cairo -- there's pandemonium outside the main courtroom in Cairo, where hundreds of journalists, diplomats and the relatives of 52 men charged with having gay sex have gathered today to await the verdict.Legal irregularities and evidence of torture on the part of Egyptian authorities have surfaced during the four-month trial. Defence lawyers have gone so far as to suggest that the entire case has been fabricated by Egyptian authorities who, they charge, have been randomly rounding up and arresting gays on trumped-up charges in recent months.
The Egyptian government's handling of the case has drawn attention from human rights groups, which say the arrests violate international human rights laws. Amnesty International has weighed in with a call for a tourism boycott of Egypt.
In the end, however, all the attention has done little to help those arrested. Of the 52 men, 23 are convicted. The high state security judge hands down sentences ranging from one to five years for everything from "scorning religion" and "sexual practices contrary to Islam" to "practising debauchery with men."
Jean-Phillip Tachdjian, a political officer from the Canadian embassy who observed the trial, won't comment on the fairness of the verdict except to say that "Canada believes freedom of choice with respect to sexual orientation is a fundamental human right."
Tachdjian says he has filed a report with foreign affairs in Ottawa and is awaiting follow-up instructions.
Within the Mideast context, Egypt is perceived in the West as a moderate state, but an increasing number of gays are being subjected to police harassment.
In recent months there have been numerous reports of arrests and disappearances of gay men in the Pyramids and Heliopolis districts of Cairo, including the disappearance of a prominent gay activist.
Police have also intensified their efforts to arrest gay men who place personal adverts on the Internet.
Ali Asali, an Egyptian gay activist in self-imposed exile in London and the founder of GayEgypt.com, says, "The arrests from entrapments and accounts of mass disappearances have made gay life in Cairo dangerous."
He says almost all of the 52 arrested in the most recent police sweep "were convicted purely on the grounds of their alleged sexual orientation."
State security investigators said the group, mainly teenagers, had painted their faces and were engaged in group sex on the Queen Boat, a restaurant houseboat off Zamalek. Five foreigners alleged to have been on the boat were released.
Eyewitnesses who testified at the trial, however, told a different story. They said police rounded up people they merely suspected of being gay.
Most disturbing about the police case, say human rights activists, are statements taken from 19 of the 52 accused that they were elsewhere at the time of the arrests.
The San Francisco-based International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission reports that some of those arrested were picked up by police for minor violations: one reportedly for selling watches without a licence at a coffee shop; another for cleaning his motorcycle on the street without his Egyptian ID; still another for having a fight with an off-duty police officer. IGLHRC executive director Surina Khan says randomly arrested men were added to the ranks of those nabbed on the Queen Boat to create a scandal.
In Cairo, a society that is still deeply homophobic, the case has put human rights activists in a bind.
Hissam Kassem, president of the Egyptian Organization for Human Rights, was quoted in English newspaper the Guardian as saying, "I don't want to be charged with defending homosexuality. This would have been like jumping into water not to save a drowning man but to die with him."
The reluctance of local human rights groups to consider gay rights human rights has angered a number of international observers and human rights watchers, including Amnesty International.
Amnesty says it is "concerned that exceptional courts, which violate basic international standards of fair trial, are extensively used to try people in Egypt."
The conclusion of the Queen Boat case doesn't close the book on the persecution of gays in Cairo.
On November 16, two Egyptian government newspapers reported that four men were arrested for turning their apartment into a "den of perversion." None of the four has yet to be formally charged.
The IGLHRC's Scott Long spoke to one of the defendants in the case through the bars of a police vehicle. According to Long, the man had been stripped naked and beaten with batons and left hanging from the bars in his prison cell.
"It's becoming clear," he says, "that the persecution of homosexuals is a major human rights issue in Egypt. The international community should be clear in its demand that the government stop these abuses."
Egypt's embassy in Ottawa, meanwhile, has declined to comment.