Egyptian authorities look the other way as Bedouin kidnap refugees
Horrific tales are emerging from Sinai of Bedouin gangs holding Israel-bound
refugees to ransom
Greenwood in Tel Aviv
> guardian.co.uk, Thursday, 16 February
2012 18.00 GMT
* An Eritrean refugee talks about being tortured in Sinai.
-sinai-video> Link to this video
Hundreds of African refugees are being held hostage in the Sinai desert of
> Egypt by smugglers demanding up to
$40,000 (£25,000) each for their release,
> human rights workers have
A brutal trafficking industry has flourished over the past year in which
Bedouin gangs, emboldened by their apparent impunity, extort higher and
higher prices for kidnapped migrants.
Most of the hostages are Eritrean and Sudanese asylum seekers who paid
$3,000 each to the gangs to get them to the Israeli border. Instead, they
are subjected to daily <http://www.guardian.co.uk/law/torture
> torture as
their captors phone their relatives at home and abroad demanding huge sums
to spare their lives.
Asmerom (not his real name) receives 10 calls a day from a childhood friend,
who is among 30 women and 12 men from Eritrea held in one Sinai camp. She
contacts him because, unlike her family, he lives in
> Israel and might have access to
money. She tells him they are being starved, beaten and burned with electric
The 19-year-old's captors initially demanded $40,000 for each of the 42
hostages but after three weeks, dropped the price to $30,000. The smugglers
say Asmerom, 20, needs to get the money to their agent in Israel quickly or
they will kill her.
"They call me when they are beating her. Her hands and feet are tied so they
put the phone up to her mouth while she is screaming," said Asmeron,
clutching his phone in his hands. He looked aghast when it rings.
"I don't understand them, they're speaking Arabic. Listen, she keeps crying:
'Help me, help me.' What can I do?"
Physicians for Human Rights (PHR), an Israeli NGO, say Asmerom has little
choice but to try to raise the money. PHR runs a clinic in Jaffa, south of
Tel Aviv, offering medical care to asylum seekers and foreign workers who,
without official status in Israel, are ineligible for anything but emergency
Every year several thousand Africans, most of them from Eritrea and Sudan,
try to get into Israel – something the Israelis are eager to halt.
Over the past 18 months, PHR has interviewed 900 people who have been
tortured in the Sinai, and have traced a
> human trafficking network
that extends to the refugee camps in Sudan and Eritrea. The NGO knows of at
least 350 people being held now.
Its clinic in Jaffa is familiar with the injuries inflicted by these gangs.
Torture methods include pouring hot plastic on victim's body, electric
shocks, rape – including penetration with objects – and branding with hot
irons. If these methods fail to extort enough cash, survivors say the
smugglers either kill their hostages or sell their organs.
"We have heard of mass graves of hundreds of people," said Shahar Shoham,
who heads PHR research into the Sinai torture camps.
Mogos Redae, 33, was released last June after nine months. His family raised
money to free him by selling their house and valuables. He is lucky to be
His captors would apply electric shocks to him and his fellow hostages in
front of young children, encouraging the toddlers to laugh as the victims
screamed in agony. Three men held with him died as a result of the beatings,
one while he was shackled to Redae.
"We fell asleep huddled together but when they tried to wake him, he was
dead," said Redae. "They wrapped him in a bed sheet and threw him on the
car, like garbage. They did this to me three times. They threw me to the car
and then saw I was alive.
"Nobody stops you from calling whoever you want because they want the money.
As long as the person you are calling is fruitful."
After three weeks of phone calls, Asmerom could no longer bear listening to
his friend's screams. He turned off his phone and started trying to raise
He contacted his friend's parents in Eritrea, who scrabbled to produce
$17,000 by selling the family home. He has given all the money he can. So
have his friends and even his employer – an elderly Israeli man he cares for
three days a week. He now has $24,000, but it is not enough for the captors
and he has exhausted all his options.
"I went to the police station in Jerusalem. I waited for five hours and I
told them everything. They said come back when I've raised all the money.
They didn't tell me how to do that. Frankly, they didn't seem to care,"
A spokesperson for the Israeli police said they were unable to comment on
the case or any other without investigating each fully, while Israel's
defence ministry said it would be inappropriate to comment on an internal
Egyptian issue. A spokesperson for the Egyptian ministry of the interior
claimed to have no information on trafficking or torture in the Sinai
But Shoham said: "We know the names of the smugglers and their locations. We
have briefed the Egyptian embassy in Israel but so far the Egyptian
authorities are not doing anything.
"It is the responsibility of the Egyptian government to stop the
traffickers. It is also the responsibility of Israel to protect the victims,
but instead the ransoms are getting higher and the stories of torture are
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Received on Thu Feb 16 2012 - 14:43:32 EST