I face torture every day, says jailed Irish student

The TimesBel Trew, Cairo
Ibrahim Halawa, the young Dublin man who has been held without trial in Egypt since 2013, has described a catalogue of torture and mistreatment during his three years in jail.

In a letter, exclusively responding to questions from The Times, the 20-year-old from Firhouse said that he had seen fellow inmates “crucified” in hallways and hung from basketball hoops.

Mr Halawa, who was 17 when he was arrested, faces death by hanging on terrorism charges. He is accused alongside 493 people in a mass trial expected to conclude on June 29, according to the lawyer who has been allowed just one meeting with his client.

Mr Halawa, painted a horrific picture of three years in an Egyptian jail
Mr Halawa, painted a horrific picture of three years in an Egyptian jailAMNESTY IRELAND

In the letter, smuggled out of Wadi Natrun prison north of Cairo, Mr Halawa described physical and sexual torture of inmates, who are forced to watch others being abused before they are assaulted.

“[I] wake up every morning to the screams of prisoners being tortured and the echo of the bar landing on their bodies,” Mr Halawa wrote. “I have been beaten with plastic plumbing bars, slapped, punched, kicked, and dragged.” He said that he had been subject to electric shocks and a method of torture known as “the sweeper”.

“You are made to lay on your stomach with a stick in the center of your back. Your arms and legs are dragged back and tied to the stick and they make a convict move the stick up and down,” Mr Halawa said.

In another “experimental” form of abuse, men are covered in honey and tied to trees so they are attacked by insects, he claimed.

“They torture another prisoner and they make you watch. They bury him in garbage and he isn’t allowed to move. [They] crucify men. They hold a man’s arm against the curb and you hear it break when they kick it,” he wrote.

He said that he had seen another man “hung from a basketball hoop by his handcuffs and beaten while hanging in the air. And a lot more.”

Read full article: https://www.thetimes.co.uk/article/i-face-torture-every-day-says-jailed-student-v3mc2b979

Photo: BRIAN LAWLESS/PA

Foreign Policy: Egypt’s Islamists Turn Violent

Click for original article
Click for original article

The Muslim Brotherhood says that its protests are purely peaceful — but evidence is mounting of torture and weaponry at its Cairo sit-ins.

CAIRO — Ahmed Sabet, 22, has been hospitalized for over a week.

“They stamped on his face,” said his cousin, Aly al-Masry, 20, who told Sabet’s story from his bedside as he drifted in and out of consciousness. “He has three stab wounds, a bullet hole through his leg and stick marks all over his body. There are bruises where he was dragged along the asphalt.”

On the night of July 26, during clashes with supporters of ousted President Mohamed Morsy, Sabet, who is part of the April 6 Youth Movement that opposes the former leader, told Foreign Policy he was a victim of an armed assault by an Islamist mob. He says was dragged by pro-Morsy protesters to a nearby mosque, where a dozen other individuals were being held. There, he says, they tortured him for 14 hours.

The turmoil in Egypt has shown no sign of ending since Morsy’s ouster more than a month ago. And there are ominous signs that the violence is poised to worsen: The Egyptian government ordered the police last week to take “all the necessary measures” to disperse the two major pro-Morsy sit-ins that have been going on for more than a month, raising fears that the security services could once again open fire on Islamist demonstrators, as they have done previously. Meanwhile, President Adly Mansour delivered a speech on Aug. 7 declaring that the period of negotiations with the Muslim Brotherhood “ended today,” and other officials have denounced the Islamist protesters as “terrorists” contending the sit-ins are armed encampments that represent a danger to national security.

There is now mounting evidence that some Brotherhood loyalists within the pro-Morsy sit-ins  — which up until now had remained largely peaceful — are indeed armed, and have committed what some human rights groups describe as torture against their political opponents. In interviews, multiple Egyptians who clashed with or observed the pro-Morsy sit-ins describe being beaten and fired on by Morsy supporters.

Amnesty International released a report on Aug. 2 in which anti-Morsy protesters recount being “captured, beaten, subjected to electric shocks or stabbed” at the Islamists’ two encampments in the Cairo districts of Nasr City and Giza. Ten citizens have reportedly filed torture complaints at local police stations, Amnesty reported. And the violence has even claimed lives: “[W]e were told by the morgue five bodies bearing the marks of torture were found near both camps,” says Mohamed Lofty, an Amnesty researcher.

The body of 32-year-old tuk-tuk driver Amr, whose family requested that his full name not be published, was one of those found bearing signs of torture near a pro-Morsy sit-in. Amr’s corpse was dumped naked and mutilated by a metro station near the Giza encampment on July 20.

“I didn’t know my own brother from the body in the morgue. You could see the burn marks,” said his sister Samah, 35. “He was beaten by sticks everywhere from his head to his feet, and they electrocuted his face and his chest.”

Amr was on his way to the neighborhood near the encampment when he went missing on July 17.Days later, the police tracked Amr’s phone to a man based in the Giza camp, who said he had found the phone in the sit-in and claimed Amr had been accused of spying and stealing by the protesters. Samah believes Amr was tortured to death inside the sit-in.

Lofty explained that individuals like Amr are picked up by the self-appointed sit-in security guards if they are considered to be thieves, spies, or pro-military infiltrators. “People take justice into their hands, they think they are entitled to apply punishments, investigate and use cruelty,” he said. “They apply their own law in the camps.”

Authorities are still investigating the murder.

In addition to the torture allegations, human rights groups also say there is evidence that some Morsy supporters have brought guns to the protests — echoing claims by government officials, including Prime Minister Hezam al-Beblawi, that the protesters are armed and have “broken all the limits of peacefulness.” These reports don’t bode well for likely upcoming efforts to break up the sit-ins: If protesters are armed, Egypt’s poorly trained police force may not be able to shut down the encampments without considerable use of force and possibly further bloodshed.

“We can say with confidence that there are weapons in the Giza sit-in … it is not very well concealed,” says Karim Ennarah, a researcher at the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights. He pointed to a pro-Morsy rally in the nearby neighborhood of Bain el-Sarayat on July 2, when pro-Morsy protesters, marching back to the sit-in, opened fire on local residents as clashes erupted.

There is video evidence of how armed Islamists have used violence against their opponents. Ali Bazeed, 27, who works in a photocopying business overlooking the scene of the Bain el-Sarayat fighting, showed Foreign Policy the shop’s CCTV footage from the night of the clashes. In the video, bearded men and youth trash the premises. One man carries a rifle, while others brandish a pistol and a sword. Bazeed claims to know one of the men wielding a knife in the footage: “He’s from here and lives in the sit-in.”

Later in the video, dozens of men from the same group brutally beat a young man caught up in the clashes.

The next day, July 3, which saw the military move in to depose Morsy, brought further evidence that the Giza sit-in was armed. Mohamed, a 22-year-old local journalist and human rights worker, reported seeing handmade shotguns, made by citizens in underground workshops, at the site. “They were lying on the floor in the corner of a tent.”

Alaa Abdel-Fattah, a 31-year-old renowned activist and blogger opposed to the Muslim Brotherhood who lives in the area, also recounts being shot at with live ammunition from the direction of the sit-in on July 23.

“We clearly saw a couple of guys with machine guns who were shooting constantly in the air in an Islamist march towards the Giza sit-in a few weeks ago,” Abdel-Fattah says. He describes unidentified shooters from within the area of the encampment “taking pot shots” at anyone believed to be a “thug or a threat” during these fights. Abdel-Fattah himself took one bystander who had been shot through the shoulder, with the bullet entering his chest, to the hospital, but the man later died from his wound.

“I talked to people in the camp who admit that they have weapons, but their version is that they are constantly attacked by thugs supported by the police,” Abdel-Fattah says. However, he says, those with weapons are in the minority. “We’re dealing with a few highly armed individuals — this is not the whole sit-in.”

Meanwhile, reports of attacks on Egyptian journalists at Morsy rallies continue to rise. The Brotherhood has feuded with local media since the military takeover — and most Egyptian news outlets are staunchly critical of the protests, sometimes to a fault. In reaction, demonstrators appear to be taking matters into their own hands.

Cameraman Shehab Eldin Abdel Razeq, 23, who works for ONTV, a television channel widely perceived to be anti-Morsy, was one of the victims of the protesters’ anger. He sustained head injuries after he was beaten with sticks in the Nasr City sit-in on the day of Morsy’s ouster. “They took me to a tent where there were five other people, bound and in a mess,” he said. “I had to pretend that I worked for an American network.”

The Muslim Brotherhood and the “Anti-Coup Coalition,” which has organized the nationwide demonstrations calling for Morsy’s reinstatement, have repeatedly denounced the allegations of violence as a campaign by the authorities to rally public support for a crackdown. And inside the sit-ins themselves, Morsy backers vehemently deny that they are armed.

“We want to talk to the Egyptian media, they’re the ones who turned their backs on us, check my tent, we have nothing like weapons,” says Radwan Ragheb, 32, an electrician living at the Giza sit-in.

Top Brotherhood officials, meanwhile, argue that the charges of violence are fabricated by the media and security apparatus ahead of an impending police crackdown.

“The main purpose is to put the protests in the context of terrorism, so that they have to be dissolved as a threat to national security,” says Amr Darrag, a former minister of international cooperation under Morsy and leading Brotherhood figure.

In response to Amnesty’s report, those organizing the sit-ins invited the international rights group on a tour of the encampments. Lofty, the Amnesty researcher, interviewed the Nasr City sit-in’s security team, which is charged with instigating much of the violence. They admitted to conducting “interrogations” of “thugs” underneath the sit-in’s main stage, but denied the presence of torture cells.

Despite its recent report, Amnesty has also slammed the government’s calls to clear the sit-in as a “recipe for further bloodshed” given the security forces’ routine use of excessive and unwarranted lethal force. Rights groups say the actions of a few individuals do not give the army carte blanche for a violent dispersal of mainly peaceful protests.

However, with new reports that attempts at reconciliation between the interim government and the Brotherhood have been officially declared a failure, the clock is now ticking for the encampments. The Egyptian security forces are likely to use testimonies of violence and torture as a reason that the sit-ins must be cleared. And with the Muslim Brotherhood showing no signs of giving in, it’s becoming increasingly hard to see how Egypt avoids another round of bloodshed.

 

Egypt’s Khaled Said: Three years on, still no justice

Ahram

On the anniversary of the brutal police murder which inspired the Egyptian January 25 Revolution, Khaled Said’s family prepare for retrial
 In a small bedroom in Alexandria adjacent to the sea, the belongings of a young man: new trainers, a computer console and homemade speakers are quietly gathering dust. Three years of dust, to be precise.

On 6 June, 2010 their owner a 28-year-old called Khaled Said left his desk to walk to an Internet café across the street and never came back.

He was beaten to death by police officers in broad daylight. A photograph of his face on the autopsy table, mutilated beyond recognition, was the breaking point for the nation. Khaled became a symbol: on 25 January, 2011, his story brought millions of Egyptians to the streets.

Exactly three years on, following a revolution, his family are back where they started in 2010.

The two police officers Mahmoud Salah Mahmoud and Awad Ismail Soliman sentenced in October 2011 to seven years in jail for manslaughter are free, after they appealed against what they called a “harsh” verdict. The retrial begins next month.

However, Khaled’s lawyer, Mahmoud Afify, maintains the ruling is not severe enough.

Khalid Said's room untouched three years on from his brutal death (Photo: Diaa Galal)
Khalid Said’s room untouched three years on from his brutal death (Photo: Diaa Galal)

Under Egyptian law, a member of the police force beating someone to death is automatically classified as “torture”, Afify explains, because they are “expected to know better.” This carries a heftier sentence of 15 years, which is what Khaled Said’s family are pushing for.

“I feel like he died yesterday,” says his mother Laila Marzouk sitting in Khaled’s living room, islanded by pictures of her dead son. “We’ve been fighting this for years and we’re are back at the beginning. We still haven’t seen justice.”

Afify believes the ruling was just seven years because, post-revolution, the very people spearheading the investigations are part of the institution under scrutiny: the police force. “Same people, some practices. Nothing has changed.”

With only three police officers serving jail sentences for killing or injuring civilians since the start of the January 25 Revolution and President Mohamed Morsi publically praising the security forces, the fear is that the very killers whose brutality sparked the uprising, will not be found guilty for the crime they committed.

Marzouk says she can only hope that the new judge will be fair.

“I’m trying to believe in him, we see Egyptian people coming to the streets and fighting for an honest judiciary and fair court cases every week. Perhaps all of this will do something for us.”

Laila Marzouk sits behind the iconic portrait of her son Khaled Said on the third anniversary of his death (Photo: Diaa Galal)
Laila Marzouk sits behind the iconic portrait of her son Khaled Said on the third anniversary of his death (Photo: Diaa Galal)

It has been a struggle from the start, Afify explains, listing a catalogue of obstacles.

Immediately after the murder, officers from the local Sidi Gaber police station took the eye-witnesses’ phones and deleted all videos and photos of the crime: a damning blow to the prosecution’s case.

Those planning to testify and their families were subsequently threatened or bribed. The police attempted to prevent Khaled’s lawyer from attending the investigation sessions. The initial forensic report said Khaled died from swallowing a packet of drugs.

“I lost hope in the system then. There were people with pictures of Khaled outside the courtroom saying he was a drug addict,” his mother explains, “The authorities offered to pay for my family to go on the Hajj pilgrimage if we dropped the charges.”

Then, she continues, the police stationed themselves outside the door of their flat and building. “We used to throw water at them from the balcony. They even temporarily detained Khaled’s brother Ahmed.”

It wasn’t until the Alexandrian judge Ahmed Omar bypassed the police and personally carried out investigations himself, lawyer Afify explains, that key eyewitnesses, like the owner of the Internet café where Khaled was killed, felt safe to come forward.

With mounting pressure from the street, the court brought in medical experts from the Universities of Alexandria, Cairo and Ain Shams who rejected the initial forensic report. The evidence began to fall into place.

The street and Internet cafe where Khaled Said was brutally murdered (Photo: Diaa Galal)
The street and Internet cafe where Khaled Said was brutally murdered (Photo: Diaa Galal)

Marzouk talks of being bewildered as she watched the cult of her son grow. The iconic portrait of a young, confident man in a grey hoodie, which is stencilled on hundreds of walls across the country, hangs above her head as she speaks.

“I remember walking down the street and hearing ‘we are all Khaled Said’ for the first time,'” she recalls, “Everyone was shouting my name. I was suddenly responsible: they began calling me the mother of all Egyptians.”

Since the revolution, she describes attending most of the funerals of young men tortured to death or killed in clashes with security forces: “I have a close connection with the mothers, we keep in touch, they are all my sons.”

Although public opinion changed after the revolution, the police have not, she adds.

“When the first verdict was announced on 26 October 2011, police fans destroyed the court and attacked anyone supporting Khaled including activists and journalists. They threw cigarettes, papers and rubbish at us,” Marzouk, her son Ahmed and his sister Zahara describe.

A photo of Khalid’s two siblings together was circulated as evidence Ahmed was an American spy married to an Israeli girl. The family received threatening phone calls calling them terrorists.

When the presidential elections kicked off in 2012, Khaled’s mother started to be courted by would-be presidents who, she says, saw political capital in her, as a revolutionary icon.

The then-hopeful Mohamed Morsi phoned her up during the final run-offs.

Khaled Said graffiti on the cafe walls near where he was killed (Photo: Diaa Galal)
Khaled Said graffiti on the cafe walls near where he was killed (Photo: Diaa Galal)

With the retrial taking place next month, Khalid’s court proceedings will have spanned three regimes: Hosni Mubarak, the military and now Morsi.

Despite promises of security sector reform from the Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party and the president, analysts have seen no change.

“There has been very little progress, aside from personnel appointments at the highest level in the Ministry of Interior… Mubarak’s state security was superficially rebranded,” explains Mara Revkin, a civil society researcher and Yale law student, working on new Egyptian police legislation. “The police force need to shift from protecting the state to protecting the people, which is a massive challenge that will take a while.”

It is essential to change the culture of fear and intimidation that is pervasive in Egypt’s law enforcement and justice system, Revkin continues, which requires serious institutional reform and commitment from the ruling elite.

Instead, new legislation, like the Witness Protection Act, is being drafted by Egypt’s upper house of parliament the Shura Council, she adds, which if ratified would see the very police force who terrorise witnesses put in charge of their safety.

The Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party and the president maintain change is happening but it will take time.

“Reforming and purging of the police was one of the main goals of the January revolution and still is because Egypt is in dire need of security, but not on behalf of the freedoms and dignity of citizens,” FJP leading member Essam El-Erian said in press statement in February.

Morsi himself put security at the top of his agenda during his first 100 days in office and has repeatedly pledged reform.

Back in Alexandria, as the family prepares to go through the grueling court process again, promises of change give little reassurance.

“One of the last things Khaled told me before he died was the he was planning great things, he never told me what but it happened,” Marzouk says, “People have told me his death destroyed a wall of fear the country faced and so the street moved. This movement forward cannot be stopped.”

‘They beat us like animals’: Egypt’s children detained, tortured

AhramRights groups report on the rise of Egyptian police brutality against children after 13 minors were arrested in Cairo on Tuesday; Ahram Online speaks with the victims

In an impoverished district of Alexandria, Sherifa Abdel-Meneem described finding bruises and gashes all over her 13-year-old son’s body, Abdel-Rahman, who was picked up by Egyptian security forces at a protest on 27 January and detained for over two weeks.”He won’t tell me where the marks come from or what the security forces did to him, he’s too scared… when he went missing no words can describe how I felt, I wasn’t sure I’d see my son ever again,” said Abdel-Meneem.

The latest spat of arrests during a political context occurred on Tuesday, when the Egyptian Coalition for Children’s Rights reported a further 13 children were taken during a police raid on Cairo’s Tahrir Square. One of boys picked up by the police, Walid Ahmed Abdel Sayed, was12 years old.

Since the start of 2013, rights groups have been reporting an increase in police brutality towards children.

“It is definitely a way of frightening people…the number of children taken by security forces and the manner in which they are detained is unprecedented in my experience,” says Ghada Shahbender of the Egyptian Organisation of Human Rights.

She explains that roughly around a third of the recent political prisoners are underage, normally from an impoverished background.

This is certainly true of Abdel-Rahman who is the breadwinner of his family, despite being 13 years old. He, his mother and his five siblings squeeze into a flat no larger than an average-sized living room in Alexandria. According to Abdel-Meneem, his two week disappearance had financial consequences as well as emotional ones.

Abdel-Rahman was detained with 14-year-old bone cancer patient Mahmoud Adel whose story hit international headlines after the judge initially refused to allow him chemotherapy.

Both boys, who say they were bystanders to the Alexandrian demonstration, were only released after significant pressure from rights groups like the Egyptian Organisation of Human Rights.

Police brutality against children

For Abdel-Meneem, not knowing the location of her son, Abdel-Rahman, was one of the most traumatising aspects of her son’s disappearance. Typically, no effort is made by Egyptian security forces to contact the children’s parents when the arrest occurs.

She spoke of trawling police stations for days and eventually attempting to take food to her son at the Alexandrian Security Directorate, where she was initially refused entry.

The children themselves are threatened with violence if they try to make contact with anyone.

Abdel-Rahman, who appears visibly distressed and had to be coaxed by his family members to relate his story, recalled hearing friends shouting his name as they ran behind the Central Security Forces (CSF) truck that transported the boy and other inmates to an unknown location.

“The officer said if we try to call out to our friends and family they would beat us… so we stayed quiet.”

There was a seven-year-old boy in one of the cells where he was kept together with adults, Abdel-Rahman added. “The boy’s parents didn’t know that he was missing.”

There are dozens of children left in prison because the parents do not have relations with resources to find their missing sons and daughters, the boy asserted, while tentatively pointing to the places on his body where he was beaten by security forces.

Abdel-Rahman claimed he was not subjected to the electrocutions and sexual assault that rights groups and victims say inmates, including children, are often subjected to.

Violation of Child’s Law

The presence of children in protests and clashes and their consequent detention, although getting worse, is nothing new, explained Karim Ennarah from the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights. However, “since 25 January this year… the involvement of the prosecution in this abuse is a new trend.”

The role of the prosecutor appears to be much more politicised when dealing with detentions, and rights groups are noticing that they are broadly renewing detentions in violation of Egyptian legislation, said Ennarah.

“Typically the prosecutors used to stick to procedures in Egypt’s Child Law. There is special treatment for children under the age of 12 and15. For example, those under 12 years of age do not have criminal liability, and the detention of those under 15 cannot be renewed for more than a week,” he added.

“This has changed.”

Shahbender agreed, adding that both adults and children are now held even when there is no police report, which is considered illegal under Egyptian law.

According to the law, children are supposed to be kept in centres “fit for the detention of a child,” which is not happening, Shahbender described. “Egyptian juvenile detention centres are appalling…and are run like prisons.”

Systemic violence

The children recounted stories of brutal beatings.

“We got arrested because we couldn’t fight back or run away fast enough,” said 15-year-old Mahmoud El-Sayed Ragab, who was taken from the central Alexandrian square with Abdel-Rahman on 27 January.

“The police beat us and hurled insults at us like we were animals; they took us to the security directorate where men in black clothes hit me so hard I couldn’t breathe. I felt like I was dead,” said Ragab.

12-year-old Ziyad Taysir Mohamed Ahmed described being kidnapped on Cairo’s Qasr Al-Nil Bridge by CSF in early February and accused of vandalising the nearby Shepherd Hotel off Tahrir Square.

“They dragged me by my hair and then held me up by my neck, while punching me on the head. The police kept asking me who paid me to attack the hotel and telling me they were going to take me to different police stations and let me go, but I ended up in Torah Prison.”

Ziyad was detained for 24 hours, which his father engineer Taysir Mohamed Ahmed said was a “lucky escape” because of his ‘connections’ to secure his son’s release. “Others were not so lucky,” he lamented.

The Ministry of Interior has yet to directly tackle the issue of child abuse by the Egyptian police in a public statement. Ahram Online attempted to speak with a ministry official, but the ministry was unavailable to comment.

However, Interior Minister Mohamed Ibrahim stated on 19 February that no violence is used by the police force against peaceful protesters.

“The authorities have discovered if they really want to break us, they have to use the most important people to us – our children,” concluded Taysir Mohamed Ahmed. “This is why they are arresting and torturing children.  Our children are our weak point. They are our future.”

Additional reporting by Diaa Adel

Breaking the silence: Mob sexual assault on Tahrir Square

Reports of brutal gang sexual assault on women in the vicinity of Cairo’s Tahrir Square are becoming increasingly and worrying frequent.

For the first time women are coming forward in significant numbers with their stories. As a result, the issue is finally being addressed as a specific type of attack separate from the ongoing conversation about daily sexual harassment encountered on the streets.

Survivors of these attacks as well as other activists and NGO workers believe them to be organised and instigated due to stark similarities in the testimonies and the targeted nature of the attacks. The assaults occur during protests and marches, leading many to argue that they are regime-led attempts to discourage street mobilisation against the state.

Several new initiatives have been launched across the capital to raise awareness and spearhead creative ways of addressing the contentious issue. This Wednesday “Nafsi” (myself) campaign against sexual abuse of women is organising a “human chain” protest stand in Nasr City. On Friday there is a solidarity march called “Safe Tahrir” where activists plan to shame thugs by spray-painting those caught assaulting women.

The latest horror story was related by young British journalist Natasha Smith whose 26 June blog post entitled “Please God make this stop” spread across social media, gathering national and international media interest.

“Hundreds of men pulled my limbs apart and threw me around,” wrote Smith, who had described being surrounded by men near the Qasr Al-Nil entrance to Tahrir.” They were scratching and clenching my breasts and forcing their fingers inside me in every possible way.”

Her testimony echoes numerous accounts from women, both foreign and Egyptian, about what has happened to them in the square, over the course of the last year and a half.

“There is a pattern emerging of groups of between 30 to 40 men attacking one girl at the same time,” explains Salma El-Naqqash, who has been collecting testimonies for Egyptian NGO Nazra for Feminist Studies.

El-Naqqash explains that many of those subjected to these attacks, like Smith, use the term rape.

“The men actually penetrate the women with their fingers as well as grope. It is a severe attack. This is different from harassment that happens on the streets on a regular basis.”

The assaults are most frequent in one particular area, she said, which is in front of Hardees restaurant where Mohamed Mahmoud Street meets Tahrir Square.

In November last year Caroline Sinz, a reporter for France 3 TV channel was mobbed by 70 men on that corner and on 8 June 2012 an “End Sexual Harassment” march was also violently attacked in the same spot.

The protest had been organised after a week of reported incidents against women by the burger joint, including the 2 June mobbing of one its coordinators Nihal Saad Zaghloul, American University in Cairo (AUC) masters student Rosa Navarro and European filmmaker who gave a testimony to the NGO Nazra under the pseudonym ‘C’.

“These mob assaults happen in every single mass gathering on the square,” Zaghloul explains, “Natasha wrote almost exactly the same thing that happened to us.”

“About 200 men were involved in our attack,” Navarro explains, relating what happened to them on 2 June. “I was the first to be grabbed, at least 30 or 40 guys tried to strip me of my clothes.” Navarro was thrown aggressively against the wall of Hardees. The incident lasted for 45 minutes.

Zaghloul, meanwhile had been dragged off into another group. The three women were separated.

“There were hands everywhere, you couldn’t even count them. It seemed like the central circle of ten men would change – as if they were taking turns,” Zaghloul described.

Their friend filmmaker C, who like Smith left Egypt immediately after the incident and is seeking psychiatric help for severe trauma, was subjected to particularly extreme violence.

Reminiscent of what Smith wrote in her blog post, Zaghloul described how the mob ripped the filmmaker’s clothes off, so that afterwards “she had hand shaped bruises all over her body.”

“They raped her with their fingers, she was being tossed around like a ragdoll,” said Navarro. “Then around 100 men dragged her into an alley way behind Hardees, where we couldn’t see or reach her.”

According to filmmaker C’s testimony, she eventually escaped, covered in dirt and wrapped in a large Egyptian flag, and was reunited with her friends in a nearby flat. The women were trapped in the building for an hour as the crowd of men waited outside.

Twenty-four-year-old NGO worker Imogen Lambert, who experienced a similar mob assault on the corner of Mohamed Mahmoud Street during the February 2012 clashes, describes these attacks as “relentless.”

“This is what differentiates these incidents from casual sexual harassment in the street: the attackers are a lot more persistent, they are fighting you and anyone protecting you. They don’t stop, even in the middle of a massive tear gas attack, like when I was assaulted. This is not normal.”

Who is behind it?

“They seem to be orchestrated, by anyone who benefits from having Tahrir not secured or from having people leave protests. It could be state police, government, you pick,” said Zaghloul. “If you beat up a woman, people leave pretty quickly.”

Architect and activist Pakiham Badra, who was in the attacked 8 June women’s march, agrees.

Badra reported seeing unidentified men, claiming to be military and air force students, insist on breaking the male cordon protecting the women, claiming they wanted to join the protest.

She noticed that the numerous fights that broke out sparking the thug-attack, where women were surrounded, beaten and stripped, originated from the points at which these men had entered the march.

“It felt like we were infiltrated, at every point where they broke the male chain, a girl was snatched.”

The state using sexual violence against both male and female protesters as a means to quell dissent is not new. On 25 May 2005, which came to be known as “Black Wednesday,” tens of women taking part in a protest outside the Journalists’ Syndicate were assaulted by plain-clothed policemen and thugs run by both the then ruling National Democratic Party and the police.

State-led torture in the form of forced “virginity tests” on activists by military “doctors” and sexual abuse by both military and police officers during arrest and detention, is well documented.

Eve Radwan, a 24-year-old program manager and music scout at Wasla FM, described being surrounded by over 15 military policemen during the clashes on Qasr Al-Aini Street in December 2011. They cut her t-shirt, attempted to strip her and “fingered her more than a hundred times.”

The levels of violence could point to the security forces, says Dr Mona Hamad, a psychiatrist at El-Nadeem Centre for Rehabilitation of Victims of Violence.

Egyptian police, who are typically recruited from lower-class rural backgrounds, she explained, undergo a strict process of training: including brutalisation and brainwashing.

“After some time, they are psychologically affected – they are encouraged to be aggressive, become insensitive and lack empathy.”

Nevertheless, Hamad believes it is likely to be a mix of types in the crowds.  “Men who have anti-social personalities (that is, they feel no guilt or humanity) or who feel over inhibited and develop hate and aggression towards women, will also use the opportunities [that crowded protests present].”

Navarro agrees, explaining that although it might require an organised group to instigate it, the assaults “depend on the men around to either get involved themselves or do nothing about it.”

Mob mentality, Hamad says, can also contribute. It is a recognised behavioural phenomenon by social psychologists: people in large groups experience “deindividution” or a loss of self-awareness and so are less likely to follow normal social restraints, leading to a level of violence they would not typically engage in if they were alone.

These attacks are also not restricted to Tahrir Square. Women claim that reports of this type of violence in Cairo are on the rise, outside of the political sphere.

“Almost everyday I hear stories from women being violently attacked by groups on the streets, not just harassed,” says photography student Rana, 24, who was recently mobbed in the middle-class district of Mohandiseen. “It’s getting worse,” she says.

There is also another precedent to these gang attacks. Incidents like the 2006 mass sexual assaults on women during the Eid holiday, El-Naqqash added, which were unrelated to politics, imply there is a significant societal problem.

Shamed and silenced

All the women agreed that despite it becoming more acceptable to speak about, the issue has yet to be properly addressed.

Those subjected to sexual violence are stigmatised, their reputations are at risk if they talk, Hamad explains. Additionally women’s movements might become restricted as “parents may forbid her from joining further protests or even leaving the house for fear of another attack.”

As is common with all instances of sexual violence against women, the victim is often blamed. One of the most common reactions the women told Ahram Online was: what were you wearing and were you alone? Below Natasha Smith’s blog post are endless comments holding her responsible as she is uncovered and blond.

This could be an example of what psychologists dub “victim-blaming”: people transfer the responsibility onto those who are attacked, so that they convince themselves that these attacks only happen to a certain kind of person who behaves in a particular way. As such they avoid grasping the full horror that groups can and do assault women unprovoked.

Some, the women said, simply refused to believe it happened.

The danger is then, Zaghloul explained, that we do not talk about it, “silence is always a sign of consent.” It becomes a self-perpetuating cycle.

News skew

The way that the subject has been treated in the international media contributed to the problem.

One of the earliest documentations of a Tahrir-based mob attack involved CBS News TV correspondent Lara Logan, on the night Mubarak was toppled.

The incident appeared unique, El-Naqqash explained, the pattern of these assaults had not been documented; female activists had commented that Tahrir had been harassment-free during the preceding 18 days.

“There was a racist element to the coverage: Lara is blond, a famous journalist and foreign, she was attacked by Egyptian men.”

This has been taken to extremes by “political commentators” like conservative American writer Debbie Schlussel who blamed Islam for Lara Logan’s attack.

In a 29 June blog post about Smith, Schlussel wrote: “in the case of Egypt, there isn’t civilisation. Just a mob of savage Muslims thirsting for uncovered, naive Western journalist female genitals to violate”.

In the wake of this type of backlash, people accused Logan, however wrongly, of trying to discredit the revolution, El-Naqqash, explained.

This is an ongoing problem, as protesters continue to fight a PR battle with a state media machine that portrays them as thugs and spies, making women less likely to come forward.

“The accounts, like Logan’s, have been described with an over-simplified Orientalism removed from any socio-political context: the “savages attacking” is not helpful,” Lambert said. She had previously refrained from giving a public testimony of what happened to her in February for fear that her story would be told “irresponsibly.”

“Particularly in international media, the testimonies are sensationalist and sexualised – this graphic and fetishised way of talking about the subject, with no discussion of the issues surrounding it, is actually quite insulting to the victim.”

Lambert believes this hijacks real conversation, “making women, whether Egyptian or foreign, unwilling to open up – a major setback for any initiatives trying to stop it from happening.”

The human cost

Lumping the issue of premeditated violent assault with daily opportunist sexual harassment has further muddled the issue. This is particularly so in terms of support for the survivors, many of whom suffer from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder and need specialist help and support.

“Victims feel humiliated, helpless. Many experience flashbacks, insomnia, restlessness and also hyper arousal – sounds become intolerable, they can’t be on the streets,” Hamad explains. “In extreme cases they become completely isolated avoiding all stimulae.” One patient, she recalled, was in such a state of shock that she could not speak.

Navarro said she could not leave her apartment for three days, “the day-to-day sexual harassment on the street was so bad that it doesn’t allow you to heal.” She is consequently moving to a residential area of Cairo as she “can’t take downtown anymore.”

Going forward

There are still many unanswered questions that need to be addressed: there have been no thorough investigations into these mass assaults, we do not even know how many times they have occurred.

The fact that the issue is grounded in larger societal problems has yet to be confronted. In all the testimonies that Ahram Online gathered, the women mentioned onlookers who either verbally encouraged the violence or simply did nothing to prevent it.

As El-Naqqash points out, “15 individuals of a group of attackers might be affiliated with the security forces but the numbers are so huge there must be other random men who just join in.”

There are no signs of the activists giving up or the initiatives dwindling any time soon.

“The image of my friend, lying on the floor, sobbing, her clothes torn off will haunt me forever,” said Zaghloul, “Nobody should suffer like the way we suffered, we’re not going to stop until we bring them to justice.”

Military trials for civilians: The human cost

 

Egypt’s military junta led a widespread crackdown on anti-military rule protesters in Cairo’s district of Abbasiya on 4 May. What followed marked the single largest wave of arrests and detentions since the military assumed power in February 2011.

“The ruling military wants to see how far they can go with the people,” says Salma Abdel-Gelil, 36, from the No Military Trials for Civilians campaign, regarding the military’s roundup and detention of civilians on 4 May.

“There was public division over whether the protest which sparked the arrests was a good or bad idea. The indecision explains the level of brutality they were able to unleash.”

Over 300 civilians were arrested after military police violently dispersed a thousands-strong protest march to the Ministry of Defence in the Cairo district of Abbasiya in early May.

Hundreds currently face military trials, a practice which is illegal under international human rights law and which sees defendants summarily tried by military judges with little to no legal representation.

In protest of abusive treatment, over 100 of the prisoners currently facing trial are staging an open-ended hunger strike. On Sunday, 460 activists, including presidential candidate Khaled Ali, joined them in a symbolic one-day fast.

The hunger strike comes after a perceived let-down from parliament, who was in the process of amending Egypt’s 1966 Codes of Military Justice. The amendments permitted trying civilians under, supposedly more limited, prescribed circumstances. But it isn’t enough. Activists object that the amendments are ineffectual.

Over 12,000 civilians, including children, have faced military tribunals in the last year, which is more than double the number during former president Hosni Mubarak’s 30-year rule.  Under Mubarak, military trials of civilians were reserved for high-profile political cases such as the 2008 conviction of former Muslim Brotherhood presidential contender Khairat El-Shater.

Military tribunals have been utilised since the Nasser era to deter political dissent, quell opposition and diffuse movements, but often, the real damage is a human one.

“According to what we heard from different testimonies it is clear there is regular torture, at moment of arrest, interrogation and sometimes detention,” says Dr Basma Abdel-Rahman, a psychiatrist at the Al-Nadeem centre, a civil society group which rehabilitates victims of violence.

“The main effect or goal of torture is to humiliate the person,” she explains. The torturer, she continues, aims to break the victim’s dignity, self-confidence, and will to resist in the long term as a means of control.

In the context of military trials, she adds, the purpose is also to make an example out of the victim in front of their communities.

Those that were detained by the military during the 18–day uprising were treated particularly badly, says Maha Mahmoun of the Hisham Mubarak Law centre, which represents many victims during the military tribunal process.

In addition, civilians arrested before August 2011 were also detained in military prisons, where, Mahmoun says, unverified reports show treatment of victims is more severe.

Adel Ramadan, a legal officer at the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights (EIPR) working with military trials victims, described what happened to his cousin Muaty Abu-Arab.

Abu-Arab was one of the first protesters to be arrested during the revolution, on 3 February 2011. He was charged with “thuggery” and sentenced to five years in jail (although he served just one).

He was lucky, Ramadan explained, as the commanding officer came from the same village and so Abu-Arab had the usual “torture package” of beatings, verbal humiliation and sporadic starvation. However, Ramadan asserts, he witnessed some really extreme cases that “went beyond our ideas of torture.”

“People were covered in water and electrocuted, sometimes to death and thrown in the desert,” Ramadan said, relating his cousin’s experiences. The beatings, his cousin told him, were brutal enough to be fatal.

There are reported cases during the 18 days that people died in military detention, although this is impossible to verify.

Even after the 18 days, torture continued even in high profile cases, such as Maikel Nabil, an internationally known blogger, who was arrested on 28 March 2011 for writing a post criticising the military.

He recounts being drugged three times to force him to speak and was eventually put in solitary confinement in a one metre-squared cell for two months.

“It had sewage on the floor,” he recalls. “As I spent more than two weeks with no access to light, I got skin diseases. I was unable to sit properly or walk. For two weeks I had no human contact at all.”

Torture of the Abbasiya detainees is one of the driving forces behind Sunday’s hunger strike campaign.

One protester arrested by military police on 4 May, who wished to remain anonymous, reported how a fellow detainee in Tora prison was in shock from the arrest and could not speak. “The officer took his silence to mean he was being disrespectful so they used a water hose in his mouth; the guy was clearly suffocating.”

This is not the first documented case of water torture. In October last year, Essam Atta, 24 who was arrested on 25 February and sentenced in front of a military court, died in the same prison. Although the state autopsy says he overdosed, Atta’s family noticed displays of abuse on his corpse and his cell mates claimed prison guards pushed hoses into his mouth and anus, drowning him.

Video and photographic evidence show arrests are often very violent. Abdel-Ahmed Karim described being beaten by 20 soldiers on his way to the 9 September 2011 protest outside the Israeli embassy.

“It was like an old movie, everything just paused,” Karim described, beginning to cry. “I was already sick. I had a high fever so I couldn’t stand up. They were hitting me everywhere with sticks.”

His ear was damaged, his leg limp and his hand was not working correctly after the beating, he said.

Karim was taken to the military prosecutor, in a building known as C28, where he described sleeping and waking to the sound of screams coming from neighbouring cells

“For 100 days I never saw the sun,” Karim added.

During the clashes, the wounded are more vulnerable to arrest because of their lack of mobility. At the defence ministry on 4 May, the military stormed a nearby state hospital, Ain Shams, and arrested injured protesters from their hospital beds.

“I got a call from a friend, Halim, who was trapped in Ain Shams hospital, where he had carried an injured colleague,” explains Ola Shahba, from the Justice and Freedom Youth Movement. “The army got in by force, he said, and he was hiding under the bed in a doctor’s coat.”

Both were arrested, she added. Hakim, the injured friend, later reported to his lawyers that they had been electrocuted and that he was left in his underwear for two days.

The manner in which detainees are processed by military authorities contributes to the distress.

According to the No Military Trials for Civilians campaign and EIPR, military sentences are administered quickly often on trumped up charges. As Ramadan illustrated, by the time he found out his cousin had been taken by the military, Abu-Arab had already been sentenced to five years.

Nadia Hassan from No Military Trials for Civilians relates a case the group dealt with where a trial took place in a kitchen, due the lack of court space.

“The goal of any torturer is to increase the sense of helplessness,” explains Abdel-Rahman. “It adds to this feeling if you cannot defend yourself or properly appeal; in a military court the decision is final, which is a kind of torture itself.”

Karim, who claims he never even made it to the Israeli embassy protest, was charged with attacking the Giza security services and the Saudi embassy as well as burning the Zoo, a nearby park and Cairo University.

“Victims frequently suffer from anxiety, insomnia and insecurity,” explains Abdel-Rahman. “Their memories intrude on their consciousness, and sometimes became an obstacle for them to perform a normal job.”

They will sometime experience “hyper-arousal” – where even pedestrian events such as the sound of a police siren can trigger memories.

Dr Aya Mohamed Kamal, who has a background in psychiatry, was detained for a few days during the recent Abbasiya clashes and recognised the threat of post-traumatic stress disorder. “We set up a peer support group in our cell to talk about our emotions,” she said, explaining how she used her training to help fellow female inmates after they had been badly beaten.

“Those who are released are often not in a good state, they are psychologically damaged, become violent and sometimes suicidal,” Mahmoun explains.

Financial worries add to the problem, particularly as many victims come from impoverished backgrounds and are the breadwinners of their family. In the case of Abu-Arab, he not only lost his job as he was in prison for a year, but now has a criminal record, so he cannot find work.

Groups like EIPR and No Military Trials for Civilians drafted changes in six specific articles in military law that refer to civilians, in a bid to have Parliament push the amendments through.

In particular, they wanted to add sub-bullet points to Article 4 protecting civilians who work in “non-military operations” that are still run by the army, such as factories and hospitals.

Furthermore, they want to change Article 48, which states that any civilian involved in a dispute with a member of the military, which could include anything from a car crash to a land dispute, can be tried in a military court.

Another issue was changing the provisions, which allow children to be tried before military courts.

The groups also want to set up a special committee, with a Ministry of Justice-assigned judge, to run retrials of all civilians who have faced military courts.

Parliament instead made minor changes to the 1966 legislation, related to limiting the power of the president to refer civilians to military courts.

Nevertheless the regular protests and social media campaigns spearheaded by these civil society groups have directed public attention to this pressing issue, which in many cases has forced the military to release victims.

The legal and psychological support offered to detainees and their families has also been crucial.

“The only way these trials can be stopped is through the pressure that human rights organisations are continuing putting on the military council.” Ramadan concluded, adding that they have “cornered” the military into at the, very least, not abusing their own rules.

Protests like the solidarity hunger strike are one of these effective pressure campaigns.

“The proof is the way in which these tribunals are now being conducted. Before it was a five minute trial without evidence, now they at least have to provide witnesses.  We’ve got a long way to go, but this is something to celebrate.”