HRW Letter to Prosecutor General
March 17, 2005

Human Rights Watch today called on the Egyptian Minister of Interior and the Prosecutor General to take urgent action to lift the siege of the village of Sarando in the northwestern governorate of Baharriya and investigate and bring to justice security forces responsible for abuses. The letters recount villagers’ testimony that security forces have terrorized inhabitants with ongoing night-time raids, arbitrary arrests including holding women and young children in illegal places of detention, beatings and humiliation, and confinement to their homes. They also report that the security forces have failed to protect them from armed attacks by thugs in the employ of a local landowner. One woman is known to have died following a beating by security forces.

Human Rights Watch is deeply disturbed by credible reports that since the early hours of March 4, 2005, Egyptian security forces have laid siege to the village of Sarando in the northwestern governorate of Baharriya and the surrounding lands. Villagers report that security forces have terrorized inhabitants with ongoing night-time raids, arbitrary arrests including holding women and young children in illegal places of detention, beatings and humiliation, and confinement to their homes. They also report that the security forces have failed to protect them from armed attacks by thugs in the employ of a local landowner. One woman is known to have died following a beating by security forces.

According to accounts by villagers and their lawyers as well as information collected by Egyptian human rights organizations, the siege of Sarando and its surrounding lands is linked to an ongoing dispute between the family of landowner Salah Nawar and local villagers. Villagers and their lawyers maintain that they have a legal right to remain on land many have farmed for generations.1 but that the Nawar family has used intimidation and fraud to attempt to force villagers farming the disputed lands to sign documents relinquishing that right. In fact, the current attacks occurred as lawyers prepared to obtain copies of land ownership documents that they say would validate the villagers’ claims to the land in question. The head of the Damanhour Center for Police Investigations has reportedly used arbitrary detention, false criminal charges, and intimidation to assist the Nawar family in its efforts to force villagers from the disputed lands. Human rights activists from the Land Center for Human Rights and the Rural Studies Center, who have been following the case since January 2005, estimate that up to ten thousand villagers in Sarando and its hamlets may be affected by the dispute.

On March 10, 2005, Ministry of Interior Police Investigations Officer Lieutenant Colonel Mohammed Ammar attempted to prevent a delegation of human rights activists.2 and journalists, including a Human Rights Watch representative, from entering Sarando and its hamlet, Ezbit Baharriya, stating that they would need to first obtain permission from the Ministry of Interior. Ammar threatened to arrest delegation members who persisted in entering. Despite these threats, the delegation visited Sarando and the neighboring community of Ezbit Baharriya on March 10, 2005, in order to gather information about these incidents. They found the area full of policemen but otherwise devoid of male residents. The team collected testimonies (detailed below) from the remaining women and children on the attacks that occurred in the village during the March 4th raid as well as subsequent abuses.

March 4, 2005: Arbitrary Arrests, Attacks by Armed Men, and Police Violence
According to the villagers, at approximately 4 am on the morning of March 4, 2005, police under the command of Lt. Col. Mohammad Ammar conducted a raid on the village, breaking into homes and arresting seven men. The arrested men were presented to the prosecution office on March 5, and based on Officer Ammar’s police report were charged with stealing Nawar’s crops and preventing him from visiting his lands, although ownership of the lands in question is disputed.3 Incidentally, Officer Ammar remains in his post despite being under investigation in the beating of a pregnant woman, Khayriya Abd al Minem al Baqali, resulting in bleeding that required hospitalization.4 The beating is alleged to have taken place during a similar January 5, 2005 raid by security forces on the village.

Villagers report that at approximately 7 am a large number of men led by members of the Nawar family and armed with guns and swords arrived in Sarando with gasoline trucks and tractors. The group began destroying crops. The remaining villagers, including large numbers of women and children, resisted the attack and were beaten by the attackers. Their cries brought men from the surrounding hamlets, and the combined numbers eventually forced the armed men to flee. However, during the fighting one of the armed men was killed, reportedly by gunfire, an unknown number of villagers were injured, including some reportedly injured by gunfire, and tractors were burned.5 The remaining male villagers, fearing retribution, fled the area.

A large number of police under the command of Mohammed Ammar arrived at approximately 10 am and began arresting and harassing villagers. Women interviewed by human rights activists described police breaking into homes, stealing food and valuables and destroying furnishings, beating women who attempted to protect their husbands and sons, and taking women and children into custody when wanted male relatives could not be found.

According to villagers and human rights activists, at least thirteen women are known to have been arrested in the March 4 raid, as well as at least five young children: a nine-year-old girl, a six-year-old boy, a five-year-old girl, a two-year-old girl, and a two-year-old boy. Their place of detention is still not known. At least one of the women detained in a later raid was reportedly forced to leave behind a days old infant.

During the raid, police reportedly humiliated women and girls, cursing them, binding the detained women and girls together by their braided hair in addition to handcuffs, and in some cases beating them in the face with shoes.

March 4-10, 2005: Siege, Abuse, and Intimidation
Women interviewed in Sarando said that following the March 4 raid police confined them to their homes and prevented them from visiting their fields or animals, many of which had died from lack of care. They also said that police had cut the lines to the few phones in the village, increasing their isolation.

Women also said that food was in short supply in many households because of security forces’ theft and spoilage of foodstuffs during raids and the curfew’s impact on access to animals, fields, and agricultural jobs outside of the village.

Some women who had been illegally held recounted terrifying experiences in police custody. One woman described being part of a group of fourteen women, including three elderly women, whom police blindfolded and moved from police checkpoint to police checkpoint for five days, sleeping on bare tile floors without blankets, food, or water. Another woman described being detained outdoors with her three young children for three days without food or blankets in an effort to force her to falsely testify that her husband had participated in burning a tractor.

When the delegation traveled from Sarando to Ezbit Baharriya, a distance of some 500 meters, Lt. Col. Ammar, Col. Fuad Shahin of the Damanhour Security Directorate, and two lower-ranking police officers delayed their passage by walking slowly in front of their vehicle until two of the three large police transports visible from the road left Ezbit Bahariyya. When the delegation arrived minutes later, they found a group of crying women who told them that police had just left with five women and girls whom they had been holding in a nearby house.

Women at Ezbit Bahariyya described ongoing nighttime raids by police looking for wanted men. Some women said they sent their daughters to sleep in the fields because they feared that police would physically or sexually abuse them.

With large numbers of village men in hiding, it is impossible to know the exact number of detainees. However, researchers at the Rural Studies Center estimate that at least fifty-two persons remain in detention. Women in both Sarando and Ezbit Bahariyya told human rights activists that they did not know where their husbands and children are being held, and feared for their safety.

Their fear is compounded by the possible “disappearance” in police custody of Abu Zayd Mahmud al Fiqi, whom the Damanhour attorney general had ordered released on March 6, 2005. Al Fiqi had been detained since the January 5, 2005 police raid on Sarando. There is no record of his being issued an administrative detention order and police deny that he is in custody, but he is not known to have left police custody and has not been seen since the release order.

March 15, 2005: Death of Nafisa Zakaria Mohammed al Marakbi
A delegation of representatives of nine human rights organizations, including medical doctors of the al Nadim Center, visited Sarando on March 16, 2005.6 According to eyewitnesses they interviewed, security forces arrested Nafisa Zakaria Mohammed al Marakbi, 38, from her home in Sarando. 7 They then took her to a private home in Sarando that they had converted into a makeshift detention center. Women detained with her told the delegation that police terrorized and humiliated al Marakabi by removing her face veil (niqab) and grabbing her breasts and belly while making sexual threats. Other women in the group were subjected to similarly humiliating and painful treatment. The security forces then took each woman separately outside of the house for a period of time. There are no witness to what happened to al Marakbi outside the house, but those who saw her when she was released at 3 am described her physical and psychological state as extremely bad. Family members took al Marakbi to the Damanhour General Hospital that evening, and she was pronounced dead on the morning of March 15, 2005. No autopsy was performed on the body, which security officials returned to the family and which was buried the same day.

Doctors from al Nadim were not able to review al Marakbi’s medical file, which hospital staff said been taken by prosecution office officials. However, medical officials at the hospital told al Nadim that al Marakbi was in a coma when she arrived at 9 pm on March 14, but could not be moved to the intensive care unit because of a shortage of beds. Efforts to revive her continued until 6 am on March 15, when she was pronounced dead. The only records remaining at the hospital, on the hospital computer, list a tentative diagnosis of septic shock.

Villagers told the delegation that prior to their arrival police had threatened them with arrest if they spoke to the delegation, and that shortly before the delegation’s arrival the majority of the police present in the village were moved inside large police transport vehicles in an apparent attempt to hide their presence.

Human Rights Watch urges you to take immediate action to investigate the allegations of abuse described above. In particular, we call on the prosecution office to:

  • Conduct a full investigation into the death of Nafisa Zakaria Mohammed al Marakbi. The investigation should include the exhumation and forensic examination of the body to determine the cause of death.
  • Review all arrests related to the Nawar land dispute conducted under the authority of Ministry of Interior Investigations Officer Mohamed Ammar and order the release of all those found to be arbitrarily detained and their full exoneration.
  • Conduct urgent, unannounced visits to Sarando, its hamlets, and police stations to determine the whereabouts of persons taken into police custody but not presented to the prosecution office, or otherwise held illegally. These visits should include private interviews with all persons held in connection with the Nawar land dispute regarding their treatment during arrest and detention.
  • Investigate all allegations of abuses by security forces during the January 5 and March 4, 2005 raids and the subsequent siege, and bring criminal charges against those found to be responsible for abuses.
  • Investigate all allegations of abuses by members of the Nawar family and their agents, and bring criminal charges against those found to be responsible for abuses.
  • Release all child detainees. In cases where there is credible evidence of criminal acts by women with young children where it would be in the child’s best interest to remain with the mother, provide those women and children with alternatives to incarceration.

We thank you for your attention to this urgent matter and look forward to learning what actions the Prosecution Office takes to investigate the abuses detailed above, and to learning the outcome of your investigation.

Sincerely,

LaShawn Jefferson
Executive Director
Women's Rights Division

Lois Whitman
Executive Director
Children's Rights Division

Sarah Leah Whitson
Executive Director
Middle East and North Africa Division

1 The basis for their legal claims can be found in Republican Decree No. 4910 of 1965 and laws No. 178 of 1952, No. 127 of 1961, and No. 50 of 1969.
2 The delegation included representatives of the Egyptian Association against Torture, the Hisham Mubarak Law Center, the al Nadim Center, and the Arabic Center for Human Rights Information.
3 See Case No. 2528 of 2005, Misdemeanors, Damanhour. On March 8, 2005 their detention pending investigation was renewed for a period of thirty days.
4 See Case No. 776 of 2005, Misdemeanors, Damanhour.
5 Human Rights Watch has been unable to verify how the armed man was killed or the number and kind of injuries sustained by villagers. Villagers interviewed assert that they were unarmed, and some blamed police or other members of the attackers for the death.
6 The delegation included representatives of the Adalah Center, the Arabic Network for Human Rights Information, the Center for Housing Rights, the Egyptian Association against Torture, the Egyptian Organization for Human Rights, the Hisham Mubarak Law Center, the Nadim Center, the Organization against Globalization, and the Socialist Studies Center.
7 The exact dates of Nafisa Zakaria’s arrest and release could not be confirmed.