BERLIN – Lebanese security authorities swooped in on a gay cinema in Beirut on Saturday and shut down the movie house, arresting 36 male attendees and performing anal probes on them.

According to a report on the Gay Star News website on Monday, “an unknown number” of the 36 had been released after an unnamed doctor administered the anal exam – a procedure meant to detect sperm.

The website NOW Lebanon reported on Tuesday that the theater, Plaza Cinema, was not the first such venue that authorities had closed down.

“In May, an MTV show hosted by Joe Makhlouf called Enta Horr (You are Free) showed undercover camera footage of men in porn cinemas in Beirut and Tripoli,” the website said. “The featured cinemas were subsequently shut down. At the time, the gay rights organization Helem condemned the program, criticizing MTV for showing footage of the men without their knowledge and calling it ‘unethical and unprofessional.’” In an email to The Jerusalem Post on Tuesday, journalist Michael J. Totten, an author at the website World Affairs who has written about Lebanon, said he was surprised to hear of last week’s incident.

“I wouldn’t describe Lebanon as a bastion of gay rights, but it’s much more advanced than anywhere else in the Arab world,” he wrote. “Homosexuality is still technically illegal there, but I’ve met a number of out gay Lebanese in Beirut, and the city has a number of gay and gay-friendly night clubs.”

Nonetheless, he said, “it shouldn’t be surprising... that the country where Hezbollah lives still has a long way to go.”

Lebanon’s government invokes Article 534 of the Lebanese Penal Code, which bars sexual relations that are “contradicting the laws of nature,” and can result in a prison term of up to one year. Despite the penal code, which has not been expunged, a Lebanese judge issued a ruling in Batroun in 2009 that same-sex relations did not violate natural laws.

Still, Lebanon’s LGBT community proceeds with great caution because of homophobia, which has led to violent attacks.

In 2009, Lebanese army soldiers detained and severely beat two gay men who were having sex in the lobby of an unoccupied building in the Beirut suburb of Ashrafieh.

According to NOW Lebanon, Makhlouf said he had stressed that his program was not a witch-hunt against homosexuals, and denied accusations of homophobia, saying, “I believe we should protect the rights of homosexuals.”

Yet Gay Star News reported that Lebanese paper El-Nashra had previously quoted Makhlouf “speaking on a radio program saying that Hitler is his personal idol, and sometimes a person like him is ‘needed’ in order to ‘reduce the numbers.’ He did not state who he meant by ‘the numbers’ but activists have taken this to mean LGBT people as well as others.”

The Lebanon-based Helem (an Arabic acronym for “Lebanese Protection for Lesbians, Gays, Bisexuals and Transgenders”), has sharply criticized Makhlouf and now believes he is backpedaling because of pressure on his anti-gay campaign.

Georges Azzi, a co-founder of Helem, established contact with the Hobeiche Barracks, where the 36 men were being detained, according to NOW Lebanon. He reported that the men had undergone anal examinations.

According to the website, “the practice involves an egg-shaped device being inserted into the anus to find traces of sperm. It has been widely criticized by human rights organizations, which call the practice outdated, discriminatory and a violation of human dignity.”

Human rights lawyer Nizar Saghieh told the website that a statement condemning the probes and calling for an end to the practice had been sent to the Ministry of Justice.

Stuart Appelbaum, a leading gay rights activist in New York and head of the Jewish Labor Committee, condemned these incidents.

“These Lebanese attempts to dehumanize and criminalize people because of their sexuality are far beyond anything remotely resembling common decency,” he wrote to the Post on Tuesday. “These actions are a stain on Lebanese society. We all must express our outrage.”

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