Middle East and North Africa: Online persecution based on sexual orientation

Grindr app in front of a rainbow flag
Even organized gangs gain the trust of LGBT people online and then blackmail them afterwards. (Source: IMAGO / ZUMA Wire)

Authorities in the Middle East and North Africa are targeting lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people (LGBT) because of their online activities. This is according to a new report made by the human rights organization, Human Rights Watch (HRW). According to their report, security forces have set traps on social media and dating apps and search mobile telephones to prosecute those affected. The organization criticizes that this process violates the right to privacy and other human rights.

The organization investigated digital attacks in Egypt, Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon and Tunisia for their report “All This Terror Because of a Photo”. HRW collaborated with local organizations and conducted interviews with 90 people affected as well as 30 experts, including lawyers and professionals in digital rights, between February 2021 and January 2022.

According to Human Rights Watch, online platforms are particularly important in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA region) for helping sexual minorities network, fighting for their rights and bringing attention to discrimination. However, the authorities in the five countries have since added digital methods to their previous approach of arrests and raids against LGBT people.

Rasha Younes, expert at HRW explains: “The authorities in Egypt, Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon, and Tunisia have integrated technology into their policing of LGBT people. While digital platforms have enabled LGBT people to express themselves and amplify their voices, they have also become tools for state-sponsored repression.”

An unexpected encounter with the police

As an example, HRW documented 20 cases in which security forces in Egypt, Iraq and Jordan created fake profiles on Facebook and in the dating app, Grindr, in order to make contact with marginalized people.

A gay man from Egypt reports: “I was chatting with a man on Grindr while sitting in the café. We agreed to meet at the café.” However, five police officers appeared instead of his date and arrested him. The police officers threatened to kill him if he did not unlock his phone and let them search it. The photos found on his phone were then used to press charges against him for “debauchery”.

The human rights organization also documented the arbitrary arrests of 45 people from the LGBT community in Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon and Tunisia. In all cases, security forces searched the telephones of those affected. To obtain the private information on the devices, the officers threatened violence or even used force. The collected data was then used for prosecutions.

In some cases, the police even manipulated saved content on the phone to obtain supposed evidence. To do so, they installed some dating apps like Grindr or saved photos themselves on the devices.

A transgender woman from Jordan reports: “[The police] searched all our phones. They took my phone and started sending messages to each other from my phone, then they took screenshots of those conversations and screenshots from my photo gallery.”

Violence in Prison

Arrested people told HRW about numerous violations against their right to due process. This included seizing their cell phones but also denying access to a lawyer. Additionally, confessions had been coerced. Some of those affected were denied food and water or were verbally and physically assaulted. During the investigation, arrested people were detained up to three months.

HRW also reviewed 23 judicial files of people in Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon and Tunisia that were prosecuted based on digital information – under laws criminalizing same-sex conduct or also for “debauchery”, “prostitution” or cybercrimes. Most of them were acquitted after they appealed. However, five people afterwards were given prison sentences between one and three years.

In Egypt, Iraq, and Jordan, same-sex relationships are not explicitly criminalized – but morality or prostitution laws, for example, are used to prosecute people. In Lebanon, sexual intercourse “against the natural order” is punishable. This law is used to criminalize consensual, same-sex acts, even though multiple courts have already decided that homosexuality is not “unnatural”.

On the other hand, discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation was not forbidden in any of the five countries observed in the report.

Online blackmail

Furthermore, relatives of sexual minorities are harassed online by prosecutors according to the report. There is also doxxing: this involves publishing personal data among other things to identify people against their will. In some cases, their sexual orientation was made public, outing those affected against their will.

For example, HRW has documented cases in Tunisia where personal data was published from LGBT activists involved in protests – including their address and telephone number. Afterwards, those affected received death threats among other things. Additionally, some of them lost their job, were subjected to domestic violence or forced to change their residence or telephone number. Those affected also told HRW that they had been forced to flee the country.

Although those affected reported the relevant posts to the platforms where they were published, they were still not deleted.

Individuals also targeted people because of their sexual orientation. For example, fake profiles on dating apps or social media were used to gain the trust of victims – and then used to blackmail them afterwards. Organized gangs from Egypt and armed groups from Iraq, for example, have been behind such blackmail attempts.

Apparently these extortionists do not need to fear consequences: HRW reports of victims that wanted to report such incidents to the police – however, they were arrested themselves there.

“Online abuses against LGBT people have offline consequences that reverberate throughout their lives and can be detrimental to their livelihood, mental health, and safety”, explains Rasha Younes.

All people interviewed by HRW said that they were practising self-censorship as a result of the digital attacks. They also reported of psychological consequences such as constant anxiety or depression.

Cases were investigated in Egypt, Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon and Tunisia. However, according to HRW, there are also frequently similar cases in other countries in North Africa and the Middle East. There were some campaigns in Morocco and Saudi Arabia in which personal data of LGBT people was spread on social media.

Even prosecutors in Saudi Arabia used fake profiles on dating apps to trap people (German article). In Iran, people were arrested because they had LGBT apps installed on their smarphones.

HRW calls for protection of LGBT rights

Human Rights Watch criticizes that online platforms like Facebook and Grindr have not done enough to protect users who are vulnerable to digital attacks. The organization reminds that the platforms are required by the United Nations Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights to respect human rights.

HRW also calls on the governments in Egypt, Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon and Tunisia to respect and protect the rights of LGBT people instead of criminalizing them and targeting them online. They are required to do so under international and regional human rights treaties. Therefore, laws have to be introduced and enforced to protect people from discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity. (js)