Egyptians decry ‘virginity tests’ on protesters
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Cairo - Activists and bloggers are pressing Egypt's military rulers to investigate accusations of serious abuses against protesters, including claims that soldiers subjected female detainees to so-called “virginity tests.”
Bloggers say they will hold a day of online protest on Wednesday to voice their outrage, adding to criticism of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, which took control of the country from ousted President Hosni Mubarak in February.
In the face of the criticism, four journalists along with a prominent blogger were summoned for questioning by the military prosecutor, according to a rights group. The blogger and two journalists were released without charges. The other two journalists will appear before prosecutors by the end of week.
Hossam el-Hamalawy, the blogger, tweeted: “The visit to the military prosecutor became a chat, where they wanted clarifications for my accusations.”
The virginity test allegations first surfaced after a March 9 rally in Cairo's Tahrir Square that turned violent when men in plainclothes attacked protesters and the army intervened forcefully to clear the square.
One woman who was arrested spoke out about her treatment, and Amnesty International further documented the abuse allegations in a report that found 18 female detainees were threatened with prostitution charges and forced to undergo virginity tests. They were also beaten up and given electric shocks, the report said.
Egypt's military rulers have come under heavy criticism from the youth protest movement, which is upset at the pace of reforms that they hope will lead Egypt to democracy.
Leaders of more than 20 youth groups on Tuesday turned down an invitation from the military government for a “national dialogue” meeting on Wednesday, saying it was hastily called while human rights violations and attempts to silence critics continued. The invitation was issued two days before the conference was to be held.
“The way revolutionary groups were invited to the dialogue indicates lack of seriousness in dealing with them,” the groups said in a statement. “We can't accept this dialogue in light of the military trials of revolutionaries, violations of military police, lack of investigations into those.”
Since Mubarak's fall on February 11, the military has led crackdowns on peaceful protests, and critics accuse it of failing to restore security in the streets or launch serious national dialogue on a clear path forward for Egypt.
The military council denied soldiers attacked protesters at the March 9 rally. But one general used a news conference to make negative remarks about women who mingle with men during the sit-ins and suggested lewd acts were taking place in protest camps.
“There were girls with young men in one tent. Is this rational? There were drugs; pay attention!” General Ismail Etman, the council spokesman, said at the end of March.
He confirmed then that the military police arrested 17 female protesters among 170 others at the March 9 rally. He said the women were among a group of protesters given one-year suspended prison sentences.
“We secure the people. We don't use the violence,” he said.
At the peak of the protests, the now-ousted regime sought to characterise the protesters as a group of rambunctious youth more intent on spreading chaos than genuine reform. Even after Mubarak's ouster, that notion carries some resonance in Egypt's conservative society, where the idea that unmarried women would spend the night with strangers - albeit in public - carried the tacit implication that the women were loose.
One of the women arrested, Salwa el-Husseini, gave a detailed account at a news conference in March of her treatment and said she was made to undergo a virginity test.
She said she was slapped in the face and subjected to electric shocks in her legs before being taken to a military prison.
“When we went to the military prison, me and the girls, we were placed in a room with two doors and a window. The two doors were wide open,” she said. “The girl takes off all her clothes to be searched while there were cameras outside filming to fabricate prostitution charges against us later on,” she added.
“The girl who says she is single, she undergoes a test by someone; we don't know if he is a soldier or some kid on their behalf,” she said.
Amnesty said in its report that one of the women told her jailers she was a virgin but was beaten and given electric shocks when the test supposedly proved otherwise.
“Forcing women to have 'virginity tests' is utterly unacceptable,” the Amnesty report said. “Its purpose is to degrade women because they are women.”
The military council has promised to return the country to civilian rule after elections later this year, but some Egyptians fear the council is adopting the same autocratic ways that characterised Mubarak's rule. They point to what they say are attempts by the council to make any criticism of the military taboo.
The Arabic Network for Human Rights Information, in a statement on Tuesday, said that the questioning of journalists or bloggers was an attempt to silence critics and create “an atmosphere of fear.”
It warned: “The military council is committing a grave mistake if it continues to shut the mouths of those criticising it. The council is not made up of angels.”
The group also referred to virginity tests, saying that the military council is aware that “those belonging to it have practiced torture against the youth of the revolution and has subjected women to virginity tests.”
Also on Tuesday, in a rare move, Egypt's interior minister ordered an investigation into reports that a detainee was tortured to death in police custody. Torture of prisoners was a main issue that sparked the revolt that toppled Mubarak. - Sapa-AP