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By Farah Maraqa
(WOMENSENEWS)--As the second semester of the academic year is starting in Egypt, female students arrested last December in Cairo during demonstrations at Al-Azhar University remain in detention.
They are part of a military crackdown on Islamists over the past eight months that the Associated Press reported on March 17 has put 16,000 people behind bars in one of the largest roundups of Egyptian citizens in two decades.
A court committee postponed the female prisoners' appeal from March 12 to April 2, claiming that the young women did not attend the court session, the Arabic-language Aml Alommah reported March 12.
Universities witnessed numerous clashes after the start of the academic year in October amid frequent rallies supporting former Islamist President Mohamed Morsi, who was toppled on July 3, Ahram Online reported in December.
During political tensions over the Morsi ouster, the Egyptian Supreme Council of Universities in February banned any campus activities in support of any presidential candidates. Angered students see the move as a return to the politically repressive era of former President Hosni Mubarak, who was driven from power by street demonstrations in 2011.
In February the London-based organization British Egyptians for Democracy said in a press statement that the group had received complaints from the families of the 12 female students from Al-Azhar University who remain imprisoned.
"Families reported that the girls were assaulted, tortured, sexually harassed and had their Islamic head covers removed by security and police officers following their arrest," the statement said.
Male Students Take Stand
A group of male students at Egypt's Al-Azhar University launched a "Detain Us and Release the Women" campaign to take the place of female classmates whose sentences they described as "retaliatory," the Cairo Post reported March 11.
Detain Us and Release the Women said in statement that eight female detainees were forced to undergo virginity tests and 35 were forced to take pregnancy tests. It also said that 98 female students, 35 of whom are from the Al-Azhar University branch in Cairo, were detained during the fall semester.
In an effort to discourage further campus unrest, the dean of Al-Azhar University, a bastion of Arabic studies and Islamist literature with a history stretching back to the 10th century, has barred 500 students who took part in the protests from campus housing this semester, the Arabic-language daily newspaper Al-mesryoon reported March 12. He described the students as rule breakers and said the decision was made by the disciplinary boards in colleges.
Al-Azhar has two campuses outside Egypt; one in Gaza City, in the Palestinian territories, founded in 1991, and the other in Doha, Qatar, which was founded in 2008.
As Women's eNews previously reported, Women Against the Coup is a group that has been trying to keep track of women in detention. A leader of the group said they have documented 150 cases of women who are currently detained.
Many of the women arrested since July 2013 are students, some as young as 15, Fatima Said, spokesperson for British Egyptians for Democracy, told Women's eNews last month. Since they are minors, they are being detained in juvenile centers, but they are still going through the same kind of sexual abuse, torture and harsh treatments meted out to adults.
What legitimizes these arrests, according to Said, is the "protest law," which restricts the right to public assembly, signed in late November by interim President Adly Mansour.
The law has given the Interior Ministry wide discretionary powers over protests, including the use of firearms against peaceful protesters. Protesters convicted of breaking the law can face up to five years in prison and fines of $14,513.
Most of the detainees are linked to the Muslim Brotherhood, the party of the ousted Morsi, who is now facing trial in a court on the outskirts of Cairo along with 14 other party leaders on charges of inciting the murder and torture of opposition protesters outside the presidential palace in December 2012.
In a related incident, a female student was arrested at Suez Canal University for keeping pictures of Morsi in her personal bag, the Arabic-language Egyptian People Online reported March 12. While the student was seized inside the campus, her classmates gathered in front of the administration building and carried pictures and banners of their detainee classmates.
Farah Maraqa is a Jordanian reporter for Women's eNews. She is working for the Amman-based Al-Arab Al-yawm newspaper and the London-based Rai Al-Yaum news portal from her country and specializes in Middle East politics issues.
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