Mobs encircled and attacked dozens of women protesting in Cairo’s Tahrir Square in a spate of sexual assaults last month, Amnesty International said in a new report released Wednesday, urging Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi to make sure the attackers were brought to justice.
The mob attacks follow a clear and troubling pattern, the human rights group said. Men surround female protesters, groping and violating their victims with their hands and sometimes with weapons. The attackers try to tear off their clothes, threaten them with knives and drag them away, assaulting them for anywhere from a few minutes to more than an hour.
“Tens of hands then came onto me, some touching my thighs … I started screaming: ‘What is this? What is happening?’” Rawya Abdel Rahman, a 67-year-old women’s rights activist, told the rights group. “Then five or six men dragged me away from the circle, as someone was trying to lift my clothes up. … At some points I couldn’t feel my feet on the ground.”
The men had first formed a circle around her and other women, claiming they were protecting them – a pattern that other assault survivors also reported to Amnesty International. In the chaos and confusion, survivors said it was difficult to tell who was actually trying to help them.
One survivor recounted a man saying, “‘I’m protecting her from the others,’” while his hand was down her trousers, said Diana Eltahawy, an Amnesty International researcher in Cairo.
“That a group of men could do this -- taking off clothes and groping the body in public, around thousands of people, shows there is a sense of impunity, a sense that there is no consequence,” Eltahawy said. Failure to bring attackers to justice will only fuel more attacks, the group warned.
During protests against Morsi and his Islamist government on Jan. 25, at least 24 sexual attacks or attempted attacks were reported in and around Tahrir Square, according to information gathered by local groups and shared with Amnesty International. The U.N. human rights office reported 25 such attacks that day. More assaults were reported a week later.
The mob violence echoes earlier attacks during protests in November and other assaults before the revolution that toppled longtime leader Hosni Mubarak, Amnesty International said.
Some activists suspect the repeated assaults could be a concerted effort to keep women out of public spaces, possibly colluding with government actors. Tahrir Square has been the epicenter of Cairo protests in the turbulent years before and after the ouster of Mubarak. In recent weeks, masses of protesters have poured into the public square to denounce Morsi and call for a unity government that weakens the sway of the Muslim Brotherhood.
Women are often reluctant to come forward and report the mob attacks, the report said. Even when they do, police have told them to drop the charges and “forgive” the men, an attorney and an assault survivor both told Amnesty International.
Last week, Egyptian prosecutors announced they were investigating a rape reported on the same day that protesters reported the smattering of assaults. However, other attacks on women have gone unpunished, including a rash of degrading “virginity tests” carried out by military officials, Amnesty International reported. More severe penalties for sexual harassment and assault have done little; plans to introduce new laws have not been followed through, it said.
U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay lamented last week that "the authorities have failed to prevent these attacks or to bring more than a single prosecution against the hundreds of men involved in these vicious attacks."
Amnesty International called on Morsi to publicly condemn the attacks and ensure they are fully investigated to prosecute those responsible and determine whether state actors were involved. It also urged the government to expand legal protections for women in line with international law. Police must be trained to take sexual violence seriously, Eltahawy said.
Despite the attacks, women continue to deluge Tahrir Square to protest, as unrest simmers under Morsi. “It has made women even more determined to claim the public space and continue their fight for justice,” Eltahawy said.
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