Egypt: Women Abused Over Alleged ISIS Ties, HRW

Egyptian authorities have arbitrarily detained women and girls related to suspected members of the ISIS affiliate in North Sinai, some for months or years, Human Rights Watch and the Sinai Foundation for Human Rights said.

The authorities have also tortured several women and girls and held them in prolonged incommunicado detention. The detentions were typically aimed at pressuring male family members suspected of links to the ISIS affiliate Wilayat Sina’ (Sinai Province) to turn themselves in, or to obtain information about them, lawyers and witnesses said.

Some of these women and girls were themselves victims of abuses by the ISIS-linked group, including rape and forced marriage, and were detained after they escaped and sought help from the authorities.

“Egyptian authorities have been abusing many women and children in North Sinai to extract information about their suspected ISIS affiliate relatives or pressure these suspects to turn themselves in,” said Ahmed Salem, executive director of the Sinai Foundation for Human Rights.

“The authorities should immediately free all women and girls held merely for being related to or associated with male suspects, and investigate torture and other ill-treatment against them.”

Since July 2013, Egyptian military operations have escalated in North Sinai against Wilayat Sina’, which pledged allegiance to ISIS in 2014. The Egyptian authorities have effectively turned the region into a closed military zone where independent reporting is prohibited. Both the Egyptian military and police and Wilayat Sina’ have seriously violated international humanitarian law in ways which may amount to war crimes.

Human Rights Watch and the Sinai Foundation for Human Rights documented 21 cases that took place between 2017 and 2022 involving 19 women and 2 girls. The organizations remotely interviewed relatives of nine of the women and girls, lawyers representing nine other women, two people who were detained with another woman, and two formerly detained women.

Relatives of three women said that National Security Agency (NSA) officers abused them at various agency sites, including with beatings and electric shocks. Two other women said that officers verbally abused the women, slapped one in the face, and blindfolded the other in North Sinai police stations.

Women and girls have been gravely abused by Wilayat Sina’ members in their hideouts including with rape and forced marriages, sources said. In some cases, members of the group prevented women and girls from leaving. Yet in all 21 cases documented for this report, the authorities failed to treat the women and girls as possible victims of crimes themselves.

Moreover, relatives and lawyers said, the authorities referred five of the women and one of the girls, all detained in 2019 and 2021, for prosecution after they escaped and sought protection from the authorities. Security forces immediately detained and held the girl and the five women incommunicado without access to lawyers for up to two months and tortured at least one of the women, the sources said.

Prosecutors or judges had ordered three of the six individuals released in 2021 and 2022. To circumvent their release orders, lawyers said, security forces filed new cases against them with the same charges of providing logistical support to or joining a terrorist group.

The authorities use this process, known as rotation, to keep people in arbitrary detention despite judicial release orders.

In one example, in 2019, the authorities detained a 15-year-old girl who had undergone three forced marriages since the age of 14, with her first two husbands dying in armed clashes. When she moved from North Sinai to Cairo, the authorities detained her, held her incommunicado for six months, and prosecuted her, her lawyer said.

Security forces detained other women and girls who, according to their relatives, had not lived in Wilayat Sina’ hideouts and may never have been to such hideouts, apparently to extract information about their relatives or to retaliate against relatives suspected of joining the local ISIS affiliate.

Since mid-2020, Wilayat Sina’ has apparently lost much of its stronghold in North Sinai. Under the justification of fighting the group[BP1] , the Egyptian army and police have detained thousands of people, many of them arbitrarily during mass arrest campaigns, and held them in isolation.

“Many women and girls in North Sinai have already suffered intolerable abuse at the hands if ISIS-linked members,” said Adam Coogle, deputy Middle East and North Africa director at Human Rights Watch. “The Egyptian government should be protecting them, not locking them up and torturing them.”