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Dec 17, 1:02 PM EST

Egypt refers to trial 26 suspected homosexual men


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CAIRO (AP) -- Egyptian prosecutors swiftly referred 26 men to trial Wednesday on charges connected to their suspected homosexuality after they were arrested in a much publicized raid on a Cairo bathhouse, an official said.

The official from the prosecutors' office said the trial will begin Sunday, only two weeks after the raid. It is an unusually quick referral in a case that has captured public attention. Some cases can take more than a year to be referred to trial in Egypt's backlogged judicial system.

Scenes of half-naked men covering their faces and being taken by policemen out of the bathhouse on Dec. 7 were filmed by a private TV channel and later aired amid criticism from activists.

The raid is part of an ongoing crackdown on gay men and comes after an Egyptian court last month convicted eight men on charges of "inciting debauchery" following their appearance in an alleged same-sex wedding party on a Nile boat, sentencing each to three years imprisonment.

Egyptian law doesn't explicitly prohibit same-sex relations. So the defendants are tried for "debauchery" - a charge normally reserved for prostitution and homosexuality cases.

Five defendants - the owner of the bathhouse and four staff members - will be tried for facilitating debauchery in exchange for money.

The prosecution official said the investigation revealed that the owner and his staff have run the bathhouse, or "hammam," as a place for "parties of debauchery, orgies among male homosexuals in exchange for money." He said they used social media to arrange for such events.

The 21 others are charged with practicing debauchery and "indecent public acts," the official said.

The official spoke anonymously because he was not authorized to speak to reporters.

Homosexuality is a social taboo in Egypt, a conservative, Muslim-majority country with a sizable Christian minority. Same-sex marriage is unheard of. Only in recent years have movies and fiction included gay characters.

The crackdown on homosexuals, and also recently on atheists, goes hand in hand with a wider campaign against all forms of dissent and diversity in a country gripped by rising nationalism and jingoistic sentiments.

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