(Beirut) – Egyptian security agencies in late August 2020 arbitrarily arrested a man and three women who were witnesses to a high-profile gang rape case from 2014 that recently came to light, Human Rights Watch said today. Security also arrested two of the witnesses’ acquaintances.
The prosecutor general ordered the release of three of the six on August 31 but is pressing charges against all of them for violating laws on “morality” and “debauchery” that are vague, discriminatory, and open to abuse. Pro-government media have subjected them to a coordinated smear campaign, and one of the women has described being abused in detention.
“It is horrifying that Egyptian authorities have arrested the witnesses to a gang rape after encouraging them to come forward instead of protecting them and prosecuting the attackers,” said Rothna Begum, senior women’s rights researcher at Human Rights Watch. “The case against the witnesses and the smear campaign against them and the rape survivor send a chilling message to survivors of sexual violence and witnesses that they can go to prison if they report sexual violence.”
The authorities should immediately drop the charges against the six, offer protection to those who have come forward as witnesses, and prosecute those who are found to have committed the gang rape, Human Rights Watch said.
The case involves a woman who said that several men drugged her, took turns raping her, wrote their initials on her back, and recorded a video of their actions in Cairo’s Fairmont Nile City Hotel in April 2014. The attackers shared the video among their friends, said women’s rights activists, who first raised the case on social media in July 2020. After activists campaigned for weeks, the Office of the Prosecutor General said on August 24 that it had ordered the arrest of a number of suspects, seven of whom the office later said had fled the country. Two more were later arrested.
The authorities had encouraged witnesses of the rape to come forward, which they did in early August. They now stand accused of consensual same-sex sexual conduct, “inciting debauchery,” personal drug use, and “misuse of social media,” a charge frequently used against peaceful government critics.
Human Rights Watch interviewed 4 activists involved in online campaigning against sexual violence, 3 of whom have been in contact with the rape survivor and 2 of whom have been in contact with families of the witnesses and their acquaintances. Human Rights Watch also interviewed a person with knowledge of the case who asked to remain anonymous; a close friend of one of the detained men; a journalist, Basma Mostafa, who has been covering the case for al-Manassa, an independent news website; and two lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) rights activists.
“These men think they’re so powerful that they filmed multiple rapes with their faces on video because they knew they could get away with it,” one activist said. “The video was circulated among 70 or 80 people.”
The Interior Ministry’s National Security Agency arrested and then pressured the witnesses to alter their accounts while holding them incommunicado from August 28 to 31, three activists said after speaking with the witnesses who were released. Videos and photos showing events in the witnesses’ private lives were leaked online shortly after security forces confiscated the witnesses’ mobile phones and laptops.
“They went into their personal belongings, laptops, and phones, and extracted private things and the next day personal pictures and videos were circulating on social media,” the friend of one of the witnesses’ acquaintances said.
The friend and the journalist, who spoke with lawyers and relatives of the two men and one woman who remain in pretrial detention, said that the authorities subjected two of the detained men to forced anal examinations and one woman a “virginity test” – internationally discredited practices with no scientific validity to “prove” same-sex conduct or “virginity.” These tests violate medical ethics and constitute cruel, degrading, and inhumane treatment that can rise to the level of torture and gender-based violence, Human Rights Watch said.
The woman witness who remains in detention said that security officers called her names, provided insufficient food and water, and “constantly humiliated” her, an activist who spoke with her family said. Activists believe she is most likely being held in Cairo’s al-Qanater Women’s Prison.
The accusations relating to private consensual sexual conduct violate the rights to privacy and nondiscrimination on the basis of sex, sexual orientation, and gender. International human rights standards require providing protection and security to complainants and witnesses to gender-based violence before, during, and after legal proceedings.
Activists connected to feminist and LGBT communities in Egypt said they fear a wider crackdown as security forces use content that they obtain from the confiscated devices to identify others. They said they believe that security forces have summoned additional witnesses and victims’ friends for questioning. The 2014 gang rape at the Fairmont Hotel was first reported in July 2020 by “Assault Police,” an Instagram account that has played a leading role in campaigning against sexual violence. The account did not name the suspects but claimed they were from wealthy, influential families. The account administrator deactivated the account for two weeks between late July and mid-August and later stopped posting about the case after receiving “serious threats,” two activists close to the campaign said.
Activists told Human Rights Watch that several other survivors sent them accounts of sexual assault involving the same men as the Fairmont Hotel rape but were too afraid to file complaints. “They sent these videos to their friends like trophies,” a July 26 post on Assault Police said.
“The Egyptian authorities have reinforced a ‘victim blaming’ culture and signaled where they stand on Egypt’s #MeToo movement by silencing those brave enough to speak out,” Begum said. “Egypt should be holding people to account for sexual violence and not persecuting women and men who report and fight such abuse.”
Two activists said they had several screenshots from the video showing the survivor in a “paralyzed” state and the initials of the suspects that the suspects had written on her back. Activists said that the survivor of the Fairmont assault was 18 at the time. Following the incident, she left Egypt to study abroad and to seek psychological support. A person with knowledge of the case said that the survivor became impregnated as a result of her rape and that she terminated the pregnancy.
When the Assault Police Instagram account was deactivated, the National Council for Women, a governmental body overseen by the presidency, issued a public call on July 29 for victims and witnesses of sexual violence to contact the authorities, saying that the council was following the “threats” against online activists, including on Instagram.
Prosecutor General Hamada al-Sawy said on August 26, 2020 that the Fairmont survivor had filed an official complaint with the council on August 4, and that 7 suspects had left the country between July 27 and 29.
The authorities arrested two suspects in the case, A. and O., on August 27 and August 30, respectively, the prosecution said. A later statement said that the suspect arrested on August 27 was charged in a separate gang rape incident. Activists said this arrest was based on another video submitted to the prosecution, showing this suspect and another man raping another woman in Egypt’s North Coast in 2015. It is not clear why the prosecutors added him to the Fairmont case, but prosecutors in Egypt frequently add suspects from different cases together, which can be in violation of safeguards against mass unfair trials.
Media reports said, and the Lebanese Interior Ministry confirmed, that Lebanese authorities arrested three other suspects between August 27 and 29 in Lebanon, based on Interpol requests. Activists said that to their knowledge, those three suspects had not been extradited to Egypt.
Arrests of Witnesses, Acquaintances
Four witnesses to the Fairmont gang rape, three woman and a man, were arrested after they gave their accounts to the National Council for Women, two activists who have closely followed the case said. The two activists said the rape survivor and witnesses initially did not agree to meet with the council, fearing reprisals and intimidation by the families of the suspects, but that council officials assured them that their identities would be protected.
On August 28 and 29, the National Security Agency arrested the three women witnesses, including an Egyptian-American woman arrested at her home in Cairo at 4 a.m. Officers told her they “wanted her for a chat,” an activist with knowledge of the arrest said. Security forces arrested another witness at her summer house in the Red Sea resort el-Gouna, southeast of Cairo. The authorities held all three women incommunicado and interrogated them until August 31, when they were eventually allowed access to lawyers, three activists said. They said that the officers pressured the women to alter their accounts.
“One witness was made to stand [during interrogations] for hours to make her tired, uncomfortable, and break her down,” one activist who spoke with the released witnesses said. “They kept telling her, ‘You made this up. Better for you to admit it now. You don’t want what’s going to happen to you.’” The witness refused to change her testimony, the activist said.
After security forces arrested the witnesses, activists tried to contact National Council for Women officials but received no response. One activist said a council staff member told her to “calm down” when she expressed concern about the detained witnesses. Human Rights Watch emailed questions about the case to the council on September 3 and September 8 but has received no response.
The United Nations Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women, which oversees the implementation of the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women, to which Egypt is a state party, has called on state parties to “Adopt and implement effective measures to protect and assist women complainants of and witnesses to gender-based violence before, during and after legal proceedings, including by: (i) Protecting their privacy and safety.”
Four activists said that the authorities arbitrarily arrested at least two other people, who are acquaintances of the witnesses. One was allegedly a man who was visiting one of the American-Egyptian woman witnesses when security officials came to arrest her. Security forces unlawfully searched the man’s phone and used photos they found to allege that he has engaged in same-sex conduct as a basis to keep him in custody. Prosecutors renewed his detention, and he could face charges under Egypt’s “debauchery” laws.
While Egyptian law does not explicitly criminalize consensual same-sex conduct, authorities routinely resort to vague “debauchery” and “morality” laws to prosecute people suspected of same-sex conduct or for being gay or transgender. Under President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi’s government, since 2014 authorities have waged a campaign of arrests and prosecution against hundreds of people for their perceived or actual sexual orientation and gender identity.
Security forces also arrested a well-known party organizer who was involved in organizing the 2014 party at the Fairmont Hotel during which the gang rape occurred, although the person with knowledge of the case said the rape survivor did not accuse him of any wrongdoing. Pro-government websites said he was arrested on August 28 in a North Coast resort village. Several websites published his name and private information in the smear campaign based on his perceived sexual orientation.
Security forces have been holding the two men in al-Tagamoa First Police Station, east of Cairo. Authorities have not allowed any family visits for the two since their arrest, a person with knowledge of the case said. Lawyers were reportedly able to attend the prosecution interrogations with the two men, but not see them privately.
The Fairmont Nile City Hotel released a statement on July 31, saying that it is “committed to assisting the relevant authorities should an initial investigation be opened.”
An August 31 statement by Prosecutor General Hamada al-Sawy said that he had ordered 3 people detained pending investigation and ordered the release of 4 others, 3 of them on bail of 100,000 Egyptian pounds (US$6,300) each. It is not clear which people he is referring to in the statement. As of September 2, at least three of those arbitrarily detained remain in custody, including a woman witness, the party organizer, and the man whom the authorities are alleging has engaged in same-sex conduct.
The statement said that prosecutors ordered the detainees to be tested by the forensic labs for drugs and two of them to undergo physical examinations.
Two activists said that authorities subjected the two detained men to forced anal examinations, a practice denounced by African and international human rights bodies, which Egyptian authorities routinely carry out to seek “proof” of same-sex conduct.
Al-Manassa also reported on September 3, citing the lawyer of one of the witnesses, that the authorities subjected at least one of the detained women to the abusive “virginity test.” “Virginity testing” is likewise recognized internationally as a form of cruel, inhumane, and degrading treatment, gender-based violence, and discrimination. The World Health Organization has said that “virginity tests” have no scientific validity and that healthcare workers should never conduct them. The UN Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women has also called on states parties to repeal “discriminatory evidentiary rules and procedures, including … practices focused on ‘virginity.’”
Prosecutions for consensual sex in private between adults violate the rights to privacy and nondiscrimination guaranteed by the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, to which Egypt is a party. The UN Human Rights Committee, which interprets the covenant, has made clear that discrimination based on sexual orientation is prohibited in upholding any of the rights protected by the treaty, including the right to free expression.
The UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention has found that arrests for same-sex conduct between consenting adults are, by definition, arbitrary. The African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights explicitly calls on member states, including Egypt, to protect sexual and gender minorities in accordance with the African Charter.
The arbitrarily detained individuals could also face prosecution related to personal drug use. Governments should decriminalize the personal use of drugs, Human Rights Watch has said. Criminalizing personal drug use has failed to eliminate drug abuse, and has had devastating human rights consequences, including undermining the rights to health, access to necessary medications, and privacy; serving as an excuse for grossly disproportionate punishment and abuses in detention; and fueling the operations of organized criminal groups that commit abuses, corrupt authorities, and undermine the rule of law.
After their arrest, videos and photos showing scenes of some of the detained witnesses’ private lives have been leaked online. One video shows several women and a man who appear to be drunk, and other videos show intimate behavior. Activists said they believe that security forces leaked the photos and videos to smear and intimidate the witnesses.
The Office of the Prosecutor General said in its August 31 statement that all mobile phones of the people detained were sent to the “Technical Support Administration” in the Interior Ministry to “retrieve all its contents and recover any deleted content and retrieve all conversations made on the communications apps.” One activist, who spoke with some of the released witnesses, said that the National Security Agency had searched the phones and laptops of the witnesses at the time of arrest and “took whatever they could find.”
Since August 31, pro-government websites and journalists have published reports that stigmatize the rape survivor, witnesses, and activists involved in the case. Some government-affiliated media websites are reframing the gang rape as a “group sex party” and alleging that security investigations revealed “the biggest network of homosexuality.” One pro-government journalist, who is also a lawyer, said in a now-removed Facebook post that she submitted a complaint to the prosecutor general about several activists whom she accused of fabricating the rape allegations to “tarnish Egypt’s image” and to “spread homosexuality.”
One activist said that an audio recording, taped secretly, of a private conversation between the rape survivor and her lawyer was leaked over WhatsApp and on social media “after being taken out of context” to make the survivor appear as if she was contradicting her official complaint.
The mother of one detained witness wrote on her Facebook page on September 2 that many Egyptian journalists received WhatsApp messages from an international number with contents violating her daughter’s privacy. She said her daughter was married to one of the suspects in the rape, who is believed to be in London. Blurred screenshots of the messages the mother posted showed the phone number which sent the messages.
Online Campaigns Combating Sexual Violence
The Egyptian #MeToo movement has become re-energized since late June as many victims and survivors of sexual violence have posted accounts of sexual violence on Facebook, Twitter, and other social media platforms. The Assault Police Instagram account emerged in early July and has since published dozens of accounts of assaults, particularly of people from wealthy families. Some of the assault accounts that the page received involved Ahmed Bassam Zaki, 21, who Assault Police said was involved in over 100 sexual assaults, some dating back to 2016.
The campaigning led the authorities to detain Zaki in early July and prosecutors referred him on September 1 to criminal trial on charges of sexual assault of three girls, as well as other complaints about sexual harassment and blackmailing. “We did all the police work for them from scratch,” an activist supporting the campaign said. “We got evidence for them. We got a police report from Spain and testimonies from different countries.… And we got him in jail.”
The campaign against Zaki and his subsequent arrest reignited the #MeToo movement. The National Council for Women said on July 7 that it had received 400 complaints and inquiries, mainly about violence against women, in the first 5 days of July.
Assault Police was also the first to publish an account of the Fairmont case in late July, without naming any suspects. The account called on those with the video recording of the assault to send it to the account administrator. The administrator, Nadeen Ashraf, deactivated the account for about two weeks after the page received “serious threats,” two activists said. Ashraf had remained anonymous until August 20, when she posted a video statement acknowledging her role in the campaign. Assault Police did not publish anything more about the Fairmont case on the account, but other online campaigns began to report on it. “Gang Rapists of Cairo,” another anonymous Instagram account, published the names and photos of several of the alleged rapists.
This is not the first time that the authorities have prosecuted people who report rape. Human Rights Watch reported on the arrest on May 28 of Aya, 17, who is a social media influencer known as “Menna Abdelaziz.” She had posted a video online on May 22, in which her face appeared bruised, saying she was beaten by a group of young men and women, and that the men also raped her, filmed the acts, and blackmailed her with the footage. The prosecution stated that she had been detained pending investigation as a victim of sexual assault but also as a suspect in morality-related offenses for her videos.
Serious gaps remain in Egypt’s laws and practices relating to sexual violence and treatment of survivors. On August 16, the Egyptian Parliament approved government-sponsored amendments to the Criminal Procedural Code, following reports about the Zaki case, to ensure anonymity and protect the identities of victims and witnesses in sexual violence cases and to punish those who leak such information. President al-Sisi has not yet signed the amendments into law.
If enacted, this would come after amendments to the penal code passed in 2014 that defined sexual harassment for the first time and strengthened its punishment. But the law falls short of international standards for the definition of rape as it should include all forms of penetration without consent or in coercive circumstances that negate consent, including vaginal, anal, and oral penetration by any body part or by other instruments, Human Rights Watch said.
Calls by Egyptian women’s rights organizations and activists over the years for a comprehensive law on violence against women and a national strategy to enforce the new approved laws have largely not led to action by the authorities.
The authorities should use available UN guidance, such as the UN Handbook for Legislation on Violence against Women, to set out components on combating violence against women, including protection of survivors and witnesses through trained officers and providers. Sexual violence and harassment have plagued Egyptian society in recent decades as survivors are often blamed, and authorities have done little to prosecute suspects or to challenge discriminatory norms that underpin such violence.
A 2013 survey by the UN Entity for Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women (UN Women) reported that 99 percent of women in Egypt interviewed experienced some form of sexual harassment in their lifetime. The Egyptian authorities are required to act under the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women, to which Egypt is a state party, and Egypt’s constitution to protect “women against all forms of violence.”