London- The Sinai Foundation for Human Rights revealed in a report published on Tuesday the expansion of the area in which human rights abuses take place in Sinai to involve areas that were relatively stable two years earlier; like Bir al-Abd, where the foundation recorded 69 abuses, followed by al-Sheikh Zwayed with 49 abuses. The scale of abuses against women also increased, especially arbitrary arrests. According to the Sinai Foundation, the conflicting parties: the Egyptian law enforcement forces; the military and the police, and the ISIS-affiliate Sinai Province group both committed abuses, some of which amount to war crimes.
In its first annual report covering the years 2019 and 2020 in over 84 pages, titled “All We Want Is to Live”, the foundation revealed the dark reality of human rights in North Sinai where human rights organizations are not allowed and journalism is significantly restricted. The Sinai Foundation team recorded in the period covered by the report the murder of 112 civilians, 25 of whom were children and 22 were women, and the injury of 134 others, 36 of whom were children, at the hands of the conflicting parties. This number of victims is the portion we managed to record. The foundation also conducted interviews with 212 eyewitnesses, victims’ relatives, and local citizens.
Ahmad Salem, the executive director of the Sinai Foundation for Human Rights, said:
“The number of abuses recorded in the report shows a non-written agreement between the conflicting parties on the disregard for human rights or the lives and dignity of the people of Sinai, which led to vast areas of Sinai becoming unsuitable for life, where abuses and violation of civilians are rampant.”
The report recorded airstrikes by the military that led to 5 bloody massacres that killed 30 civilians and injured 22 others. The authorities did not admit to the fall of any civilian victims to gunfire by government forces since the launch of the military operation in Sinai. The Sinai Foundation acquired a video recording an unprecedented confession by government officials, namely the governor of North Sinai, admitting before victims’ relatives to an accidental airstrike that targeted a house belonging to al-Khalfat family in al-Gora village, southern al-Sheikh Zwayed, on 27 May 2019. However, the foundation acquired medical documents stating that the victims of that incident died due to an airstrike from an unknown source, which is the usual behavior by the authorities to evade responsibility when military operations lead to civilian casualties.
The report also recorded multiple incidents where the Egyptian military intentionally bombed and destroyed civilian properties, incidents of forced displacement of civilians, random gunshots fired from military ambushes, and extrajudicial executions.
On the other hand, the report also recorded numerous abuses by the Sinai Province group, based on religious identity, as it systematically targeted Christians and Sufis, in addition to abducting and executing several local citizens who were not part of any armed hostilities, claiming that they were in cooperation with the military.
The Foundation also documented in the period covered by the report the killing of 22 civilians, including 10 women and 7 children, and the injury of 23 others due to explosive devices and field mines. The villages in Bir al-Abad witnessed the most prominent bloody chapter, due to the fall of civilian victims upon their return to their villages in Bir al-Abd after being displaced earlier as a result of ISIS militants seizing control of those villages on 21 July 2020, leading to the death of 16 civilians, and the injury of 18 others within 14 days. This also reflects the government authorities’ failure to sweep the area for land mines and their disregard for the lives of civilians who wanted to go back to their homes and villages.
The Sinai Foundation for Human Rights considers military operations happening in Sinai to be a non-international armed conflict. Therefore, the Laws of War, or what is known as the International Humanitarian Law applies here, as the conflict in the area has been going on for a long period of time, and its intensity increased to the point of requiring the use of military force; including aircraft, tanks, artillery, infantry, naval weapons, and others. This exceeds the standard limits of law enforcement operations. The prolonged operations since late 2013 led to thousands of deaths and injuries in the ranks of civilians, government forces and armed groups. Both conflicting parties have a clear level of coordination that gives their operations a specific regulatory framework. The Sinai Province group did not succeed at seizing full control of lands, but there are areas where the group has great power, making citizens who lived there simultaneously under the influence of both the group and the government.
The Sinai Foundation for Human Rights concluded that the behaviors of the conflicting parties led to crushing basic civilian rights, and some of those behaviors have become routine to the conflicting parties.
The Sinai Foundation reviewed all official data released by the Ministries of Defense and Interior about North Siani. The Ministry of Interior published 21 releases stating a total of 158 persons killed, while the Ministry of Defense published 12 releases stating a total of 548 persons killed. All data points to the victims being armed militants who died in clashes with government forces. The foundation found concrete evidence that government forces provided false information in three official statements published by the Ministries of Defence and Interior spokesmen, which poses many questions about the reliability of those statements.
The Sinai Foundation team also followed up on tens of cases of unlawful arbitrary arrest of civilians by the authorities, some of which lasted for months with no official criminal charges or judicial procedures. In other cases, detainees, among whom were women and children, spent long periods of time in prison to force some of their relatives to turn themselves in to the authorities. A woman who was detained for four months told the foundation team about what she witnessed during her incarceration in a police station in al-Arish:
“All detained women had a family member who was wanted. No laws in the world prosecute innocent people in the place of others, and it’s even harder when that wanted person is already detained by a security authority but they didn’t know”.
During the period covered by the report, local citizens launched appeals on social media platforms requesting the cease of random gunshots heavily fired from police and military ambushes with no clashes in the surrounding area or any possible military targets, instead, as routine to secure the area and make sure there are no threats. The foundation recorded some cases where ambushes fired deadly shots at civilian targets that did not seem to be or act as a threat, as the foundation recorded 26 deaths and 33 injuries as a result of random gunshots from military and security ambushes.
During that same period, forced displacement and destruction of civilian properties in most areas of North Sinai did not stop either. The least of such cases took place in Rafah because it is almost totally uninhabited after its people were almost totally evicted and forcibly displaced after an official resolution was released to create the buffer zone at the borders with Gaza Strip in October 2014. However, military operations to demolish uninhabited houses in Rafah accelerated during that period, and the foundation team managed to acquire exclusive videos recording the detonation of houses outside the buffer zone in numerous areas in western Rafah and northern al-Sheikh Zwayed, including the villages of al-Sakadra, al-Wifaq, al-Matala, al-Husainat, and al-Khrafin.
The Sinai Foundation recorded an expansion in the area where the Sinai Province group attacks civilians, as well as recording the murder and execution of civilians, claiming that they were in cooperation with the military and security forces. We also recorded the group’s execution of unlawful murders of civilians who worked in military businesses, like the group’s attack on civilian workers during their work on building a wall around al-Arish airport on 22 June 2019, killing 5 workers.
We also recorded tens of abductions of non-combatant civilians during that period, most of which took place in Bir al-Abd, al-Sheikh Zwayed, and al-Arish. The abducted were all civilians who took no part in the conflict, therefore maintaining their classification as civilians, as stated by laws of conflict. The foundation team noticed a repetitive pattern with the abductions, where the group neglects to mention the abductions through its official media outlets, later releasing the abducted after detaining and interrogating them for days, using psychological and physical torture in some cases to extract information.
Furthermore, the report recorded a number of militants turning themselves in after semi-secret initiatives with the military through some tribe elders who try to negotiate with members of their tribes involved with the group to put down their weapons, where they are later interrogated after being transferred to security bases. The foundation could not find definitive information on the whereabouts of the centres where those militants were detained or where they stayed, and on whether investigations took place to determine if those militants participated in gross violations that should not be pardoned. However, the military spokesman shared a video clip on 9 March 2021 showing armed militants turning themselves in at military blockades in eastern Sinai.
“ISIS must be held accountable for its gross violations. The group committed crimes against local citizens that amount to war crimes, including crimes that have no statute of limitations, whose perpetrators must be prosecuted”.