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Egyptian army tanks and armored vehicles in Rafah in North Sinai sometime in 2018. The army has demolished thousands of homes in the city that borders Israel and Gaza, forcibly evicting almost the entire population.  © 2018 Private

(Beirut) – The Egyptian authorities appear to have made opaque amnesty deals in recent years with suspected members of the Islamic State (also known as ISIS) affiliate in Egypt’s North Sinai without making the criteria public, Human Rights Watch and the Sinai Foundation for Human Rights said today.

Evidence gathered by the two organizations and public statements by officials indicate that the authorities have granted some members of the ISIS affiliate Wilayat Sina’ (Sinai Province) amnesties for laying down their arms and turning themselves in. However, the authorities have not clarified whether they have a plan for prosecuting those suspected of serious abuses such as mass civilian killings and extrajudicial executions.

“Amnesties for members of armed groups who lay down their arms should never include those who intentionally carried out grave crimes such as targeting or deliberately killing civilians,” said Ahmed Salem, executive director of the Sinai Foundation for Human Rights. “Egyptian authorities should develop a national strategy for Wilayat Sina’ prosecutions, ensuring that those with direct responsibility for serious crimes do not enjoy impunity.”

Since 2020, the Egyptian authorities have been encouraging members of Wilayat Sina’ to surrender under security initiatives facilitated by North Sinai local clan leaders, based on media and human rights reports.

Wilayat Sina’ is a relatively small group that that has targeted the Egyptian military, other government forces, and civilians since 2013. The group pledged allegiance to ISIS in 2014. The armed conflict has gradually de-escalated as Wilayat Sina’ lost most of its strongholds in 2020 and appears to have been near completely eradicated by the end of 2022, according to media reports, residents’ accounts, and official statements. But the military, police, army-aligned militias, and Wilayat Sina’ have committed serious violations of international humanitarian law that in many cases may have amounted to war crimes.

Despite the relatively calm situation, the authorities continue to effectively keep the region a closed military zone where independent reporting is prohibited. The military also has continued to prevent tens of thousands of  residents, whom the military had forcibly evicted since 2013, to return to their land.

The authorities have not formally announced their amnesty strategy nor its basis in local laws. However, officials on several occasions have given statements confirming amnesties. On May 15, 2022, Lieutenant-Colonel Gharib Abdel Hafez, the spokesperson for the Egyptian Armed Forces, said in a televised phone interview with Sada al-Balad, a pro-government television station, that the army “treats all the elements [suspected Wilayat Sina’ members] in North Sinai, who turn themselves in to army checkpoints or units, in a humane way.” He added that the army provides those who surrender with “housing and shelter” after “coordinating with judicial authorities to ensure they are not wanted in any cases.” The Egyptian military did not respond to Human Rights Watch written requests for comment on September 8, 2023.

While authorities granted amnesty to suspects, they have unlawfully detained and abused women and girls who are relatives of male Wilayat Sina’ suspects, Human Rights Watch and the Sinai Foundation for Human Rights reported in May 2023. Detaining the relatives appears to have been aimed at pressuring the men to turn themselves in.

The international laws of war encourage the broadest possible amnesties at the end of non-international armed conflicts such as the one in North Sinai, with the aim of promoting reconciliation and peace. However, the law specifically excludes from amnesties anyone suspected, accused, or convicted of committing war crimes or other serious international crimes. The authorities should make public the criteria used to grant amnesty and measures taken to ensure that those responsible for serious abuses face justice, the two organizations said.

Based on credible media and human rights organizations’ reports and interviews with local residents, the military made a pact with some local clan leaders in North Sinai that if they persuaded men who joined Wilayat Sina’ to turn themselves in, those surrendering would be extensively interrogated, but not charged or imprisoned. Mada Masr, a leading independent media organization, reported that 23 fighters in Wilayat Sina’ turned themselves in under local leaders’ mediation in 2020, and said the security agencies promised to release them after a few months.

Wilayat Sina’ committed horrific crimes, including kidnapping and torturing scores of residents and security force members, and extrajudicially executing some. The government-sponsored National Council for Human Rights said in 2018 that 650 civilians had been killed by Sinai Province militants in recent years, not including the 2017 incident in which over 300 mosque-goers were killed.

Human Rights Watch and the Sinai Foundation for Human Rights spoke with one member of a pro-government militia in North Sinai in 2023 who said that a senior military leader in Battalion 101, al-Arish, whose name is withheld for their security, informed the militia that he ordered the distribution of flyers, some of which the two organizations reviewed, throughout the region calling on Wilayat Sina’ suspects to turn themselves in so that authorities could obtain useful information.

On July 19, 2022, the Sinai Tribes’ Union, one of the main military-aligned militias in North Sinai, posted on its official Facebook page a photograph of a flyer that appeared to be attributed to the Egyptian army purporting to show a wife and children of alleged Wilayat Sina’ suspects alongside the Arabic text: “Your families live normally (education – housing – food), they only miss having the head of family with them.” The flyer calls for those with “deluded minds” to take the flyer and turn themselves in to the nearest security point, assuring them “a safe life.”

In 2023, Human Rights Watch and the Sinai Foundation for Human Rights interviewed four North Sinai residents who said that, between 2020 and 2021, they witnessed three of their relatives and other residents of their villages who are former Wilayat Sina’ members living openly alongside their families in the neighboring Ismailia governorate and adjacent areas. The four residents said that security agencies provided them with monthly stipends and identity cards that allow them to move safely within a defined area.

The same pro-government militia member said that his relative, whose name is withheld for his safety, and who was a member of Wilayat Sina’, surrendered to the militia in late 2022 after the militia participated in a military operation in al-Moqat’a village, near the town of Sheikh Zuweid. A family member of the man told the militia member that he called the family in early 2023 and informed them that security forces were sheltering him in a residential building in Ismailia for a six-month period for him to debrief security officers, after which he would be released with a ban on returning to Sinai.

The four residents said that in 2015 and 2016, they had witnessed two of the three relatives now living in Ismailia participate in public executions of civilians in Sheikh Zuweid and Rafah in North Sinai, when the group had strongholds in those areas.

The pro-government militia member also said that another relative who turned himself in to security forces in 2021 informed him that he receives a monthly stipend from security agencies and holds a card issued by the Military Intelligence and Reconnaissance Agency labelled “First Degree Collaborator.” “No one knows where he lives now, he killed people from the region and if local residents saw him, they would kill him,” the militia member said.

In another prominent case, in September 2021, a leader in Wilayat Sina’ named Mohamed Saad, but better known by his nom de guerre, Abu Hamza al-Qady, turned himself in to the security forces, according to a statement published by the Sinai Tribes’ Union. The statement said that the Union, in coordination with the Egyptian army and intelligence, provided a safe reunion for Saad and his wife and three children. Egyptian media and other reports have alleged that Saad had authorized war crimes.

In a voice recording attributed to Saad a few months after his surrender, he called on members of Wilayat Sina’ to turn themselves in, saying the military and security forces were not detaining those who surrendered. The recording was posted on Facebook on February 28, 2022, by Sheikh Salem Abo Ngez, a leader of an armed group cooperating with the Egyptian army. The Egyptian authorities have not announced whether prosecutors have investigated Saad or charged him with any crimes.

“The Egyptian government should establish detailed, transparent, and human rights-based criteria for any amnesties it grants to former Wilayat Sina’ members,” said Adam Coogle, deputy Middle East and North Africa director at Human Rights Watch. “It should offer rehabilitation and reintegration services to aid those who turn themselves in, while investigating and prosecuting suspected war criminals in proceedings that meet international due process standards.”

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