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Q&A with Katherine Booth on the state’s use of sexual violence

Katherine Booth, FIDH

Katherine Booth, FIDH

The International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH) published a report Tuesday asserting that there’s been a “surge” in the state’s use of sexual violence since former President Mohamed Morsi’s ouster in July 2013.


Mada Masr spoke to the director of the women’s rights office at FIDH, Katherine Booth, about the report and some of the issues raised in it.


Mada Masr: What are some of the difficulties FIDH encountered while investigating this report?


Katherine Booth: These kinds of crimes are extremely difficult to investigate and document because of the associated stigma and difficulties with filing complaints and having them heard by the national justice system. 


In addition to this, it’s extremely difficult to document allegations made by supporters or members of the Muslim Brotherhood, and for national NGOs to investigate such allegations and corroborate them.


We’ve been more cautious about such testimonies, because of the difficulties of verifying them, but they form a pattern that we thought was important to document. Our recommendation in respect to these allegations would be that the Egyptian state investigates them systematically.


Most of the other testimonies we were able to verify. The media also plays an important role in highlighting cases of sexual violence in Egypt because of the restrictions on civil society organizations.


What we were looking for when working with victims* is the documentation of patterns of violence, which guided the cases we included in the report and the conclusions we made.


MM: Could you go into more depth about what these patterns are?


KB: What we found is that, since the military came back into power, there has been a surge in these types of crimes committed by the police, the military and national security or intelligence bodies. They are facilitated by the overall level of repression and the exertion of state control, which has manifested itself in mass arrests and detentions. 


There were 40,000 arrests, according to national actors, between 2013 and 2014, 16,000 of which the authorities acknowledged.


We have observed patterns in the types of sexual violence used, including various types of sexualized torture, such as the electrocution of genitalia and inserting objects into the anus.


We also observed the widespread use of virginity tests and forced anal examinations on those accused of debauchery. Forced anal examinations qualify as torture under international law and the conventions to which Egypt is party.


There has been a targeted campaign against sexual minorities and those accused of participating in homosexual activities. Since 2013, there have been many arrests, summary trials and convictions, with sentences ranging from three to 12 years.


Another issue raised by the report is the collaboration between national security and the military in terms of the use of torture, including sexualized torture, to obtain confessions.


MM: In the report you stated that certain groups were targeted, including LGBT people, women and children. Why these groups in particular?


KB: I think it’s important to underline that sexual violence includes men as well as women. Women tend to be targeted in ways that also humiliate and stigmatize their families and communities.


Women and their honor and their virginities hold symbolic importance that goes beyond the individual. We found that women were often arrested, detained or raped in order to get their husbands or brothers to surrender, or to obtain a confession from a family member.


Some of the witnesses with Brotherhood affiliations revealed particularly humiliating stories about the ways in which virginity tests were carried out.


Sexual violence has also been systematically used against those expressing opposition to the government. So, political opponents, but also activists and students.


In terms of LGBT individuals, the use of sexual violence against them seems to be connected to a desire to demonstrate a moral authority by the state, through making examples of what is perceived as sexual deviance or immoral sexual behavior.


All of the examples I’ve given indicate the use of sexual violence as a tool for repression, to humiliate and exert state control.


MM: Were you able to observe whether state actors have had more impunity since July 2013 than previously?


KB: The number of allegations grew since July 2013, all of which were met with impunity, meaning that the security forces are perpetrating more violations without consequences.


There has been a significant change in the type of testimonies since the current government took power. Before, there were more accusations against civilian actors and after there have been more allegations made towards state actors.


MM: Are there any cases that you found to be emblematic of the patterns you were observing?


KB: One case I would use to illustrate many of the issues I’ve been raising is that of a woman who was escorted to a police station to file a complaint of sexual harassment under the new law. She was held in custody and forced to undergo a virginity test. She was also raped while she was detained, and in this particular case there is video evidence and testimonies from her fellow detainees.


Because she reported rape in a police station, she was then ordered by the prosecution to undergo a second medical examination or virginity test. So a victim of sexual harassment finds herself a victim of rape in police custody and then a victim of the institutionalized form of violence constituted by virginity testing.


MM: How much responsibility do Egyptian authorities bear for sexual violence, in terms of either ordering it or deliberately turning a blind eye to such practices?


KB: We haven’t got evidence that these crimes are being ordered from the highest levels of the authorities. But, we do know that those in charge of detention centers and police stations must be aware that these violations are taking place, because allegations have been filed. So they have responsibility in terms of tolerating these forms of violence, and in terms of allowing impunity to prevail.


We would also consider patterns in the types of violence and methods of torture used to be indicative of a more coordinated strategy to exert state control.

Note: While those who have experienced sexual violence in this interview and the FIDH report are referred to as *victims, Mada Masr prefers to use different terminology.