CAIRO -- Scarred, terrified and systematically tortured, the victims of human traffickers in the Sinai peninsula have been largely abandoned to their fate by Egyptian authorities, a leading human rights group alleged in a report released Tuesday.
The report by New York-based Human Rights Watch details a brutal extortion racket in which victims, most of them would-be migrants from Eritrea in the Horn of Africa, are beaten, burned and mutilated by smugglers while their anguished relatives – contacted by mobile phone – are forced to listen to their screams.
If their families agree to wire money to pay a ransom, the report said, the captives may escape further torture. But many simply disappear into desert graves.
Egyptian officials have rejected claims they turn a blind eye to the traffickers' abuses and have denied that security forces at times actively collude with the people-smugglers in the peninsula, where Egyptian forces have been battling an increasingly sophisticated Islamic insurgency.
[Updated, 9:42 a.m. PST Feb. 11: Foreign Ministry spokesman Badr Abdelatty said accusations of complicity on the part of security forces were "nonsense" but that international organizations should do more to help Egypt combat trafficking.]
Dozens of Eritrean victims who showed clear signs of torture were interviewed for the 79-page Human Rights Watch report, which also documented 29 instances in which Egyptian and Sudanese authorities "facilitated" the traffickers' operations rather than confronting them and freeing their captives.
"Egyptian officials have for years denied the horrific abuse of refugees going on under their noses in Sinai," said Gerry Simpson, a senior researcher with the group who authored the report. The group said it had documented instances of people-smuggling in the Sinai taking place as recently as last month.
As of the end of last year, only one prosecution had taken place in connection with trafficking in the peninsula, according the report, which urged aggressive prosecution of traffickers and those who aid them. Egyptian law calls for trafficking victims to be aided and granted immunity from prosecution, but instead the ordeal of many is prolonged by detention in Egyptian jails until their families can pay for their return home, the report said.
Egypt has been conducting intensified military operations in the Sinai for the last eight months, citing a growing threat posed by Sinai-based militant groups that took root in the peninsula during the tenure of Islamist president Mohamed Morsi. The report urged that Egypt use its heightened security presence to apprehend traffickers.
Morsi, deposed in July in a popularly supported coup, is on trial, and charges against him include conspiring with Islamic militant groups in the region. In recent months, Egypt has seen an accelerating pattern of attacks against the police and army not only in the Sinai, but in major cities including Cairo.
A group called Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis, or Partisans of Jerusalem, has claimed responsibility for many of the most serious strikes, including the downing last month of an Egyptian military helicopter – the group's first known use of a portable surface-to-air missile.