(Beirut) – There is an escalating pattern of physical attacks by Egyptian military and police officers against women and male protesters, journalists, and activists in Cairo, some of which are sexual in nature, Human Rights Watch said today. News reports and images of protesters in Cairo being stripped, beaten, and dragged through the street in the past several days are just the latest incidents.
The Supreme Council for the Armed Forces (SCAF) and the Interior Ministry should order an immediate halt to these attacks, Human Rights Watch said. The Office of the Public Prosecutor, the civilian judicial authority, should speedily, vigorously, and transparently investigate assaults on demonstrators by military and police officers and by civilians, and prosecute those responsible, to put an end to a climate of impunity for sexual crimes.
“Images of military and police who strip, grope, and beat protesters have horrified the world and brought into sharp focus the sexual brutality Egyptian women face in public life,” said Nadya Khalife, Middle East and North Africa women’s rights researcher at Human Rights Watch. “The military and civilian authorities need to put a halt to criminal attacks on demonstrators once and for all.”
On December 16, 2011, security forces attacked and beat demonstrators protesting in front of the Egyptian Cabinet. The Health Ministry said on December 19 that 500 protesters or bystanders had been injured since December 16, and 12 were killed. On the same day, news outlets broadcast footage of Egyptian military police beating, stomping on, and hitting protesters with bars, including a veiled woman whose clothes had been torn off, exposing her torso.
On December 19, Gen. Adel Emara commented on the attack of the veiled woman, telling journalists “yes this scene actually happened and we are investigating it. We will disclose the investigation results in full. We do not want to conceal anything.” The military cannot investigate itself with any independence, and only an investigation by Egypt’s civilian judicial authorities with full cooperation from the military can provide a remedy to all protesters, Human Rights Watch said.
Egyptian women’s rights groups, including the New Woman Foundation, that have been documenting attacks on women demonstrators, told Human Rights Watch that at least nine women were arrested during last weekend’s protests, and some of them said security forces had physically and verbally assaulted them.
Salma al Naqqash, coordinator of the Women Human Rights Defenders program at Nazra for Feminist Studies, a research group, told Human Rights Watch that there is a pattern of security forces and civilians preventing women from exercising their right to protest. Al Naqqash said that security forces and private individuals have subjected women demonstrators to verbal and physical assault, threatened them with rape in detention, and stripped them in the street to deter them from protesting.
Ghada Kamal Abdel Khaleq, 28, said in a video posted on YouTube that about 10 security forces beat her severely in the street adjacent to the Egyptian Cabinet on December 16 as she was taking part in a protest and rushed to help a wounded woman beaten to the ground. She said that she was detained, and at least one officer physically and verbally attacked her in detention, including making sexual threats against her. She said security forces beat her all over her body, pulled her hair, stepped on her face and chest, and verbally assaulted her. Abdel Khaleq said she saw other women who had been detained bleeding from head injuries and that the women told her security forces had also insulted and threatened them.
Women in public in Egypt, whether demonstrators, journalists, activists, or simply passers-by going about their business, frequently experience sexual harassment and assaults, Human Rights Watch said. The ruling military council has continued the poor record of the ousted Mubarak administration by failing to prevent, investigate, or punish such attacks.
While the SCAF amended penal code provisions on sexual assault in March to increase penalties for rape and “indecency,” it has failed to enforce the existing law in cases that fall short of rape, allowing sexual harassment to go unpunished and creating a climate of impunity, Human Rights Watch said.
As party to the Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) Egypt is under an obligation to act with due diligence to prevent, investigate, and prosecute cases of violence against women, and to take action to eliminate all forms of discrimination against women. The United Nations body that monitors implementation of this treaty has expressed serious concern about violence against women in Egypt, including the culture of silence and impunity for such crimes. Egypt remains one of only four members of the African Union not to have signed or ratified the Maputo Protocol on the Rights of Women in Africa, the key African treaty on women's rights.
“At this crucial stage in Egypt’s history, women need to be able to take part in demonstrations and elections without fear,” Khalife said. “Security forces’ disgraceful attacks and the government’s broader failure to address sexual violence and harassment do not bode well for Egypt’s women.”
A Pattern of Attacks on Women by Security Forces
In late November 2011, Egypt’s Central Security Forces (CSF or riot police) arrested several female journalists and activists in Cairo’s Tahrir Square area, and sexually assaulted and beat at least two of them. Prosecutors have not opened an investigation into the attacks, nor have the security forces announced any disciplinary action against the attackers.
On November 19, riot police arrested Sanaa Youssef during a demonstration on Mohamed Mahmoud Street, near Tahrir Square, and took her behind police lines. Youssef wrote on her blog later:
I was in the midst of around 25 or 30 officers in CSF uniforms and plain clothes. One officer lifted his hand and said, “Don’t touch her.” It was as if this was a secret code to say, “Do whatever you want with her.” One of them hit me on the face and another kicked me while a third pulled me by my hair so that I couldn’t move my head to the right or left and this helped keep my head still so that they could slap me. I wish it had stopped there but unfortunately with great pain I have to confess that their hands did not have mercy on my body and they harassed me with all their filth and brutality and lack of conscience. What made it worse is that two of them grabbed the two ends of my scarf around my neck and pulled them in opposite directions. I felt like I was choking and tried to pull the scarf away from my throat while they were continuing to harass me.
A US-based Egyptian journalist, Mona Al Tahawy, told Human Rights Watch that on November 23, CSF agents arrested her on Mohamed Mahmoud Street and that at least four men then beat and sexually assaulted her. Al Tahawy told Human Rights Watch:
They were beating me with their sticks. I lifted my left arm to protect myself but they hit that too, which is when they broke it. While they were hitting me they were grabbing my breasts and my genital area, putting their hands into my trousers. I kept saying, Stop it! Stop it! All this time they were insulting me, saying, “You whore, You daughter of ...” They then pulled me by my hair toward the Ministry of Interior, still groping me whenever they could. They were like a pack of wild animals.
The Egyptian military and civilian authorities have failed to respond to these incidents with appropriate seriousness, Human Rights Watch said. Col. Islam Jaffar of the Egyptian military was quoted in The New York Times as saying, when questioned about the attack on Al Tahawy:
She complained to me that she was beaten and sexually assaulted by Central Security Forces….But what did she expect would happen? She was in the middle of the streets, in the midst of clashes, with no press card or form of ID. The press center had not given her permission to be in the streets as a journalist. The country is in a sensitive situation. We are under threat. She could be a spy for all we know.
Military officers, including soldiers from the military police and other military units, have also attacked peaceful women demonstrators and in some cases sexually assaulted them. A woman who took part in a protest on October 9 told Human Rights Watch, “They (military officers) beat us with sticks and electric rods...they hit us on our backs... and as I fell I heard someone saying, ‘Let them go’...but someone [a member of the security forces] responded, ‘Those are dogs and whores.’”
For months, the Egyptian military refused to reveal whether it was conducting a genuine investigation into or prosecuting any of the military officers who conducted “virginity tests”– another form of sexual assault – on women being held in the military prison in Hikestep on March 10. It was only on December 20, after the latest incidents of sexual attacks on women that Adel Morsy said in a press release that “the virginity test incident has been referred to the High Military Court and is currently at the trial stage.”
Human rights lawyers representing one of the victims, Samira Ibrahim, filed a complaint on June 23 at the office of the military prosecutor. Ibrahim’s lawyers filed a civil complaint on her behalf before the Council of State, Egypt’s administrative court, to challenge the military’s lack of action. The case challenges the administrative decision to conduct the virginity tests in the military prison. A decision is expected on December 27.
“Security forces sexually assault women on the street, and the officials in charge shrug their shoulders and look the other way,” Khalife said. “The military cannot investigate itself with any independence, so the civilian Public Prosecutor should immediately order an investigation of the assaults on demonstrators, including on Al Tahawy and other women, and hold the attackers accountable.”
Sexual Assault by Civilians
Over the past year, women have frequently reported verbal and physical sexual harassment by civilians in Tahrir Square. Human Rights Watch interviewed several women who took part in a rally in Tahrir Square on March 8 in celebration of International Women's Day and who were sexually assaulted by men in civilian clothes. One woman said, “The group of men were getting closer to us, and [then they started] groping me in every part of my body....About 15 men ripped off my clothes...they ripped off my shirt and pants.... There were 20 of us.... No one bothered to help us.”
The Egyptian authorities have failed to condemn or investigate several well-publicized incidents of sexual assault by private actors, including the attack and sexual assault on the US journalist Lara Logan on February 11 by a mob of men in Tahrir square.On November 23, a mob assaulted the French journalist Caroline Sinz in the Tahrir square area. Human Rights Watch is unaware of any investigation into the attack. Sinz told Agence France-Presse:
We were filming in Mohammed Mahmud Street when we were mobbed by young people who were about 14 or 15… We were then assaulted by a crowd of men. I was beaten by a group of youngsters and adults who tore my clothes [and molested me in a way that] would be considered rape…Some people tried to help me but failed….It lasted three quarters of an hour before I was taken out. I thought I was going to die.