CAIRO — A crackdown on gay people in Egypt intensified over the weekend as security forces raided cafes in downtown Cairo and courts delivered harsh prison sentences, further driving the nation’s LGBT community underground.
More than 60 people have been arrested, said human rights activists, since a concert last month by a rock group where some members of the audience waved a rainbow flag — photos of which went viral on social media and triggered public outrage.
Security forces have also detained people at their homes in the middle of the night and used apps and online chat rooms to entrap those perceived to be gay. Some cafes frequented by the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community have been shut down.
Some of those arrested have endured beatings and other forms of abuse in their prison cells while others have been subjected to forced anal examinations, human rights activists said.
“The targeting of the community was never on this scale before,” said Doaa Mostafa, a human rights lawyer who is representing a man and woman arrested in the latest crackdown.
The sweeps have unfolded as international human rights activists have denounced the Egyptian government and urged an end to the arrests. On Friday, the United Nations human rights office described the anti-gay raids in Egypt and similar assaults in Azerbaijan and Indonesia as unjust and violations of international law.
On Saturday, an Egyptian court sentenced four people suspected of being gay to three years in prison, according to Egypt Independent, a local newspaper.
The crackdown is the latest sign of the repression of political and social freedoms under the government of President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi. Extrajudicial killings by state security forces have soared, as have arrests of political opponents. Hundreds of websites, including independent media, have been blocked.
Gay rights activists view the suppression of their community as part of an effort to distract from the country’s pressing political and economic woes, including rising costs of living and declining government subsidies, that have fomented anger on the streets.
Targeting the gay community, activists say, appeals to Egypt’s mostly conservative population; both Muslims and Christians view homosexuality as a sin. A 2013 survey by the Pew Research Center found that 95 percent of Egyptians believed that homosexuality was socially unacceptable.
Homosexuality is not illegal in Egypt. But authorities have been targeting gay people under a 1960s anti-prostitution law that contains a clause against “debauchery,” which Egyptian courts have interpreted to include homosexuality.
The latest detentions constitute the biggest action taken against the gay community since the 2001 arrest of 52 people at the Queen Boat, a floating night club on the Nile. Over the next three years, an estimated 200 more were arrested, activists said.
Since late 2013, after a military coup led by el-Sissi ousted the elected Islamist government, an estimated 550 people accused of being gay have been arrested, said activists. More than 250 men have been prosecuted for their perceived sexual orientation, according to the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights, whose lawyers are defending those facing trials this month.
The current wave of incarcerations was set off when concertgoers waved a rainbow flag at a performance by Mashrou’ Leila, a Lebanese band with an openly gay frontman. As images spread on Twitter and Facebook, lawmakers, TV personalities and religious leaders publicly condemned homosexuality as well as the actions of the concertgoers, further fueling the crackdown.