Egyptian security forces have committed widespread abuses against civilians in restive northern Sinai Peninsula, some of which amount to war crimes, Human Rights Watch (HRW) said on Tuesday, urging other nations to halt military assistance.
In a 134-page report titled “If You Are Afraid for Your Lives, Leave Sinai!”, the group said it documented arbitrary arrests, enforced disappearances, torture, extrajudicial killings, forced evictions, and possibly unlawful air and ground attacks against civilians.
“Some of these abuses, part of an ongoing campaign against members of the local ISIS affiliate, the Wilayat Sina’ (Sinai Province group), amount to war crimes,” the report said. ISIS is an alternative acronym for the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant group (also known as ISIL).
Egyptian officials had no immediate comment.
HRW compiled the report over two years interviewing more than 50 residents of the Sinai Peninsula, in northeast Egypt, where independent media coverage is effectively banned and a state of emergency has been in force since 2013.
Some died in custody because of ill-treatment and lack of medical care, HRW said, citing former detainees.
Children as young as 12 have been detained in routine sweeps eventually being jailed in secret prisons.
“Instead of protecting Sinai residents in their fight against militants, the Egyptian security forces have shown utter contempt to residents’ lives, turning their daily life into a nonstop nightmare of abuses,” said Michael Page, HRW’s deputy Middle East and North Africa director.
The armed fighters have also committed horrific crimes, including kidnapping and torture of residents, some of whom were killed, the New York-based watchdog said. They have also killed captured members of the security forces, HRW said.
Access to northern Sinai has been restricted for years, making it difficult to independently verify what is happening on the ground.
The report said that tens of thousands of residents have been forcibly evicted or fled their homes due to the ongoing violence.
Alongside the report, a video was released showing footage of air raids on residents’ homes and extrajudicial killings of suspected armed fighters by security forces.
“Why all of this? Should we carry weapons and work with the militants or work with the army or live like victims? Everyone is preying on us,” said a North Sinai resident interviewed for the report.
Scenes of deadly attacks
Conflict in the Sinai escalated after President Mohamed Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood was toppled by the military in 2013.
According to HRW, the Egyptian military presence in Sinai has not been this large seen since the country’s 1979 peace treaty with Israel, which strictly limited armed forces in the Sinai Peninsula.
“However, since 2013, Israel has not only allowed a build-up of Egyptian military presence in the area beyond the treaty stipulations, but also according to media reports and official statements, aided the Egyptian government forces and probably participated in airstrikes against ISIS-affiliated militants,” the report said.
In late 2017, North Sinai was the scene of the deadliest attack in Egypt’s modern history when fighters killed more than 300 worshippers at a mosque, without any group claiming responsibility.
In February 2018, the army launched a nationwide operation against ISIL, focused on the North Sinai.
Some 650 armed fighters and around 45 soldiers have been killed since the start of the offensive, according to separate statements by the armed forces.
According to the Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy, Egyptian authorities have arrested more than 12,000 people while at least 3,076 alleged armed fighters and 1,226 military and police personnel were killed in North Sinai from 2014-2018.
The HRW report called on the United States, which gives $1.5bn annually in aid, and all Egypt’s other international partners to halt military and security assistance.
It also called on the Egyptian authorities to allow independent humanitarian and relief groups to conduct operations in Sinai, including the Egyptian Red Crescent and the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC).