Five men have been sentenced to three years in prison in Egypt for consensual homosexual acts.

Their convictions are the latest in what has been characterised by human rights groups as “a police crackdown” on people living with HIV/AIDS.

At least 12 men have been arrested and four have already been sentenced to a year in jail.

As in all previous cases, authorities forced the new detainees to undergo HIV testing without their consent.

Four of the five convicted yesterday tested positive.

They were charged with the “habitual practice of debauchery,” a term which in Egyptian law includes consensual sexual acts between men.

The most recent arrests occurred after police used information coerced from men already in detention, according to the Health and Human Rights Programme of the Cairo-based Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights (EIPR).

A lawyer for the five men has claimed they were beaten by police who tried to get them to confess to homosexual acts.

On Tuesday more than 115 organisations that advocate human rights and the rights of people living with HIV/AIDS protested to the government of Egypt over the spate of recent arrests.

The groups signing the letter represent 41 countries on six continents, among them Human Rights Watch and Amnesty.

In a letter to the Health Ministry and the Egyptian Doctors’ Syndicate, the groups said that doctors who helped interrogate men jailed on suspicion of being HIV-positive violated their own medical ethics.

EIPR reportedly found a document from the Ministry of Health and Population titled Questionnaire for Patients with HIV/AIDS in one of the men’s case files.

It includes ‘yes’ or ‘no’ questions that doctors from the ministry apparently use to interrogate people in the crackdown about whether they had sexual relations ‘with the other sex’ or ‘with the same sex,’ and ‘with one person’ or ‘with more than one person.’

Prosecutors included the men’s answers that they had relations with the same sex as evidence of their guilt.

Malcolm Smart, director of the Middle East and North Africa programme of Amnesty International, said:

“It is unacceptable for doctors to perform forcible HIV tests, or to examine people to ‘prove’ offences that should never be criminalised.

“Doctors who engage in or enable human rights abuses are violating their most elemental responsibilities.”

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.