x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 27 July 2017

New sexual assault claims adds tensions to Egypt’s election campaigns

Women protesters and rights groups revive allegations that Egypt's security forces are using abuse to intimidate female detainees and demonstrators.

CAIRO // Accusations that Egyptian soldiers and prison authorities committed sexual assaults on women protesters added new tension to the presidential election campaign, just two weeks before the voting.

Around a dozen women were among more than 300 protesters detained following a rally against the defence ministry in Cairo last weekend. On Wednesday, women protesters and rights groups revived allegations that security forces are using abuse to intimidate female detainees and demonstrators.

In charges that recalled dark incidents from previous protests, the rights activist Aida Seif Al Dawla said female prison guards sexually assaulted some women by inspecting their vaginas under the pretext of searching for drugs.

"This is a sexual assault," Ms Al Dawla said. "The women are injured, physically and emotionally."

Some of the released female detainees also said they were verbally and sexually abused by troops after they were detained.

One of them, Aya Kamal, testified on Tuesday to the parliament's human rights committee about abuses as she was being arrested.

Ms Kamal told the committee that she was holed up in a mosque to escape troops charging in to break up the protest. She said soldiers stormed the mosque and then took turns insulting, groping, smacking and spitting at her and other female detainees. She said male detainees were also beaten and threatened with sexual assault.

One soldier hit her on the head with a club, she said, knocking her unconscious for a few seconds, while another tried to remove her head veil.

At one military facility, Ms Kamal said soldiers celebrated the arrival of detainees.

"They insulted us girls, they opened the windows [of the van] and tried to reach out to touch our bodies and harass us. We were threatened with sexual assault, and we were threatened that if any one of us opened her mouth, she would be thrown to the soldiers outside, and she knows what would happen to her."

A military official said there have been no formal complaints of such abuses and declined to comment further on the accusations. He said Ms Kamal remained under investigation, implying she could still face charges of assaulting military personnel and disrupting public order.

Activists accuse the military of resorting to the abusive practices of the deposed leader Hosni Mubarak's rule, which were largely behind last year's uprising. There was outrage last year over "virginity tests" performed by a military doctor on female detainees.

The military admitted that there were such cases but claimed commanders had not approved them. A military doctor put on trial over the tests was acquitted. A civilian court asked the military to stop the practice.

Repeated allegations of sexual abuse has led protesters to demand that the military give up power immediately.

A recent target of the frequent protests, since Mubarak stepped down 15 months ago, has been the defence ministry, headquarters of the military command.

Last Friday, several thousand demonstrators converged on the complex, and some started cutting through the barbed wire the military had strung to keep them away, while others pelted troops with rocks. Soldiers reacted by beating demonstrators with clubs, firing gunshots and arresting hundreds. A soldier was killed in the melee.

The detainees face military prosecution and trial - a practice that has been harshly criticised by rights groups.

Protesters see the military's tactics as attempts to intimidate women and keep them away from demonstrations.

The sexual assault charges come before the first round of presidential voting on May 23-24. A run-off between two leading candidates is scheduled for June 16-17. A winner will be declared on June 21, the final step before the military hands over power.

A leading candidate, moderate Islamist Abdel-Moneim Abolfotoh, lashed out at the military on Tuesday, calling the arrests "arbitrary" and the abuses an "affront to human dignity and a disregard of laws and traditions".