Lebanese state proves its ‘existence’ by going after LGBT community

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A woman holds a sign saying "So what, I'm proud," during a gay rights protest in Beirut. (Photo: Marwan Bou Haidar)

By: Eva Shoufi

Published Tuesday, August 19, 2014

[Sexual orientation] is the hot topic in the country. The judiciary mobilized and the security forces were requested to take action. Apparently, homosexuals are coming for us. What began as a false rumor in a newspaper ended with the arrest of 28 people in a Turkish bathhouse, who were accused of being gay or legally speaking of "sexual intercourse contrary to nature.”

"The first gay marriage in Lebanon," this news headline spread in record time. Conservative forces were put on alert and voices began to call for the harsh punishment of homosexuals and for their eradication. The story quickly turned out to be false, but the reactions and consequences remained. A few days later, the police raided Agha Bathhouse in Beirut, known to be a gathering place for gay men. It was to confirm that any breach of the fundamentals of the Lebanese social order and its relationship to the ruling order will be suppressed.

What happened in Agha Bathhouse?

Recently, a man was arrested for being gay on the basis of Article 534 of the Lebanese penal code stating that "sexual intercouse contrary to nature is punishable by up to one year in prison," which is used to criminalize homosexuality in Lebanon.

According to security sources, the interrogations indicated that the young man was working in the [Agha] Bathhouse [in Hamra] and that he admitted that homosexual acts were taking place there. The public prosecutor was presented with the information and he ordered a raid of the establishment. The "protection of morals" office of the judicial police sent out a patrol and arrested 28 people who were in the bathhouse, including all 12 employees and the owner.

Major Joseph Moussallem maintained that anal examinations (known as "tests of shame") were not performed on the detainees. However, they were charged according to their statements, except for three who denied being involved. This was in addition to confiscating several items – including photos from their mobile phones – which, according to Moussallem, indicated that they practiced illegal "intercourse contrary to nature.”

The issue was treated as a spectacle by the state to prove that it still exists and that its security forces are busy protecting citizens from "homosexuality" and confronting any divergence from "nature."

To make things worse, the detainees were transferred to Zahle Prison, because "there was no place to put them," according to the security sources. However, police stations are used to keeping detainees suspected of murder and robbery until their court date, due to the overcrowding of prisons. But in this case, the authorities decided to send them to Zahle Prison, which is "controlled by the prisoners" and contains several dangerous criminals who could violate them in the most horrendous of manners.

Subsequently, they were referred to Judge Mirna Kallas at the criminal court, who ordered the release of 12 of them at the end of last week and the remaining 16 detainees on Monday [yesterday] on a bail of 100,000 Lebanese liras ($67).

However, only three of the 16 are Lebanese, which added further complications to the issue. The non-Lebanese who were released will have to remain in [the infamous] Adlieh Prison until the General Security Office decides what to do with them.

The customers of the bathhouse were charged under articles 531 to 534 of the penal code, related to public morals and decency. Article 523, criminalizing clandestine prostitution, was added to the charges of the employees and Article 527, punishing the exploitation of the prostitution of others, to the charges of the hammam's owner.

Fear of differences

Agha Bathhouse is not the only place frequented by the LGBT community in Lebanon and state agencies are fully aware of their details. The operation gave the impression that the state discovered something new. It raided a suspect location and arrested those who were present, but this is not true. The public prosecutor personally interrogated the citizens violated under the banner of law enforcement. They breached their privacy by looking at the pictures on their phones.

"What happened at the Public Prosecution Office in Beirut is very unfortunate," explained Nizar Saghieh, a lawyer and legal activist. "If the state wanted to close the hammam, it could have done so in a reasonable manner, by warning the owner and asking him to stop any sexual activities. If the owner does not abide, it could have calmly shut down the place while empty and without media fanfare."

It is not longer a question of a hammam being closed by the police. Citizens were humiliated through arbitrary measures taken during the arrest and investigation. It was not an innocent measure, it was a systematic attack on a specific minority.

"People have personal freedoms, which they should be able to practice as they wish in private spaces," explained civil society activist Charbel Maydaa. "If the state is truly concerned about public morality, it should deal with the issue of foreign women being forced into prostitution," often under the nose of the judiciary and the police.

However, nothing justifies the state using the cover of public morality if it does not even care about such places. For Maydaa, the case is clear, a weak minority, that stands against what is "sacred" for this regime, is being targeted. He rejects the term "homophobia," saying the issue is "a backward patriarchal society. The presence of the LGBT community threatens the stereotype of eastern masculinity, which has been constructed over the decades."

A law contrary to nature

The mobilization against Article 534 began in 2002. "It is not a disease – in the medical or social sense – requiring treatment or eradication," Saghieh added. "The latest version of the new penal code proposed by the legal reform subcommittee in 2009 had removed article 534. However, the law is yet to be approved completely." On the other hand, the judiciary "took several good initiatives; two decisions were issued, one in 2009 and one in 2014, which considered that Article 534 is no longer applicable to homosexuals and it is no longer considered a relationship that contradicts nature."

But this "unjust" article continues to threaten the lives of a fragile segment of the population. Mahdi Charafeddine from Helem describes the situation of the LGBT community in Lebanon, "who could be threatened or blackmailed, but have no recourse to the law. The prosecutor could change the whole direction of the investigation and the judge could rule that the person is practicing 'unnatural' intercourse and prosecute them."

This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.


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