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Egypt targets women in anti-Muslim war October 04, 1996

Egypt's government is torturing the wives of Muslim militants, in an attempt to get at their husbands. Shyam Bhatia reports in Cairo

AMAL FAROUK'S screams keep her three children, mother and neighbours awake every night. If she falls asleep, the nightmare returns and she wakes screaming: "No, please, I beg you, keep your hands off me, don't rape me!"

Amal (28) is one of many Egyptian women taken hostage and tortured by the authorities to collect evidence against men in their families, suspected Muslim militants.

The government's new strategy of targeting women, officials admit privately, is an unpleasant price to be paid in the all-out war against Islamic terrorists. The deliberate degradation of women by arrest, torture and sexual abuse is intended to break the spirit of male militants seeking to overthrow the government of Hosni Mubarak.

"In our culture, the humiliation of a wife or mother or sister will break a man's back," says Dr Aida Seif al Dowla, a psychiatrist from the Cairo Centre for the Management and Rehabilitation of Victims of Violence, who confirms that women related to Islamic activists have been tortured.

Amal was arrested hours after police captured her husband, Ahmed al Sayid, who is now serving a 25-year sentence for an assassination attempt on Egypt's Minister of Information.

"In the beginning the interrogators were nice to me. They wanted me to appear on television to condemn my husband as a lunatic and wife-beater. When I refused, they turned ugly.

"First they mocked me for wearing a veil. Then they blindfolded me, stripped me down to my underwear and hung me by my hands from a hook in the ceiling. There were at least seven men in the room and some of them were telling me how much they would enjoy raping me.

"As they taunted me, they whipped me with cable wire, kicked me in the stomach and sliced open my back with razors. This lasted for more than two hours. While I was in this room, I could hear my husband screaming in pain and shouting "Ya awlad al sharameet ana marafsh aya haga. [You sons of bitches, I don't know anything.]" It was obvious that they were torturing him.'

Amal said that the following day an officer named Mahmoud Hosny had taken her to another room and stripped her naked. "He told me I should divorce my husband and remarry. He said the government would pay me a lot of money if I signed a confession implicating my husband as a terrorist.

"When I refused, he brought in another man and told him, `This bitch is all yours. Rape her.' " When the man began to undress, Amal shouted, "Okay, okay, I will sign anything you want." Nine days later she was released without charge.

Weeks later, Amal asked permission to attend her husband's trial in a military court - she wanted to tell the judges that her confession had been extorted under torture. Her request was denied for "security reasons", but the judges later announced that they had accepted her written statement to the police.

Amal's lawyer, Montasr Zayat, filed a complaint against her interrogators with the Ministry of the Interior. The authorities responded by despatching a police squad to take Amal back into detention. They told her that she was being punished for trying to bring the police into disrepute.

"She was held for 10 days, during which she was brutally tortured," said Zayat. "They wanted her to withdraw her complaint and to say that it was all lies. They used electric shocks and one of the interrogators sexually abused her."

On her release she had to be hospitalised for two weeks and received psychiatric care.

"I am 66 years old and I have never seen such savagery in my life," said Amal's mother, Um Mohammed. "What they are doing to these women is not only against Islam, it is also against human rights."

Um Mohammed is now nursing her daughter and her six-year-old grandson, Mohammed, whose teeth were broken when he tried to prevent police from taking away his mother. "The officer who came to our house kicked him in the mouth," said Um Mohammed. "There was blood everywhere because most of his teeth were smashed. They refused to take him to hospital."

Zayat said the strategy will backfire. "By holding women as hostages, the police are inviting more violence, and even retaliation. Some police officers have been assassinated after being accused of torturing the wives and sisters of Muslim fundamentalists.

"These Islamic groups have a special sensitivity when it comes to women. As far as they are concerned, women represent a red line that should not be crossed."

Zayat and his Egyptian legal colleagues say the harassment of women has increased in the past two years. They accuse the government of misusing emergency regulations which allow the authorities to hold suspects for six months without trial.

Jihan Ibrahim Abdel Hamid, a mother of three, has been in detention since August 1994. She claims that her only "crime" is her husband's alleged involvement in the assassination of Dr Farag Foda, Egypt's most outspoken critic of Islamic terrorists. Police suspect her of hiding weapons, but she has never been brought before a judge.

When a civil court ordered her release earlier this year, Abdel Hamid was transferred to police headquarters in Cairo. There she was served with a new detention order for a further six months. The Cairo Centre for Women's Legal Aid has written to the Minister of the Interior asking for her release.

`We believe there is no justification for Jihan's continued captivity," said representative Izzah Suleiman. "We are very concerned at this phenomenon of increased state violence against women. I have met three other women who had miscarried as a result of physical and psychological torture."

One of the women who miscarried was Fatima Muawad, the wife of Safwat, one of the leaders of the Gamayat Islamia Fundamentalist Movement. Muawad was three months pregnant when she was arrested and taken to the Abdin police station in Cairo. A medical report provided by her lawyer confirms that she had lost her baby as a result of being kicked repeatedly in the stomach. She was never formally charged. Police told her she would remain in prison until her fugitive husband had been arrested.

Earlier this year, police arrested 12 other women for similar reasons in Cairo's Ain Shams district.

"Some of these women, whose ages range from 21 to 55, were kicked in the stomach and face, and hung upside down at the police station," said Zayat. "We have established that police General Fadi Habashi personally supervised their interrogation. They were all wives, mothers or sisters of suspected Muslim fundamentalists.

"We have now filed an official complaint against this general, with supporting medical reports and affidavits. The Ministry of the Interior has promised an investigation, but so far no disciplinary action has been taken.'

Ministry officials blame fundamentalists for involving their women. "Many of these women have been officially recruited to the so- called jihad," a senior security officer said. "We have even discovered that some of them actively participated in terrorist attacks, including firing at policemen and planting bombs.

"They are also used for surveillance, intelligence-gathering and carrying messages for their husbands. In some cases, they even dress in the latest Western fashions to avoid arousing suspicion.'

Police sources claim that most of the women in detention have been trained to use firearms. When police raided a fundamentalist hideout in Asyut, wives joined their husbands in returning fire. The nine-hour battle ended with the death of Ahmed Zaki Sharif, one of Egypt's most wanted terrorists.

"I am against violence and I have never taken part in any terrorist act," said Amal. "Don't believe the government when they say women are being recruited by the Islamic movement. What they will not tell you is that women are not accepted as members of Islamic groups. Our role, according to the holy book, is to look after our children and our families. Nothing can break us."

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