By William Fisher
I know this sounds like something out of Torquemada in the 15th Century or Mengele in the 20th. But it’s neither. It’s post-Mubarak Egypt in the second decade of the 21st Century.
Amnesty International has today called on the Egyptian authorities to investigate serious allegations of torture, including forced ‘virginity tests’, inflicted by the army on women protesters arrested in Tahrir Square earlier this month.
After army officers violently cleared the square of protesters on March 9, at least 18women were held in military detention. Amnesty International has been told by women protesters that they were beaten, given electric shocks, subjected to strip searches while being photographed by male soldiers, then forced to submit to ‘virginity checks’ and threatened with prostitution charges.
‘Virginity tests’ are a form of torture when they are forced or coerced.
"Forcing women to have ‘virginity tests’ is utterly unacceptable. Its purpose is to degrade women because they are women," said Amnesty International. "All members of the medical profession must refuse to take part in such so-called 'tests'."
Twenty-year-old Salwa Hosseini told Amnesty International that after she was arrested and taken to a military prison in Heikstep, she was made, with the other women, to take off all her clothes to be searched by a female prison guard, in a room with two open doors and a window. During the strip search, Hosseini said male soldiers were looking into the room and taking pictures of the naked women.
The women were then subjected to ‘virginity tests’ in a different room by a man in a white coat. They were threatened that “those not found to be virgins” would be charged with prostitution.
According to information received by Amnesty International, one woman who said she was a virgin but whose test supposedly proved otherwise was beaten and given electric shocks.
“Women and girls must be able to express their views on the future of Egypt and protest against the government without being detained, tortured, or subjected to profoundly degrading and discriminatory treatment,” said Amnesty International. “The army officers tried to further humiliate the women by allowing men to watch and photograph what was happening, with the implicit threat that the women could be at further risk of harm if the photographs were made public.”
Journalist Rasha Azeb was also detained in Tahrir Square and told Amnesty International that she was handcuffed, beaten and insulted.
Following their arrest, the 18 women were initially taken to a Cairo Museum annex where they were reportedly handcuffed, beaten with sticks and hoses, given electric shocks in the chest and legs, and called “prostitutes.”
Azeb could see and hear the other detained women being tortured by being given electric shocks throughout their detention at the museum. She was released several hours later with four other men who were also journalists, but 17 other women were transferred to the military prison in Heikstep.
Testimonies of other women detained at the same time collected by the El Nadeem Center for Rehabilitation of Victims of Violence are consistent with Azeb and Hosseini’s accounts of beatings, electrocution and ‘virginity tests’.
“The Egyptian authorities must halt the shocking and degrading treatment of women protesters. Women fully participated in bringing change in Egypt and should not be punished for their activism,” said Amnesty International. “All security and army forces must be clearly instructed that torture and other ill-treatment, including forced ‘virginity tests’, will no longer be tolerated, and will be fully investigated. Those found responsible for such acts must be brought to justice and the courageous women who denounced such abuses be protected from reprisals.”
All 17 women detained in the military prison were brought before a military court on March 11 and released on March 13. Several received one-year suspended prison sentences.
Hosseini was convicted of disorderly conduct, destroying private and public property, obstructing traffic and carrying weapons.
Amnesty International opposes the trial of civilians before military courts in Egypt, which have a track record of unfair trials and where the right to appeal is severely restricted.
This latest report of barbaric behavior by members of Egypt’s armed forces raises serious questions about the people who are running the country and its services during the present interim period until elections can be held this summer.
The women’s complaints follow testimonies from dozens of male Tahrir Square demonstrators that they were arrested, detained, and abused by the Army as they attempted to make their way across Tahrir Square at night.
The Arabic Network for Human Rights Information reported that “hundreds of thousands” of Egyptians demonstrated in Tahrir Square on Friday in protest the continuation of Prime Minister Ahmed Shafik in office. The group said the protestors demanded the dissolution of the state security apparatus and the release prisoners of conscience.
Despite their continued cheers in support of the army, army units assaulted the protesters, beating and chasing them on the streets of Cairo using electric batons that led to many casualties, the organization charged.
One of the abused demonstrators, whose name is being withheld for his safety, blogged the following first hand account of what occurred:
“We were a little less than 150 people [in Tahrir Square] that night [February 25]. At around 11:30 in the evening of the 25th of February, army soldiers formed a cordon around us without violations; one of my friends thinks this might have been their way of kettling us and making sure our numbers don’t grow around the ministerial cabinet.
They dismantled their human cordon at 15 minutes past midnight of the 26th of February. At around that time we started hearing news of the sit-in in Tahrir being violently dispersed. And at around 1:30 am that very night, the army started using electric batons to disperse the sit-in and of-course we ran. They continued to push, beat and kick at us, until they managed to disperse us.
“And then I was arrested…As I ran, I came across a fallen protestor, and stopped to check on him. An officer grabbed me and started to push and beat at me and I said to him “Don’t hit! Just arrest me!” They pulled me into a garage in the ministerial cabinet; and this is where the physical and moral torture began.
“In the ministerial cabinet’s garage…I was shocked at the numbers of army personnel beating up protestors in the garage. At first I thought these must have been thugs, but before I had a chance to finish the thought, I was pulled very roughly and ordered to squat on the ground. With that they started to kick at every part of my body; I tried to cover my face to protect it, but one of the officers pulled my arm away and stepped on my face pushing it to the ground, while they tied my hands behind my back. They – Lieutenants, First Lieutenants and a row of officers and soldiers -- then proceeded to kick at my face as if my head were a soccer-ball.
“Others around me were much worse off. One was stripped bare in the cold and sprayed with water and beaten, while another was beaten until his shoulder was dislocated, while others were electrocuted with the electric batons. One protestor called out to declare he had a heart condition; and they shouted back at him to ask what he was doing in a protest if he had such a condition, as they proceeded to pull his hand away from his heart, and kick him where it was.
“Twice we heard what sounded like a high-ranking officer giving an order to end the beating “No one hit any of them anymore!”. But as soon as he would leave, the beating would start again; it was difficult to tell if they really weren’t following orders, or if the whole thing was just theatrical. For the beating never ceased.
“What was said in the Garage…What was worse than the beating and the insults, were the accusations that the officers and military personnel were throwing at us while we were in there. When I first got in they played the old reel of accusations related to treachery and our being spies; I could even hear an officer shout as he beat a protestor “And you’re getting 50 Euros to insult president Mubarak?
“And while we were all hearing variations of this, each of us was specifically asked to say “Long live Hosni Mubarak”, and those who refused got a fresh course of beating. It was clear to us that they didn’t think they were dealing with thugs, but believed they were dealing with paid security threats.
“And one of the personal violations that I could note is their occasional calling out that “We’re in Abu Ghareeb [Abu Ghraib] here,” as they piled protestors on top of each other and beat them.”
It remained unclear why the government soldiers assaulted the demonstrators. The Military has apologized for the beatings, according to Muhammed Tolba, Executive Secretary of the Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies. The apology was confirmed by one of those who were abused, he said.
This brings back the unanswered question: Can the Egyptian people trust their Army?
Dr. Mostafa Hussein of the Nadeem Center for Victims of Torture in Cairo thinks not.
Dr. Hussein is a psychiatrist and a doctor at the Task Force Against Torture, which brings together non-profits, bloggers and activists highlighting the continuation of torture in post-Mubarak Egypt on a new web page (http://against-torture.net).
Dr. Hussein said today: "The army is engaging in massive and brutal torture. Civilians, many of them pro-democracy activists, are being detained and beaten. Then, many of them have been brought before military courts. These courts are conducted in secret, limit access to lawyers and do not allow appeals.”
Dr. Hussein adds, “People are getting sentences of three to five or even seven years for 'thuggery.' These civilians are sometimes shown on the nightly news on state TV in an apparent attempt to intimidate the public and ensure 'order.' We have testimony of people being beaten, electrocuted, whipped and seeing others beaten to death.”
"Perhaps most distressing, the media in Egypt, even the independent newspapers, are largely ignoring army torture and abuse. The army is a red line. If we're going to have a meaningful democracy in Egypt, this has to change. It's critical that outside media now cover this.”
Dr. Hussain claims she has “translated video and testimony from individuals" who were abused.
The Army is now running just about everything in Egypt, including the government. Every member of the ruling Supreme Council of the Armed Forces was appointed by deposed President Hosni Mubarak. Many have lucrative business interests facilitated by Mubarak. During the debate about the amendments to the Constitution, the Supreme Council sided with the Muslim Brotherhood and the remnants of Mubarak’s National Democratic Party (NDP) that the referendum should be held sooner rather than later, and elections for parliament and the presidency, correspondingly earlier than the more liberal Tahrir Square movement advocated.
The Armys role in the democratic revolt has been anything but transparent. They were lauded by activists for not taking sides between anti- and pro-Mubarak demonstraters. They were further praised when they came to the rescue of pro-democracy demonstraters, who were being attacked by gangs of arms thugs hired by Mubarak’s political cronies. But then they attacked peaceful protesters walking across Tahrir Square, arrested them, tortured many, and detained more.
For that kind of double-dealing, an apology is hardly sufficient. Thus far there is no serious sign that the military is inmvestigating or that it plans to file charges against the miscreant soldiers.
So the sooner a president and a legislature can be elected the sooner the Army can go back to what armies are supposed to do.
The question at that point is: Will the Military willingly report to civilian control?
Watch this space.