CAIRO (AFP) — A lonely voice in a conservative society, rising Egyptian film star Amr Waked is speaking out against his country's unofficial policy of jailing people suffering with AIDS.
"It's insane that this happens in our country!" said Waked, whose controversial roles -- including playing alongside an Israeli actor -- have made him the target of press attacks.
Together with celebrity actor Khaled Abul Naga, who was recently appointed a UNICEF goodwill ambassador, Waked has taken on the task of getting Egypt to face the taboo of AIDS.
"The deliberate confusion (around the issue) must stop -- stigmatisation does not help the fight against AIDS," he said, adding that he hopes to be part of a new generation dedicated to shattering such persistent stereotypes.
On April 9 a Cairo court jailed five men, four of them HIV-positive, for three years on charges of "debauchery" linked to homosexuality in what rights groups called a "witch-hunt."
"Three of them broke down in tears and the two others were just stunned," said Hossam Bahgat, director of the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights, one of the rare NGOs in the country to defend homosexuals.
The five were forced to have HIV tests and were chained to hospital beds until the results became known.
While homosexuality itself is not included in a list of sexual offences explicitly outlawed by Egypt's Islamic-inspired legislation, it can be punished under several different laws on morality.
According to law number 10 of 1961, "debauchery" is the loose term used to criminalise sex between homosexuals.
"They have appealed the court ruling but remain in prison. We don't know if they have access to care," Wessam al-Beih, country director of UNAIDS, the United Nations programme on HIV/AIDS, told AFP.
Since October seven other homosexuals have been arrested and forced to take HIV tests, enduring insult and humiliation and being chained to beds, Bahgat said.
Three were released but the four others were each sentenced to a year behind bars.
The local press and local non-governmental organisations have hardly batted an eyelid over the treatment of the homosexuals, but 117 international NGOs including Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have condemned the crackdown and illegal testing by doctors.
Bahgat believes this is not so much an attack against the gay community as it is a clampdown on AIDS, however.
"Unlike incidents in the past this is not a renewed homophobic attack, but it's an offensive against AIDS via security measures," he said.
In 2001 a raid on the "Queen Boat," a floating nightclub on the Nile in an upmarket Cairo neighbourhood, ended with the arrest of 52 gay men, half of whom were charged with debauchery and offending Islam.
For Waked, "deep ignorance of AIDS is coupled with religious prejudices."
"These convictions will only further reinforce prejudices while making the fight against AIDS all the more difficult," he said.
Abul Naga echoes the view.
"The convictions are very worrying, increasing the idea that AIDS is not a disease to treat but a crime to punish," he told AFP. "People will be too scared to take an HIV test voluntarily."
But the country's religious authorities take a different view.
"It is a disease sent by God to punish sexual deviants," said Sheikh Mohammed Saleh from Al-Azhar, Sunni Islam's highest seat of learning.
For years, the authorities have denied or sought to minimise the existence of AIDS in Egypt, and even today official figures on people living with AIDS do not exist.
"It goes from 2,000 to 17,000 people living with AIDS, but Egypt is one of the countries with the highest rate of increase," said Beih from UNAIDS, estimating that 80 percent of women sufferers were infected by their husbands.
But Waked, who starred in the film "Aquarium" which talks of HIV, remains hopeful that society is changing.
"Egypt is starting to move forward, a whole generation is waiting for it."
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