NGO's and activists are denouncing the way police officers strip and examine "suspects" to determine if they are homosexual, which is illegal in what many consider the Arab world's most open society.
BEIRUT - In the austere police station, after they are asked to undress, they are told to lean forward or crouch, submitting to a medical examination to determine their sexual orientation. Who are they? People suspected of homosexuality, a punishable offense in Lebanon, a country considered far more tolerant than other Arab countries.
This humiliating practice - well-known in homosexual circles - has recently been denounced by Lebanese associations. "We broke the silence," Nizar Saghieh says. He is a lawyer, activist and founder of the "Al-Moufakkira al-kanouniya" ("Legal Agenda") NGO, that organized a conference last month where these "examinations of shame" were denounced.
Saghieh explains that it all started with the ordeal of three men, arrested in April near the Beirut home of a Lebanese political leader. Were they spies, plotters, political activists? Police interrogation revealed that they were none of those things. The story should have stopped there. But one of the suspects was considered to be effeminate by the police officers. The three friends were driven to another police station, specialized in morals affairs; and after one night of custody, submitted to anal exams to determine whether or not they were homosexuals. "These young men hadn't done anything wrong, which shows how absurd this method is," says Saghieh.
Even more absurd is that these tests, which should be conducted only after an authorization from a prosecutor, don't have any scientific value. "Doctors admit that the shape of the anus is not a proof of homosexuality. According to them, only the presence of sperm in these areas can prove there was a sexual intercourse. But in fact, they only take pictures, and under these conditions, their expertise isn't worth much. It's not only useless, it's a moral outrage," the lawyer continues.
So, why do the police maintain these tests if they have no value? "There's something perverse, some sort of sick pleasure, in submitting alleged homosexuals to such examinations," says Alexandre Paulikevitch, an artist and activist.
The goal of the authorities is to humiliate, but also to intimidate. According to Human Rights Watch, which has denounced similar abuses in Egypt after mass arrests in a gay club in 2001, anal exams are akin to "acts of torture."
Saghieh says police officers want to show that they have the means of finding everything out. "The doctor's presence is mainly used to intimidate the suspects into confessing, by pretending that if the homosexuality is discovered during these tests, the punishment will be more severe," he explains.
Legal Agenda's mobilization campaign doesn't stop here. At the end of June, the NGO will turn its focus to the virginity tests carried out by the police on women suspected of prostitution. Such tests are also carried out when a man is accused of having sexual intercourse with an unmarried woman. "In most cases, the initiative comes from the woman's family, to launch proceedings in case of a broken marriage promise," Saghieh explains. "These tests are serious violation of privacy and physical integrity. And they don't prove anything."
Although homophobia is widespread in Lebanon, the revelations on these "examinations of shame" provoked outrage, particularly on social networks. Authorities remained silent on the subject. The remaining question is whether or not this scandal will start a public debate on the constitutionality of Article 534, which renders illegal "unnatural sexual relations."
"It is high time," says Alexandre Paulikevitch. "Other countries in this region are having revolutions, and here in Lebanon we are still talking about keeping Article 534."
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