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Sentenced for a selfie: Middle East police target LGBTQ phones

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BEIRUT/LOS ANGELES – Before Omar leaves home in the morning, he carefully uninstalls the apps on his phone one by one — no WhatsApp, no Facebook, no Grindr.“The paranoia is constant,” said the 19-year-old gay Egyptian man, who asked the Thomson Reuters Foundation not to identify his hometown or real name for his safety.

If a policeman searched his phone, a single WhatsApp conversation or Facebook selfie could be enough to see Omar prosecuted under laws banning “debauchery” and “prostitution” — regularly used in Egypt to criminalize citizens for being gay.Wiping his phone clean has become a daily routine.“It’s like brushing my teeth,” Omar said.Around the world, marginalized communities are worried the internet is no longer a safe space for them as surveillance grows and hate speech goes unchecked.An in-depth study of court files published on Monday found police forces in Tunisia, Egypt, and Lebanon are increasingly relying on digital tools to identify, entrap and prosecute LGBTQ people — thus “intensifying anti-queer surveillance.”The study by researcher Afsaneh Rigot, with support from data rights group Article 19 and Harvard Law School, reveals the extent to which the safety of LGBTQ people in the Middle East can be compromised by their digital footprints.Rigot examined redacted paperwork for 29 cases against LGBTQ people in Egypt, Tunisia and Lebanon from 2011 to 2020, including gay men, lesbians, trans women and nonnationals, and interviewed nearly two dozen victims and advocates.Authorities used the presence of certain apps, pictures deemed “effeminate” and even innocuous conversations to prosecute people under a hybrid of anti-LGBTQ and cybercrime laws, according to her 130-page report.Police in Egypt used sting.

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