An article on an anti-gay raid at a hammam in Beirut, published in Al-Akhbar English in August 2014.
Almost 30 men are being held in custody on Wednesday after the Lebanese Internal Security Forces (ISF) raided a hammam in Beirut allegedly used as a meeting point for gay men.
According to a statement released on Tuesday by a group of LGBT and sexual rights organizations – including Helem, the Arab Foundation for Freedom and Equality (AFE) and the Lebanese Medical Association for Sexual Health (LebMASH) – 27 men were arrested on Saturday night at the al-Agha hammam after the ISF received a tip that the venue was a gay hangout spot.
“We denounce this incident as a case of homophobic practice that aims to police the sexual rights and liberties of the individuals involved,” the statement read. “We call on the General Prosecutor and Hbeish police station to respect the dignity of the detainees and their rights to their (sexual) bodies.”
The statement added that the hammam’s owner and several employees were among the detainees, in addition to clients.
When contacted by Al-Akhbar, an officer at the Ras Beirut police station said he could not confirm any details about the case, including how many people had been arrested and whether or not they were still detained.
According to Ghenwa Samhat, the executive director of Helem, this is the biggest anti-gay raid in Lebanon since the April 2013 raid and shutdown of a gay-friendly nightclub in a Beirut suburb.
Although Lebanon has a reputation of being one of the more gay-friendly countries in the region, Article 534 of the Lebanese penal code punishes “sexual intercourse contrary to nature,” and is regularly used to criminalize homosexual relations.
Samhat told Al-Akhbar that the men arrested in the hammam also risked being charged under Article 521, which condemns public indecency.
However, the press release on the case noted that the men were not thought to have been engaging in any sexual activities at the time of the arrest.
“It has also come to our attention that at the time of the raid no public sexual act was taking place at Agha hammam, and the investigation at the police station revolved mainly around the detainees’ alleged (homo)sexuality,” the statement read.
When asked whether she knew which charges, if any, were likely to be filed, Samhat said “we don’t know yet,” adding that the group of pro-LGBT organizations behind the press release was working on an action plan should the men remain in custody much longer.
Sarah Wansa, a legal researcher at NGO Legal Agenda, told Al-Akhbarthat the men should not have been held this long.
“According to Article 47 of the code of criminal procedures, no one can be held more than 48 hours, renewable once according to the public prosecutor approval for 48 additional hours,” she said. ”Furthermore, Article 107 of the same code bars the detainment of individuals for crimes punishable by no longer than one year in jail,” a category which Article 534 falls under.
Samhat said that she had spoken to some of the detainees, and that they had told her that the ISF had not made them undergo anal probe tests.
“But I don’t know if they were threatened” with the possibility of anal probes, she said.
Anal probe tests are a discredited practice used to determine whether a man has had homosexual relations. In 2012, the Lebanese Medical Association denounced the use of anal probe tests by security forces, saying its use constituted torture.
Wansa said Legal Agenda considers that Article 534 does not apply to LGBT individuals.
“Article 534 of the Lebanese criminal court criminalize sexual intercourse ‘against nature’ up to one year of detention. However, we consider that this article does not apply to homosexuality,” she said. “In any case, the sexual intercourse, we believe, has not been proven.”
“We have two precedents up until now,” she said, referring to two court cases since 2009 in which judges held that homosexual relations were not “unnatural.”
Unlike the common law system, in which rulings can serve as legal precedents, the Lebanese system is modeled on French civil law. This means the two previous rulings are not guaranteed to impact the hammam case unless the judge chooses to take them into account.
Like Samhat at Helem, Wansa said Legal Agenda was prepared to fight any such charges.
“We have coordinated with lawyers who are ready to defend the case,” Wansa said.