Rights groups question antiterror campaign

Human rights groups have questioned the way the Egyptian government is handling operations to capture suspected terrorists following a shootout on Sunday in the North Sinai governorate on Egypt's Mediterranean coastline.

Three high-profile bombing suspects, 11 Bedouins and two police officers were killed in the incident.

A press statement from the Interior Ministry said the three men – suspected by the government of having played key roles in the preparation and execution of attacks on the South Sinai coastal resorts of Taba and Sharm el-Sheikh in October 2004 and July 2005 respectively - were shot dead during an operation by antiterrorist forces.

Sunday's incident is the latest in a string of similar operations, usually carried out in absolute secrecy.

"It follows on precisely from action taken by the security forces ever since the bombing of Taba," said Fadi al-Qadi of Human Rights Watch.

"Though human rights groups and activists across the board condemn such attacks outright, it is of the utmost importance to question whether the government's investigations are being carried out in a transparent and legal fashion," he maintained.

Ever since the bombings, authorities have carried out an intensive campaign - focused on Sinai, which is inhabited by about 10 Bedouin tribes - to find those it suspects of being behind the attacks.

In a 2005 report, Human Rights Watch expressed concern over allegations of mass arbitrary arrests and detentions in North Sinai following the Taba bombings.

Al-Qadi emphasised that "it is key that we respect the rights, if not of the suspects, then at least of the public" to have access to information on the government's operations in Sinai after October 2004.

Comparing the lack of transparency to "a locked grid", Ahmad Sef al-Islam, a lawyer and human rights activist with the Hisham Mubarak Law Centre, said: "What we are continuing to witness is a complete lack of transparency in the [antiterrorist] procedures. We don't even know the names of the defendants or detainees."

According to the ministry, one of the dead men - Salem Kheidr al-Shenoub, who was of Egyptian Bedouin origin - had played a "key role in the terrorist attacks on Sinai." He was killed along with his cousin and brother-in-law, who were also suspects, after they opened fire on security forces. Prior to Sunday, they had been in hiding.

The statement added that 11 Bedouins were killed during the shootout. Thirty-seven others who were arrested after the incident later confessed to their own involvement in the preparation of the Sinai attacks.

On 6 October 2004, attacks on tourist locations in Taba killed 30 people, most of them Israelis, while a triple bombing in Sharm El Sheikh on 23 July this year killed around 65.

Following the Taba bombing, security forces detained over 1,000 people and held them without charge for varying amounts of time.

"The trials of around 30 suspects are still ongoing, but one of the many problems involved is that such an atmosphere of fear and intimidation has been built up that the families of the detained are too scared to even approach a lawyer for help," Sef al-Islam said.

According to Egyptian law, no lawyer is allowed to attend a trial unless he has been specifically solicited by a defendant. As a consequence, the suspects are being tried without access to legal defence.

Sef al-Islam noted, however, that relatively speaking, "the government's treatment of the population of Sinai has improved lately, at lease in comparison to the aftermath of the Taba attacks."