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Families of Sinai suspects angry at treatment by Egypt security forces

Relatives of those arrested say their loved ones are innocent, decry 'brutal' arrests and house searches by army and police saying such treatment will further alienate Sinai residents

Ashraf Omran and Ahmed Hafez, Sunday 12 Aug 2012
Sinai
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The army and the media have been celebrating the recent arrests of apparent terrorists in connection with the attack at the Rafah border last week which killed 16 Egyptian border guards. But those arrested, according to their relatives, are not the real culprits.

At the entrance of Sheikh Zuweid, a town situated between Rafah and Al-Arish, Hazem, a bearded young man affiliated with the Salafi movement, was waiting to take us to the homes of the suspects.

Hazem, 28, went into a tirade as soon as he started driving. The army is treating us as if we are not Egyptian, as if we were not patriots, as if we never protected the country's security, as if we never confronted attempts to destabilise Sinai, he told us.

Within minutes, the car swung into a narrow street, lined with one-storey buildings set behind olive trees.

The first house we visited was that of Sheikh Salmi Salama Suweilam, a man who the police claim is Egypt's "Bin Laden."

Salmi, 69, was picked up by the police last Friday. His son, Soleiman, a mechanical engineer, was accused of involvement in the Taba bombings and was detained without trial for three years.

Salmi's wife, who wears a face veil, was sitting on the floor at the entrance to the house.

"My husband is innocent. Praise be to Allah. They left the culprits and caught the sheep breeder," she declared.

According to her, masked men wearing black stormed the house on Friday morning, shouting "Saaqa, Saaqa" (Saaqa, or thunderbolt, is the name of the army's shock troop corps).

The masked men told Salmi's wife to stay motionless, and when she started asking questions, she received a knock on the head.

One of the soldiers, the wife said, stayed with her while the others fanned out in the house, searching for Salmi. The soldiers broke the family's bed and armoire and scattered objects around the room.

Salmi is a common law judge. As a respected elder, he presides over dispute settlement sessions. When he was arrested, he was asleep in his room.

"My husband is 70 years old. He was sleeping in his underwear. They didn't allow him to put on his clothes. They handcuffed him and took him to an unknown destination. Is everyone with a beard a terrorist?" his wife said.

As Salmi's wife burst into tears, her son Soleiman, addressed us. "By Allah we have no weapons. We go to the mosque to pray and then we go home. Why are they treating us this way?"

Salmi's wife, continued to plead her husband's case. "We were hoping President Morsi would be good to us. We all stood by his side. But now, I say: Allah will punish him for what he's done."

Next door lives Salama Salmi Salamah, another suspect in the case. He was arrested while tending to his sheep in the olive orchard.

Salama's eldest son, Said, is a member of the Salafi movement. According to Said, army officers, shock troops, central security personnel, police dogs, and armed personnel carriers all arrived in town to arrest his father.

Did his father, we asked, have a state security record?

"All bearded people here have security records." Said told us, adding that the current measures would backfire.

"If the police and the army continue to deal with us in this manner, the consequences will be catastrophic, I warn you," Said told us.

We asked him to clarify the meaning of "catastrophic". He explained that more people will be tempted to join the outlaws living in the nearby mountains.

"To continue to arrest innocent people at random is something that will drive people from the town and into the mountains. People will have to escape from the brutality of the army and the police," he said.

His father served in the army's national guard as a volunteer in the 1960s, a fact Said is still proud of.

"We are Salafis. We don't hide it," Said added.

He asked us to relay this message to the army: "If you want to come into our homes, you had better ask us to fight on your side, not arrest us as terrorists."

On Friday, the police arrested three brothers: Talaat, Ahmed, and Mohamed Jamaan. Having failed to locate any of their relatives, we talked to their neighbours who said that Talaat was bearded and leads the prayers in the mosque. But Mohamed and Ahmed rarely attend.

In a house that is only a few minutes away from the Sheikh Zuweid Police Station, we met the wife of Eid Zorei, who had been detained for five years in connection with the Taba bombings.

Eid was never tried or convicted, and was freed 18 months ago, only after the revolution.

"It was six o'clock on Friday morning when we heard the tanks rolling up our street. Eid woke up and went to the door. As soon as he opened up, the soldiers caught him and tied his hands behind his back, and used bad language all the time," his wife, who wears a full-face veil, said, in tears.

The soldiers then woke up her daughter and her son, who were sleeping on the roof.

"They kicked my son with their boots," the wife said, referring to the masked soldiers.

"We are not Israel to be treated so."

She pointed out that if they were guilty, they would have run to the mountain, as the outlaws do.

Eid's wife said that they live in town and not far from the police station. Her husband couldn't have participated in an attack and then gone to bed as if nothing had happened, she said.

Eid didn't belong to any group and he cried when he heard of the death of Egyptian soldiers, his wife told us.

"I know that my husband is innocent. He was praying in the mosque with other people all around him when the attack happened," she said.

Eid's wife blames her husband ordeal on President Morsi. She, too, asked us to relay a message to the new president.

"Morsi, we had great hopes for you. When you won we prostrated ourselves to give thanks to Allah. We thought, Morsi will set us free. But we are now back to the same old ways. Nothing has changed, only the names," Eid's wife said, then broke into tears again.

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