An announcement last month that Egypt’s top prosecutor would investigate an alleged 2014 gang rape of a 17-year-old girl at a luxury Cairo hotel marked a rare moment of triumph for human rights activists.
Those hopes were quickly dispelled after authorities detained possible witnesses and some of their acquaintances, who could face separate charges under the country’s vague morality laws. A media campaign has targeted both potential witnesses and the alleged perpetrators.
“It’s frightening and terrifying,” said Azza Soliman, an attorney who runs the Center for Egyptian Women’s Legal Assistance. She worries the government is making an example of those who came forward with information about the alleged rape and that this will discourage other victims and witnesses from speaking out.
Activists say the sharp turn in the case highlights how a patriarchal legal system often blames victims of sexual violence and shames others who fall outside traditional mores, including the country’s hounded LGBT community.
The case has also captivated many in Egypt as it exposed free-wheeling practices of alcohol- and drug-fueled partying among a small subsection of the country’s very wealthy youth.
In conservative Egypt, authorities present themselves as guardians of traditional values. Sexual harassment on the street remains common and women who defy conservative notions of proper behavior are widely seen as inviting or even deserving sexual abuse.
In the suspected gang rape case, potential witnesses and acquaintances have faced forced virginity tests and anal examinations by authorities as private, explicit videos purportedly from their phones have circulated via private messenger apps and were described in local media.
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The detention of witnesses has sent shivers down the collective spine of those hoping for justice in the rape case. Most activists and lawyers following the witnesses’ case insisted on speaking to The Associated Press on condition of anonymity for fear of retribution.
The government maintains it has a responsibility to investigate all criminality in the case, including the possible violation of morality laws, which include vague terms such as debauchery. The prosecutor’s office also hinted it might bring charges of drug use.
The alleged gang rape involves a group of young men from wealthy and powerful families. They allegedly drugged the teen at a party at a five-star Cairo hotel, then took turns raping her. They wrote their initials on her body and circulated a video of the act, according the victim’s account and a judicial official investigating the case.
Six years later, accounts of the assault surfaced amid a renewed #MeToo campaign on social media that swept Egypt this summer, encouraging more women to speak out against sexual misconduct.
On August 26, almost a month after accounts of the 2014 alleged gang rape emerged on social media, Egypt’s public prosecutor announced it had identified nine suspects, but that seven had already fled the country. Two others were arrested in Egypt.
Five of the seven fugitives escaped to Lebanon, where three were later arrested and two remained at large.
Lawyers involved in the case have said little.
Mohammed Hamouda, a lawyer hired by the National Council for Women to represent the victim, said in televised comments that his client was 17 years old at the time of the rape. He said the assault resulted in pregnancy. He declined comment when reached by the AP.
Tarik Gamil Said, a lawyer identified as representing some of the suspects, did not return multiple calls seeking comment. Authorities have not identified other lawyers involved in the case.
Days after the first suspect was apprehended, at least four possible witnesses and acquaintances of the victim were also detained as part of the investigation.
Soon after, graphic videos and photos circulated on private messaging apps showing sex acts between same-sex partners and nude photos, purportedly taken from the phones of witnesses and suspects. On August 31, a pro-government media site ran a salacious report about “group sex parties" organized to promote gay and lesbian sex at the same hotel. The report and subsequent media stories shocked and captivated conservative Egyptian society.
It is unclear how the images were leaked, but many blame the police. The prosecutor’s office said it had seized phones from those detained to examine whether they contained evidence for the investigation.
Both suspects and witnesses could now face charges under the country’s morality laws, along with the main case, the alleged gang rape.
“Probing the rape crime does not mean turning a blind eye to other possible crimes,” said one Egyptian official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to talk to reporters.
Two male witnesses were subjected to anal examination and one woman to a virginity test, according to Human Rights Watch and a lawyer following the case. Egyptians have in the past claimed the invasive procedures are necessary for investigations. The World Health Organization has decried such examinations and activists say the practice itself amounts to sexual abuse.
Also on August 31, prosecutors ordered the release of four suspects and said three other people are to remain in custody pending an investigation into “incidents” related to the alleged gang rape probe. It remains unclear whether among the released are suspects in the rape or those suspected of only violating the country's morality laws. It is believed that some who had given testimony against the alleged rapists remain in custody.
Egypt’s conservative culture typically ties female chastity to a family’s reputation. In courts, the burden of proof lies heavily on the victims of sex crimes.
Homosexuality is taboo in Egypt among Muslims and Christians alike, although not explicitly prohibited by law. It is often prosecuted under the charges of “debauchery" and “immorality."
Activists contend that authorities fashioned the case into a nationwide scandal in order to tarnish prospective witnesses and further the crackdown by President Abdel-Fattah al-Sissi's government on personal rights.
“It is horrifying that Egyptian authorities have arrested the witnesses to a gang rape after encouraging them to come forward instead of protecting them and prosecuting the attackers,” said Rothna Begum, a senior women’s rights researcher at Human Rights Watch.
The recent wave of #MeToo allegations spurred Egypt’s parliament to pass an amendment to the country’s criminal law to protect the identities of sexual assault victims, but it still needs el-Sissi’s signature to become law.
Activist Mozn Hassan, founder and director of Nazra for Feminist Studies, said the country’s public prosecutor has played on much of the society’s conservative beliefs to act as some sort of moral police, distracting from the real crime. She says sweeping change of the penal code is needed.
“There must be a system of accountability for offenders; a system to help and protect witnesses and whistleblowers,” she said.