Women no longer protected as Egyptian police crack down on dissent

The Egyptian government crackdown on political dissidents, particularly supporters of ousted President Mohammed Morsi, has extended to widespread and unprecedented abuses against a segment of the population once considered largely sacrosanct from arrest and political detention – women.

A half-dozen women who’ve been detained by police while protesting told McClatchy they’ve been beaten, subjected to pregnancy and virginity tests that they must pay for themselves, forced to sleep on floors and told they are considered worse threats to the state than major criminals.

Police officers reached by McClatchy said they consider political prisoners to be the worst of detainees in increasingly overcrowded jail cells.

The government’s targeting of women has turned jail cells into the frontline in the battle between the military-governed state and its opponents. The prisoners said their experience – and that of their husbands, brothers, fathers and uncles – has become further ammunition to fight the government. The women said their treatment has made some consider retaliating by embracing jihadist tactics.

Fadwa Khaled, 27, a teacher, was arrested Dec. 27 at a protest against the government. She said her mistreatment began in the paddy wagon as officers beat her head against its wall.

“Two soldiers held me from the back of my jacket and they kept pulling me backwards and banging me against the police truck, several times,” Khaled said of her arrest. “I had bruises all over my body for a long time.”

Minutes after she was pushed into the police truck, Khaled said, she was slapped across the face by a police officer as she tried to pull her 19-year-old friend, Khadija Ismail, away from police who were beating her.

During her 11-day detention, Khaled said, she was beaten, humiliated and forced to submit to a pregnancy test. She said the experience had transformed her from a political opponent to a fighter.

“We need to escalate,” one woman, who asked to not be identified because she feared government retaliation, said upon her release from jail. “The police officers should be threatened and horrified. You kidnap our girls, we will kidnap your children. We will send them threatening messages and make them live in fear and psychological pressure exactly the same way we are living now.”

The women’s accounts could not be confirmed independently, although some were able to provide medical records showing the effects of abuses in prison. A growing body of videos available on the Internet, however, show women being beaten as they are arrested. Five human rights groups working in Egypt said they have heard about such incidents but have not independently confirmed them.

The government steadfastly denies mistreating prisoners and insists those who’ve been arrested are a threat to the state. But the incidents are consistent with what the advocacy group Amnesty International said Thursday was a growing trend of abuse by Egyptian authorities, who’ve arrested thousands since Morsi’s ouster July 3.

“Security forces have been given free rein to act above the law and with no prospect of being held to account for abuses,” the report said, adding that “with such measures in place, Egypt is headed firmly down the path towards further repression and confrontation.”

In a statement accompanying the report, Hassiba Hadj Sahraoui, Amnesty International’s deputy director for Middle East and North Africa, called for the “immediate and unconditional release of prisoners of conscience,” the group’s term for people who’ve been detained for political reasons. She predicted that without some restraint from the government, Egypt’s jails will be “packed with unlawfully detained prisoners and its morgues and hospitals with yet more victims of arbitrary and abusive force.”

Women have played a key in the volatile events that began three years ago Saturday, when millions took to the streets and demanded the resignation of then longtime leader Hosni Mubarak. Both the secular leaders of the anti-Mubarak protests and leaders of the now-banned Muslim Brotherhood said the upheaval of the past three years could not have happened without women, who not only came out for the protests but have played important behind-the-scenes roles in calling for democratic change.

Ironically, the 2011 protests began as a small demonstration in front of the Ministry of Interior calling for the end of police brutality, which then was limited to men.

Even women with serious medical conditions are not spared. Amany Hassan, a 33-year-old mother of two, was in poor health even before she was imprisoned. She is now paralyzed, according to her mother, Somaya Sarhan, who fought for five months before her daughter was transferred to a medical facility.

“I am talking about her simplest rights as a human, as a patient,” Sarhan said. “I don’t want anything from the judiciary, I just want her to get the right treatment.”

Sarhan said that her daughter, who was arrested six months ago, was beaten during interrogation, though she said she can’t prove that was the cause of her paralysis; Hassan, she said, had been sick previously. But she said she’s been asking for five months that the authorities transfer her daughter to a prison hospital instead of making her sleep on the floor of the police station cell where she’s been held.

“Only God knows whether her health deteriorated from (the police) or from God,” Sarhan said. “I don’t care if she was beaten. All that I care about now is getting her proper treatment. Also her brother Amir is still in custody. I don’t know what they will do to him.”

Withholding proper medical treatment “in itself is inhumane treatment,” said Nadine Sherif, the advocacy officer at the Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies.

During her 51 days of detention, Khaled said, the most humiliating part of her ordeal was being asked to pay for and then be subjected to a pregnancy test. When one woman, a prostitute, tested positive, the police offered their own abortion procedure.

“They took 25 pounds (about $3.50) from each one of us to get us a pregnancy test. They handcuffed all of us and took us to a hospital along with the prostitutes who were detained with us,” Khaled said. “They took a blood sample. We were all negative except for a woman who was arrested on charges of prostitution. The officer told her to drink boiled Pepsi, which will lead to an abortion. So she did and by the time we got back to the police station, she started bleeding. . . . I will never forget this incident in my life.”

“Freedom is something that you don’t understand its importance until you lose it,” Khaled said. She described the hopelessness of days spent in a 150-square-foot cell with 42 other women as dehumanizing. “It makes you feel that you are in a science fiction movie, not human beings.”

Many of the women McClatchy reached were initially held at Azbakia police station in downtown Cairo near the iconic Tahrir Square, where a millions of Egyptians protested for 18 days until Mubarak’s ouster.

After Morsi’s ouster, Gehad el Khayat, an 18-year-old university student, was arrested and held for six days at the station. She told McClatchy that during that time she was blindfolded, her feet and hands were cuffed together and she was beaten with a belt.

Listening to others being tortured “felt like the longest six days in my life. They passed as if it was a year,” Khayat said.

A sergeant at Azbakia police station rejected the idea that prisoners there had been mistreated. He said people arrested for demonstrating were separated from other criminals for fear they would radicalize the thieves, murders and rapists. He acknowledged that overcrowding had become a problem and that the police were struggling with how to deal with female prisoners.

“We cannot search the women. We have to be respectful,” said the sergeant, who refused to identify himself. “But the political prisoner is much more dangerous for us.”

In all, he said, women now account for 20 of the 130 prisoners held at the station. If a woman needs to be searched, he said, police often ask for help from a female passerby.

At the station this week, construction workers were erecting walls ahead of the third anniversary of the start of Egypt’s Arab Spring out of fear that protesters will try to storm the building and release the prisoners.

Khaled said that if protesters attack the station Saturday, the police have only themselves to blame.

“I came out of prison even more committed” to toppling the new military-installed government, she said. “All the people held in prison feel the same.”

Nancy A. Youssef contributed from Cairo.