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Egyptian activist held after tweeting video allegedly showing officer burning civilian

Nermine Hussein was among thousands who shared footage, intensifying concerns over military's alleged human rights violations in Sinai
Hussein was freed from an Egyptian prison last May after being held for nine months without charge (Twitter/@freedom202010)
By Shahenda Naguib in Cairo

An Egyptian activist has been detained for 15 days after posting a video purportedly showing an Egyptian military officer mutilating and torching the body of a civilian in Sinai, her family members and lawyers tell Middle East Eye.

Nermine Hussein, an outspoken government critic based in Cairo, was one of thousands who tweeted the footage last Thursday, along with the name of the officer said to be featured in the video.

The video had gone viral earlier that day after it was first made public by Abdullah al-Sharif, host of a political satire show on YouTube, and intensified concerns over persistent accusations of abuse and extrajudicial killings by Egypt’s security forces in their seven-year-old campaign against militants in northern Sinai. 

In the three-minute clip, a special forces officer is seen kicking the body of a civilian, mutilating one of the person’s fingers and then setting the body alight. 

Screenshot of Abdullah al-Sharif's show which aired on YouTube last Thursday (YouTube)
Screenshot of Abdullah al-Sharif's show which aired on YouTube last Thursday (YouTube)

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MEE is unable to verify the authenticity of the video. The Egyptian government denies journalists and rights groups access to Sinai and has not commented widely, along with the military or pro-state media, on the footage.

Kamal Amer, chairman of the parliamentary Defence and National Security Committee in the Egyptian parliament, however, told MEE that the video was a fake and was being used “to shake the relationship between the military and the people”.

Hussein’s family said she was picked up last Friday, soon after she posted a tweet reporting that state security agents were about to detain her. Her Twitter account has since been deleted.

She was then taken to Abdeen police station and put in solitary confinement for a night, before being referred to the prosecution in Egypt’s New Cairo district where she was interrogated, the family said.

She was charged on Sunday by the state security prosecution with publishing false news and aiding a terrorist organisation.

Her lawyers say they plan to file a complaint with prosecutors after Hussein was stopped from bringing disinfectant and a face mask into prison and was forced to sleep in a prison cell crammed with inmates, despite concerns over the spread of the coronavirus in the country.

Lingering accusations

The counterterrorism campaign in north Sinai has been rife with accusations of abuse since its launch in 2013.

The government, including the foreign ministry and State Information Service (SIS), has repeatedly denied reports from human rights organisations and foreign media outlets covering the alleged violations.

'Sinai is our Vietnam': Horror stories Egyptian soldiers tell from the front line
Read More »

The SIS has previously called on foreign reporters and outlets to report only what is being released by the Egyptian military regarding its operations in Sinai. 

Sharif, the host who first shared the video and said it came into his possession after one of the officers who took the video shared it with others to brag about it, aired it as part of a discussion about how the military’s activities in Sinai had been whitewashed.

He said that Egyptian security forces were kidnapping civilians in Sinai, executing them and later taking pictures of their bodies, claiming that they died after an exchange of fire and labelling them as terrorists.

“Even if he was a Zionist, there is no religion or faith that justify this being done to a human being or even an animal,” Sharif said of the civilian in the clip. 

'There is no religion or faith that justify this being done to a human being or even an animal'

-  Abdullah al-Sharif, host of YouTube show

He likened the footage to the murder of Muath al-Kasasbeh, the Royal Jordanian Air Force pilot who was burned alive by the Islamic State group in December 2014 after his plane was shot down in Syria. IS filmed the act and released the footage publicly.

The episode in which Sharif shared the footage was suspended for several hours after it was first posted and later became available only to adult YouTube users.

Sharif justified publishing the video saying that he hopes “it will be used by the family of the deceased man in the video to claim justice one day”.

Rumours or commonplace? 

A military conscript who served in northern Sinai from 2013 to 2016 told MEE that the behaviour seen in the footage was common and that civilians accused of aiding militants or participating in attacks were frequently killed on site or buried without documentation.

“Sometimes, the kids [soldiers] pose with the bodies as a sign of victory, because they suspect they avenged their fallen friends,” said the conscript, who spoke on condition of anonymity.

'When false rumours like the one you mentioned get spread, people will start losing faith in the authorities'

- Kamal Amer, chair of Egypt's Defence and National Security Committee

“The soldiers and officers go on raids to seek revenge so there can be some anger.”

When asked about the legality of the soldiers’ actions, he said: “Civilians or people who are not in Sinai might not understand. But when you find the person who might have informed on your colleague or your officer, you turn into a different person.”

But Amer, the Defence and National Security Committee chairman, said that the video had been “edited and distorted” and was being used to stir up controversy at a sensitive moment.

“The country now is being protected by the army against the danger of the corona[virus]. So when false rumours like the one you mentioned get spread, people will start losing faith in the authorities and chaos will begin,” he said.

Sheikh Emad, a member of the prominent north Sinai Sawarka tribe, told MEE that he could not verify the person in the video, but he is aware of many similar cases. 

“Many young men were later found in the desert killed or mutilated. We are now confused whether this is the work of the jihadists [IS militants] or the army,” he said.

Hussein was released from Al-Qanater women’s prison last May after serving nine months, after she and 15 others, including a former Egyptian diplomat, were accused and interrogated - but never charged - over accusations that they aided a terrorist organisation, receiving funding for terrorist purposes and intending to commit terrorist crimes.

She is expected to be questioned again after her 15-day detention period ends and her lawyers anticipate that her detention may be renewed, a common practice in the Egyptian legal system today.

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