Bedouin smugglers in the Sinai have raped dozens of African women over the past year who they had promised to smuggle into Israel, a new report reveals.

The director of Physicians for Human Rights-Israel, Ran Cohen, said yesterday that at least 86 female asylum seekers from Eritrea reported being raped in the Sinai region of Egypt, which borders Israel.

Azizet Kidane, an Eritrean nun who interviewed the women on behalf of the organization, said some of the women were held by the Bedouin exclusively for the purpose of being raped. None of the women agreed to talk to reporters.

PHR's report also stated that over half of the asylum seekers arriving through the Sinai are imprisoned or abused by smugglers: Some 59 percent of asylum seekers treated in the PHR clinic reported being imprisoned in the Sinai; 52 percent said they were subjected to severe physical abuse.

The findings are based on interviews with 284 asylum seekers, conducted between October and January.

Groups of asylum seekers trying to reach Israel via the Sinai are forcibly held in torture camps in the El Arish area, according to the PHR report, with smugglers demanding each person pay thousands of dollars for their safe release. Systematic violence is meted out on the prisoners to make their families pay, the study found, in the form of punching, slapping, kicking, whipping, administering electric shocks, hanging prisoners from their hands or feet, burying them in the sand, searing them with an iron, and of course rampant rape and sexual abuse.

About a year ago, the clinic's staff, who voluntarily treat some 700 patients a month, noted a steady rise in the number of asylum seekers arriving at the clinic to have an abortion. Interviews with the women confirmed that many of them were raped on their way to Israel. Such testimony led PHR to compose a questionnaire, which it then handed out to all new patients who had traveled through the Sinai.

Of the 284 asylum seekers interviewed so far, 59 percent said they were held under guard or were shackled to each other; 52 percent said they experienced severe abuse; 15 percent had scars or other physical marks from being tortured in the Sinai; 44 percent said they witnessed the abuse or killing of other asylum seekers; 88 percent said they were starved by smugglers; and 66 percent said they were not given any water.

One asylum seeker said yesterday that he had witnessed eight men die of dehydration.

PHR accuses officials in Israel of ignoring the problem and preventing the issuing of residency status to the political asylum-seekers. The organization said it is calling on the Health Ministry to apply the National Health Insurance Law to the asylum seekers already residing in Israel, regardless of their civil status.