Egyptian police have stepped up arrests of HIV-positive suspects, detaining four more men this month in a crackdown that violates basic human rights, two leading international rights groups said Friday.

The New York-based Human Rights Watch and the London-based Amnesty International warned in a joint statement that the arrests could also undermine HIV/AIDS prevention efforts, as people in Egypt become increasingly afraid to seek information about HIV prevention and treatment.

The latest arrests brought to eight the number of HIV suspects in detention.

Four other men, arrested earlier, were convicted in mid-January for "habitual practice of debauchery" — a term used in the Egyptian legal system for consensual homosexual acts — and sentenced to one-year prison terms. The sentence was upheld Feb. 2 by an appeals court, HRW said.

Homosexuality is not explicitly referred to in the legal code here, but a wide range of laws covering obscenity, prostitution and debauchery are applied to homosexuals in this conservative country.

"In their misguided attempt to apply Egypt's unjust law on homosexual conduct, authorities are carrying on a crackdown against people living with HIV/AIDS," said Rebecca Schleifer of the HRW. "This not only violates the most basic rights of people living with HIV. It also threatens public health, by making it dangerous for anyone to seek information about HIV prevention or treatment."

Police deny any HIV-related arrests, but a police official, speaking on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to talk to media, said there is a campaign to get persons who are registered in hospital records as HIV-positive to treatment in "special clinics."

The official told The Associated Press that police recently rounded up four men and sent them to "precautionary hospital detention" for treatment. He declined to elaborate.

The two watchdog groups called on Cairo to release all the 12 men, both the four convicted and the eight in detention.

The latest arrests came after police followed up on information coerced from those already in custody, HRW and Amnesty said.

The arrested were forced to undergo HIV tests and two tested positive, the groups added. One appeared in court Feb. 12 and had his detention extended for 15 days after the judge and prosecutor declared him a danger to public health. The second is to appear in court Feb. 23.

HRW and Amnesty say that those in custody who tested positive are being held chained to their hospital beds.

"Arbitrary arrests, forcible HIV tests, and physical abuse only add to the disgraceful record of Egypt's criminal justice system, where torture and ill-treatment are greeted with impunity," said Hassiba Hadj-Sahraoui, deputy chief of Amnesty's Mideast and North Africa branch.

The rights groups also urged Egypt to undertake training for all criminal-justice officials on medical facts and international human rights standards in relation to HIV, and to immediately discontinue all testing of detainees that is not consensual.

In an earlier statement last week, HRW said the arrests and trials of HIV-positive suspects reflect the Egyptian government's criminalization of AIDS.

The wave of arrests began last October, when one man admitted he was HIV-positive after he and another mane were detained after an altercation on a downtown Cairo street. Two other men, whose telephone numbers were among the belongings of the first two, were later also arrested and all four were forced to take HIV tests. The four convicted in January were arrested last November.

In the largest case to date here, state security arrested 52 homosexuals on a floating restaurant on the Nile River in 2001. Twenty-three were sentenced to two years in prison, two got three and five years while the rest were acquitted.