Egyptian security forces have arrested six witnesses, including three women, in an investigation into an alleged gang-rape case previously hailed as a watershed moment for women’s rights.
Feminist campaigners and a researcher from the organisation Human Rights Watch said six people had been arrested overnight in their homes by the country’s powerful National Security Agency, including a woman seized from her car in front of her building. Another was arrested at her holiday home after the NSA could not find her at her Cairo address.
Campaigners in contact with the detainees said some of the women had been forced to undergo vaginal examinations and the men anal examinations while in custody.
The group of witnesses were threatened with charges of “violating Egyptian family values”, “damaging Egypt’s public image” and “debauchery”, a charge frequently used to target members of the LGBTQ community.
“It’s a terrifying moment for the LGBTQ and the feminist community,” said Amr Magdi, a researcher at Human Rights Watch.
The three detained women had previously provided witness testimony in an investigation into an alleged gang rape in 2014, while two men seized with them were detained alongside the women.
A sixth man, a prominent event organiser, was detained in connection with the party at a central Cairo hotel six years ago, where a group of wealthy men allegedly filmed themselves gang-raping the woman at the centre of the ongoing investigation.
One of the women detained holds dual American-Egyptian citizenship. The US embassy has been contacted for comment.
Last month, Egypt’s public prosecutor issued arrest warrants for nine men accused of the rape. Activists said seven were connected to the alleged rape, while two were accused of other sexual assaults.
The Egyptian authorities asked Interpol to seek the arrest of seven men who fled the country, leading to the arrest of three in Lebanon. Two more were detained in Egypt. None has commented publicly on the charges against them.
The authorities’ move to detain the men was hailed as a landmark moment by campaigners who sought rare justice for survivors of sexual violence in Egypt, especially for crimes allegedly perpetrated by wealthy attackers. Months of grassroots organising provided a rare glimmer of hope for Egyptians, as activists pressured the authorities to detain and charge another prominent individual accused of multiple rapes, while MPs drafted laws to protect survivor testimony.
The government’s National Council for Women, a body affiliated with the Egyptian presidency and created to promote women’s issues, urged survivors and witnesses to come forward, promising them support and protection.
Yet the state soon moved to crush the attempt to bring down powerful men accused of sexual assault, and quickly widened the crackdown to target members of the LGBTQ community, feminists or simply elite partygoers. After the detentions, campaigners and their supporters quickly fell silent online, fearing attack or arrest.
“We went from being very proud to being terrified in a matter of a few hours,” said one activist, who could not be named for her own safety. “I’m afraid there will be more absurd arrests – it seems like they’re taking people to scare us into silence. The message from the state is: ‘You wanted a women’s revolution – this is what it looks like.’ Girls are going to bed with their clothes on in case someone comes into their house [to arrest them].”
Egypt’s public prosecution office issued a cryptic statement on the witnesses’ arrests, labelling them suspects. Prosecutors said three people were released on bail after investigators subjected them all to drug tests and seized their mobile phones.
Activists hit out at the National Council for Women, which they said abruptly cut contact after the arrests and reneged on their promises to protect survivors, witnesses, and campaigners who had supplied them with evidence. “I feel betrayed, absolutely betrayed. I think Maya Morsy should step down immediately,” said one activist, referring to the head of the NCW.
Morsy did not respond when contacted by the Guardian. A second member of the NCW also declined to comment.
After security forces seized witnesses’ phones, compromising pictures and video were leaked on to social media, accompanied by a smear campaign across local pro-government websites intended to discredit campaigners and witnesses.
“What’s happening right now is a loud message that if you speak up, your life will be destroyed or you’ll be imprisoned,” said one activist. He pointed to the contrast between earlier messages to witnesses, “that you will be protected, you will be anonymous”, and renewed efforts to shame anti-sexual assault campaigners.
“Who in their right mind would report a predator now after what’s happened?” he asked.