Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have accused the Egyptian government of “official ignorance and prejudice about HIV” in the wake of more prosecutions for “habitual debauchery.”

The term is used under Egyptian law to prosecute consensual sexual acts between men.

Earlier this month Cairo prosecutors handed down indictments against five men on debauchery charges.

The lead prosecutor told a lawyer for the defendants that the men should not be allowed to “roam the streets freely” because the government considered them a danger to public health.

Human Rights Watch (HRW) and Amnesty International have called on Egyptian officials to quash the indictments and overturn the convictions of four others who were sentenced in February 2008 to one-year prison terms.

“These misguided prosecutions reveal official ignorance and prejudice about HIV,” said Joseph Amon, director of the HIV/AIDS Programme at HRW.

“Prosecuting people for their HIV serostatus will frighten Egyptians from seeking treatment for HIV/AIDS, or information about prevention.”

The current wave of arrests began in October 2007, when police intervened between two men having an argument on a street in central Cairo.

When one of them told the officers that he was HIV-positive, police immediately took them both to the Morality Police office and opened an investigation against them for homosexual conduct.

Police demanded the names of their friends and sexual contacts during interrogations.

The two men told lawyers that officers slapped and beat them for refusing to sign statements the police wrote for them.

The men spent four days in the Morality Police office handcuffed to an iron desk, and were left to sleep on the floor.

Police later subjected the two men to forensic anal examinations designed to “prove” that they had engaged in homosexual conduct.

Such forcible examinations to detect “evidence” of homosexuality are not only medically spurious, but also can amount to torture.

Police then arrested two more men because their photographs or telephone numbers were found on the first two detainees.

According to the Cairo-based Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights, doctors from Egypt’s Ministry of Health and Population subjected all the men HIV tests without their consent.

Authorities kept those who tested HIV-positive confined in hospitals for weeks.

They were chained to their beds until February 25th, when the ministry ordered them unchained after domestic and international outcry.

“These men have been treated as if they are a national threat simply because four of them were found to be HIV-positive,” said Malcolm Smart, director of Amnesty International’s Middle East and North Africa Programme.

“The authorities should not be prosecuting them, but rather investigating the abuse and ill-treatment meted out against them and taking steps to ensure that such abuse does not happen again.”

Four of the 12 men known to have been arrested in the HIV crackdown since October have already been sentenced to prison terms.

On January 13th 2008 a Cairo court convicted them of the “habitual practice of debauchery,” imprisoning all four for one year.

An appeals court confirmed their sentences on February 2nd.

The Egyptian law used to prosecute adult consensual same-sex sexual conduct violates protections for privacy and against discrimination in the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), said Amnesty and HRW.

The UN Human Rights Committee holds that both sexual orientation and HIV serostatus are grounds protected against discrimination under the ICCPR’s provisions.