe you. But they won’t acknowledge it.”

Gay men are sometimes arrested, tortured and released days later, without ever facing charges — although they will be officially registered as homosexuals. Others are charged and convicted of habitual debauchery, which typically draws a sentence of several months up to three years in prison. Acquittal on appeal is fairly common, particularly appeals to the higher courts where judges maintain a degree of independence and fairness. But appeals often take longer than the sentence and for men who have already been tortured, humiliated, registered and publicly outed, an acquittal is small solace.

The defendants in the Queen Boat trials, arrested in May, 2001, were convicted in November, 2001 and given sentences of between one and five years. After a flurry of appeals and re-trials and lurid media stories, most of the defendants were ultimately acquitted more than two years after the ordeal started. “We are so disgusted with you, we can’t even look at you,” one judge told the defendants. “What you did is a major sin, but unfortunately the case has procedural errors and the court had to acquit all of you.”

While denying that gays are singled out, Gehad Madi insists we should not judge Egypt. It was only this year, he notes, that the U.S. Supreme Court struck down American laws criminalizing sodomy. “Societies are different,” he says. “American society is different than the Dutch, which is different than the Egyptian. We cannot apply a unified culture or civilization approach.”

Madi’s comment rests on a truth that’s more than a little uncomfortable for liberal-minded westerners to acknowledge. Egypt is steeped in hatred of homosexuals. Most Egyptians don’t want gay men to be tolerated. They want them to be hunted.

Homosexuals are “without religion, moral values, or honour,” wrote a columnist in Al-Akhbar, a state-owned newspaper and the second-largest in Egypt. Who are they “to be claiming human rights? What human? What rights?”

Egyptian media often eschew the word “homosexual,” preferring “pervert” instead. “A Den of Perverts Uncovered!” shouted a headline in Al-Akhbar. “Major Network of Perverts Arrested,” announced another newspaper. “Satanist Pervert Surprises,” promised a story about the alleged practices of the Queen Boat defendants. When Amnesty International criticized the Queen Boat trials, the organization was savaged by one newspaper for “defending a group of perverts.”

People quoted in these stories are just as blunt. After a low-level bureaucrat was charged in 2002 with being the ringleader of a “perverts’ organization,” a co-worker sputtered to a reporter, “it is a crime for this civil servant to be a civil servant. He is mentally ill. Society should be purged of him and his like.” Others felt the same way, apparently. The newspaper reported that “some people tried to kill the suspects while they were being arrested and would have succeeded but for the intervention of the police.” The reporter explained this righteous anger by noting that the arrests were the first of their kind in “Beheira province, well known for its adherence to morality and tradition.”

The idea that homosexuality is a perversion seeping in from the faithless West is a constant theme. The defendants in the Queen Boat trials had “imported European ideas,” claimed several newspapers. “Be a Sexual Pervert and Uncle Sam Will Approve,” declared a government-backed newspaper when these trials were condemned by a group of American congressmen.

International criticism has prompted many Egyptian newspapers to call for even sterner measures to fight what one called “the globalization of perversion.” Foreign “governments have accepted such behaviour in their countries,” gravely noted the independent newspaper Al Osboa. Tougher laws were needed to stop such a drift in Egypt, the newspaper argued, “and to fight back possible UN resolutions that may force their (homosexuals’) protection.”

Such sentiments are frequently heard on Egyptian streets, even in conversations that have nothing to do with gays. “I like America,” a young, educated, upper-class Egyptian man told me in a discussion about politics. “Except there are too many homosexuals and they don’t do anything about it.”

Hated by the public and hunted by the police, gay Egyptians will do almost anything to avoid being exposed and that desperation has spawned entire criminal industries. Blackmailers who find out a man is gay “can threaten to tell the police or tell your father if you don’t give him money,” says Ramzy, who knows many men who have given in to such threats.

Robbers also target gay men, confident their victims will never complain to the police. They pretend to be gay, meet a man, go somewhere private and pull a knife. “He says, you’re just a khawal, give me everything you have,” says Ramzy. “And in most cases the mark is so scared that he hands everything over.”

Ramzy was once caught in a sting run by police officers working with a gay informer. After he was fingered by the informer, the police approached him and told him he could either hand over his jewelry and cash, or be arrested.

Hated and hunted, gay men carefully hide the truth. In public, they act and dress straight, careful to avoid anything that might hint of effeminacy or fit what police officers consider the signs of homosexuality N including tattoos and coloured underwear.

Even among gay men, honesty is dangerous and trust is scarce. They rarely reveal their home addresses. Only pseudonyms are exchanged.

Surrounded by loathing and living lies, gay men often sink into a profound self-hatred. Mustafa, an apparently jovial, confident gay man, suddenly asked me in the middle of an interview, “are you going to think less of me because I’m gay?” I assured him I wouldn’t. “I don’t like being despised,” he said, looking down glumly.

That internalized hate is particularly devastating in combination with torture. Psychologists who treat torture victims have discovered that one of the keys to surviving torture intact is a strong sense of self, so gay men filled with self-loathing are particularly vulnerable to psychological damage as a result of torture. Ramzy says a former lover who has been repeatedly tortured and blackmailed “is seriously disturbed.”

Ramzy insists his lover is far from alone. “Society and the police have really made us close in on ourselves so that 99 per cent of gays are sick people. We’re mentally ill. Lying, cheating, hypocrisy. Denying who you are.”

For gay men in Egypt, there is no shelter even within their own families. A homosexual son is a black stain on family honour, and few families will tolerate, let alone accept, a gay child. They would be thrown out and ostracized N a terrible fate in a society where family means everything. So gay men keep quiet even at home.

But the current crackdown threatens these fragile lies. After major sweeps, the police often release the names of the men arrested to the press. They parade prisoners in the streets. And they usually refuse to release prisoners until relatives come to the station and then they use this meeting to devastate families. “The same officer who beat us while we were signing the report was the one who met the families,” says Ramzy of his release. “And whenever a family would come to pick him up he would tell them, your son is a khawal.”

These words shattered Ramzy’s family. “My mother broke down. I spent three days listening to insults, screaming, questions and criticism. Everything was confused. I was confused and so were they.” Ramzy’s father is a sheikh, a religious leader, and “for him, religion is completely against my being gay. He believes that under Islam I should be stoned to death.”

Ramzy swore over and over he wasn’t gay, that he had just been caught up in bad circumstances. “They tried to believe it,” he says, but it was clear they didn’t. His mother and father became suspicious and controlling. Three days before Ramzy spoke to me, the final break came. He worked late one night without phoning home and when he arrived home, his father exploded. “`Where were you, khawal?'” Ramzy recalls his father shouting. “`Who were you f***ing? Or who was f***ing you? You’re going to be like this all your life. You’re never going to be a respectable person. You’re always going to be a khawal.'”

First the police took Ramzy’s physical security, then his dignity. Now he has lost his family, too.

In Tanta, Shebl lost his life but not his family. His sister kisses his picture; his mother praises him to anyone who will listen. Throughout the neighbourhood, he is a martyr to people who despise the police as much as they do homosexuals.

Shebl’s memory is safe because the truth was buried along with him. He lived a lie his until his last breath and the police, with secrets of their own to keep, never told his family their son was a khawal. The few friends, such as Mohamed, who knew Shebl’s secret have kept a respectful silence. They know that for a gay man in Egypt, it’s better that the truth stay buried.