Cyberspace-scouring cops accused of suppressing online expression

CAIRO, Egypt - A Web site devoted to homosexual issues in Egypt includes this warning: "Guess who's watching? Egyptian State Security!"

Egypt's gays, an ongoing police target, aren't the only Web surfers who should beware.

In recent months, Egyptian police also arrested a Web designer who posted a poem deemed politically suspect and a student who used the Internet to spread what officials said were false rumors.

"The new millennium came with unexpected changes in the use of technology in committing crimes. We had to respond," said Gen. Abdel-Wahab el-Adly, the Egyptian police official in charge of vice.

"We are dealing with a different type of criminal and the spread of new crimes," added Gen. Ahmed Shehab, who handles information technology for the police ministry. "This requires security and technical expertise to be able to patrol the Internet the same way we patrol Egyptian streets."

As part of the effort, police have gone online masquerading as gay men seeking partners, placing ads on sites that cater to gay Egyptians. Police arrested men in recent months who responded to the ads.

"We got 19 cases this way," el-Adly bragged. "It was great arresting them."

Human rights advocates say Egypt is simply using new technology in an old campaign against freedoms.

"We think it is really scandalous that Egyptian authorities are using the Internet to muzzle freedom of expression," said Virginie Locoussol, head of the Middle East Desk of Reporters Sans Frontiers. "If the state controls everything, then it is a police state."

RSF's upcoming report "Enemies of the Internet," expected in September, will cite Egypt for the first time, Locoussol said.

Last year's report, the first compiled by the independent journalist group that campaigns for freedom of expression, didn't mention Egypt, but criticized such countries as Algeria, Tunisia, Morocco, Iraq, Iran, Syria, Sudan, United Arab Emirates, Oman, Lebanon, Saudi Arabia and China.

Saudi Arabia monitors all Internet use and blocks access to as many as 1 million sites at any given time. China trains brigades of police officers to fight a war "against anti-governmental and anti-communist articles published on the Web" and violators can face the death penalty, RSF said.

The U.S. State Department's latest report on human rights in Egypt estimates that only about 1 million of Egypt's 68 million citizens are Internet subscribers. And while Egypt doesn't restrict Internet use and doesn't monitor citizen's online behavior on a broad scale, its law officers do keep watch on cyberspace, the State Department said.

The Internet was first introduced in Egypt in 1993, but the Interior Ministry, the ministry in charge of police, didn't get wired until 1995. Police say they began monitoring Egyptians' Internet use five years later.

Each police and security department has been provided with Internet access and computers, said Shehab. His department offers technical assistance to anyone on the police force who needs it.

The Internet police recently caught Andy Ibrahim Shoukri, a 19-year-old student, spreading warnings via e-mail about a serial killer in Cairo — police say the rumors were false.

Shoukri was sentenced to a month in prison by an Emergency State Security court in April for spreading false information. He could not be reached for comment.

In March, a trial for Web designer Shohdi Surur, 40, opened on charges stemming from his posting on his personal Web site a poem written by his late father almost three decades ago that reflects bitterly on the state of Egyptian society and culture.

If convicted, Surur could face up to two years in prison or a fine of dlrs 2,000.

"I'm not scared of the case as such, I'm scared of living under a horrendous violent and unjust regime. All of us are being watched all the time. Where is this leading to?" Surur told The Associated Press.

International human rights groups have also accused the police of entrapping and persecuting gays. Homosexuality is taboo in this conservative society and although not explicitly referred to in the Egyptian penal code, a wide range of laws covering obscenity, prostitution and debauchery have been applied to homosexuals.

Homosexuality is frowned at in all Arab countries and is explicitly illegal in some, but Internet-surfing Egyptian police seem to be the most aggressive in chasing gays right now.

"We are for personal freedom as long as it doesn't cross the red line of public morals," said el-Adly. Statements violating Egypt's "religious and ethical values" won't be tolerated, he said.