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52 men facing gay trial in Egypt

They plead not guilty amid rights protest

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CAIRO, Egypt — Protesting and sobbing, 52 men arrested at an alleged gay gathering pleaded innocent Wednesday at the opening of a case that has shocked conservative Egypt and raised human rights concerns.

Occupying one side of the packed courtroom, the men — handcuffed and dressed in white T-shirts and trousers — shouted as the prosecutor read the charges. Two were accused of religious offenses and others with debauchery and having gay sex. Some entered the courtroom covering their faces with towels.

The defendants were arrested May 11 on a Nile river boat restaurant. Police originally said they were having a gay sex party, but prosecutors later changed tack and said the group was meeting with a self-styled preacher.

The trial has caused a storm in Egypt, where homosexuality is seen as a sin. International human rights groups have protested the arrests.

Egyptian law does not explicitly refer to homosexuality, but a wide range of laws covering obscenity and public morality are punishable by jail terms.

Prosecutor Ashraf Hilal told the state security court that Sherif Farahat and Mahmoud Ahmed Allam are charged with contempt of religion, falsely interpreting the Quran and exploiting Islam to promote deviant ideas. They were also charged with immoral behavior.

Contempt of religion is punishable by up to five years in jail. The debauchery offense carries a maximum prison sentence of three years.

After Wednesday's hearing, the case was adjourned until August 15.

"We only want mercy," cried one defendant from the courtroom dock, over the din of wailing family members. "We've been detained without any evidence against us," yelled another.

Many of the defendants claimed they were not on the boat during the police raid.

Khadiga Ramadan — mother of defendant Abdel Moeiti Salah — said she first learned about charges against her son from newspapers. "He is not involved in this," she said.

The veiled Ramadan said her son was taken off the street by police and detained for 20 days before his family discovered where he was.

Many homosexuals say they have grown scared since the boat raid. Some charge local human rights groups have distanced themselves from the case.