EL ARISH, Egypt—Most of the women in the room are veiled in black, except for their eyes. And their eyes are angry.
They press forward impatiently to tell their stories. The painful details differ, but the theme is the same: a knock in the middle of the night; a father, son, brother taken away by security agents with promises that he'd be back in an hour or so; months without a word; evidence of torture.
After terrorists bombed popular resorts in Egypt's Sinai peninsula in October, killing 34, Egypt's security services went on a rampage in this city 170 miles northeast of Cairo, according to residents and human rights groups.
Homes were stormed. Families were held hostage to force them to give up their male relatives. At least 2,400 men were arrested.
Between 150 and 500 remain in detention. The government hasn't released any figures, and estimates vary. Rights groups and women who have visited them said that the men, who haven't been charged with any crimes, were tortured with beatings, electric shocks and other methods.
Now the women of el Arish want their men back.
Nefissa Mahmoud Shaaban, 67, is confined to a wheelchair by a stroke she said she suffered three days after her son was taken from her home. She carries a large photo of Hamdi Mahmoud Gabr el Khalily, pasted on cardboard, on her lap.
"They said they'd take him an hour or two and bring him back," Shaaban said. That was six months ago. "For three months we didn't even know where he was."
She begins to cry and dabs at her eyes with her head covering.
The women have been protesting for months, and more recently began holding sit-ins at the modest headquarters of the leftist Tagamaa political party, which sympathizes with them.
On a recent Thursday evening, some of the women meet with a Knight Ridder reporter to tell their stories. The next day, as men and boys return from midday Friday prayers at the mosque, three dozen women temporarily abandon the sit-in and pour into the street to protest.
Helmeted riot police have sealed off both ends of the dusty alleyway, standing shoulder to shoulder behind their shields. Plainclothes agents saunter about. More security forces are encamped a few blocks away at the el Rifai Mosque.
"Our sons' blood is very expensive!" the women shout, shaking their fists inches from the policemen's noses. They demand their relatives' return, a trial for a local security chief implicated in the abuse and an end to Egypt's draconian emergency law.
When the women start throwing stones and banging on metal storefronts, men from the Tagamaa party intervene to prevent violence.
The car bombings of the Taba Hilton, a resort popular with Israelis, and two other sites took place Oct. 7.
Mass arrests began Oct. 13, according to an Egyptian human rights group's report. Terrified residents at first thought the armed men dressed all in black were from Israel, which is not far away.
Five men accused of the bombing are in custody, all but one from el Arish, according to the government. Four others died in the bombing or in later shootouts with police.
Two of those in custody, Mohammed Abdulla Rabaa and Mohammed Gaber Sabbah, will be put on trial in the Supreme Emergency State Court, the government announced in late March. The court doesn't allow for appeals.
Rabaa, 42, a metal workshop owner, is accused of fitting explosives into the cars.
Members of his family, who say they are religious Muslims but not unusually so, told Knight Ridder in an interview last month that they don't believe Rabaa was involved in the plot.
"There has to be a scapegoat," said brother Ahmad, 40, who was arrested with another sibling, Ismail, 36, and later released. "I was in prison with them. I asked, `Mohammed, what have you done? Tell me so I can figure out the situation.' My brother told me: `I don't know any of these people.'"
The events in el Arish, a city of 125,000 on the Mediterranean, have put a new focus on the widespread practice of torture in Egypt.
This month, Egypt's National Council for Human Rights for the first time acknowledged that torture by police and security forces is systemic. It documented at least nine cases of death under torture last year.
The council called for the abolishment of the state of emergency, which dates from the 1981 assassination of President Anwar Sadat and grants wide powers to security agencies and emergency courts.
"We are waiting for the (government's) reaction" to the report, said Hafez Abu-Seada of the independent Egyptian Organization for Human Rights.
Abu-Seada, who was tortured as a student activist in Cairo, said attitudes are beginning to change as talk of political reform bubbles in Egypt.
El Arish suffers from, among other things, unfortunate geography.
The Sinai peninsula was occupied by Israel after the 1967 Arab-Israeli war and its residents are still sometimes treated as less than full Egyptians.
The city is about 40 miles from Egypt's border with the Gaza Strip, which Israel plans to turn over to Palestinian control this summer. Some residents here say the government of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak is determined to show Israel it can control the border, and they are paying the price.
Among el Arish's residents, there are differing opinions about what's happening. Some men, sitting in streetside cafes, refuse to talk at all, afraid it will earn them a trip to the police station.
But a local leader, Khaled Arafat, denounced the torture. "It's the same thing as Abu Ghraib or Guantanamo," he said, referring to abuses at U.S.-run detention facilities. He approves of the women's protests.
El Kashef Mohammed el Kashef, representative in parliament for this district and a member of the ruling National Democratic Party, does not.
El Kashef acknowledges that torture occurred and said he is against it, but added: "The rounding-up had to happen to find out the facts."
He accused the Tagamaa party, which provides a refuge for the women, of manipulating them to press its political reform agenda.
The demonstrations were "fine to start with. But now we've made our demands, and the security forces are responding," el Kashef said. After his meetings with government officials, the State Security Investigations Service has lived up to its promise to gradually release detainees, he said.
The women say they won't stop, despite telephoned threats from security agents against themselves and their families.
The state is creating thousands of enemies, says Manel, one of the protest leaders, who will not give her last name. The young woman, who says she has two brothers in custody, adds: "And it breaks my heart that I say this."
(Knight Ridder Newspapers correspondent Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson contributed to this report from el Arish).
(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.
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