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Sexual Assault and Torture in Post-Revolution Egypt

A report from Human Rights Watch highlights the failure to investigate cases of "virginity testing" after a protest in March.
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Women played a crucial role in the revolution. Will they be given protection under the law in the new Egypt?

When the troops came into Tahrir Square in March, one young social worker was passing by on her way to pay back her student loans. When she saw people she recognised being attacked and arrested, she followed them to the museum where they were detained, and was arrested herself. That night, she was beaten and sexually assaulted – not by prison guards or thugs, but by a military doctor, in front of official witnesses.

“We were chanting: the people and the army are together…” she said, in a testimony which one of her fellow detainees posted online.

“I was beaten and pushed … they used very obscene words. I found a young woman crying; she said they’d electrocuted her. She was having a nervous breakdown…. They tied my hands behind my back… I was very, very brutally beaten because I answered back. I spat in their faces… I was screaming. They beat me in front of the general. Then the prison guard stripped us.”

Then, like at least seven other women, she was held down and “examined” by a male doctor in army uniform, to test if she was a virgin.

Failing to investigate

Last week, Human Rights Watch (HRW) condemned the ruling military council of Egypt for failing to investigate or take seriously reports by these women that they were forced to undertake humiliating “virginity tests” after being arrested at the sit-in protest. They reported that eight months on from the incident, not a single person had been prosecuted or investigated in an internal inquiry which HRW described as inadequate.

The military council (SCAF) has officially denied that the “virginity tests” and torture took place, but one anonymous general told CNN that the tests had indeed taken place – ironically, so that the women could not later accuse their jailers of rape. "The girls who were detained were not like your daughter or mine," the general said. "These were girls who had camped out in tents with male protesters in Tahrir Square. None of them were virgins.”

Testimonies from detained women describe being abused, threatened, beaten, and mocked by being given kerosene-soaked bread to eat. One woman reports being electrocuted repeatedly for up to seven hours by military police who told her “you deserve this”. Thirteen of the women were spared virginity tests because they were married, but were still subjected to violence. Those who were unmarried were threatened with imprisonment for prostitution. Amnesty International reported that many women were photographed naked by male soldiers.

“They took me to a bed in a passageway in front of the cell,” Salwa al-Hosseini, one of the victims, told HRW. “There were lots of soldiers around and they could see me. I asked if the soldiers could move away and the officer escorting me tasered me. The woman prison guard in plain clothes stood at my head and then a man in military uniform examined me with his hand for several minutes. It was painful. He took his time. It was clear he was doing it on purpose to humiliate me.”

The case of Samira Ibrahim

The “tests” experienced by al-Hosseini are not only traumatising, but potentially ruinous to a woman’s future in a society where much emphasis is put on a chaste reputation. One woman reported that she had lost her job after her four days in custody, and has been unable to find another. “I felt like I had been raped,” she said in an interview in October.

This woman is Samira Ibrahim, the only victim to sue the police for her treatment: all others have held back because of fear of reprisals from the authorities, administrative issues, or emotional trauma. Others have refused to engage with a judiciary which they believe is corrupt and will side with the military.

Ibrahim’s lawyer told HRW that two cases had been filed in June, one demanding investigation of the sexual assault. The military prosecutor had ordered military police to look into the incident to find evidence of Ibrahim’s complaint. Since then, her lawyer has been given no information on the progress of the investigation except that it is “not ready yet”. Meanwhile, she has been receiving threatening anonymous phone calls telling her to drop the case.

HRW and Egyptian activist groups say that the case is evidence that the military government does not see itself as bound by the rule of law. Crimes committed by the military are investigated by the military, and since it came to power a culture of impunity much like the one which existed under Mubarak has emerged. This lack of accountability presents a worrying trend in the run-up to the elections at the end of the month. It also undermines hope that there will be justice for the deaths of Coptic protestors killed in violence by the military in October.

Military justice, with support

The army can afford to be complacent, though: a poll by Egyptian media organisation BikyaMasr has revealed that 90% of the population support the military council, with 20% stating that they will not even bother to vote in elections.

Since the revolution it has become the main source of order and justice, as well as the main governing body. Military justice has become increasingly widespread as civilian courts remain in disarray with strikes and boycotts and the civilian police force is viewed with disdain. Over 12,000 civilians have been tried in military courts since the fall of Mubarak.

“If you're a criminal in a civilian court you might get six months, with a military court you'd get four or five years,” said Brahim, an Egyptian journalist. “It is much, much worse. It makes us worry about how honest the army really are about democracy.”

As the case of Ibrahim and the other abused women shows, military justice does not only mean a tougher system – it means impunity for an institution which is already the most powerful in Egypt. If a strong civilian framework to ensure accountability is not allowed to emerge, it could pose a clear danger to Egypt’s new democracy – and to the rights of its women.

“Egypt’s military rulers are trying to cover up one of the most terrible abuses their forces committed this year,” said Joe Stork, deputy Middle East director at HRW. “After the trauma of sexual assault, these women have been denied the protection of the law.”

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