Sinai desert gangs torture victims with fire for ransom

Nov 26, 2012

'My body is burning,' Eritrean torture victim tells Radio 4 Today after desert kidnapping

GANGS of nomads are holding refugees hostage in Egypt's Sinai desert, torturing them daily with fire, beatings and rape and contacting their relatives with harrowing phone calls to demand large ransoms, according to vivid reports by the Today programme and The Sunday Times.

More than 10,000 such kidnappings have taken place in the last four years, with more than 2,000 ending in murder. Piles of bodies have been found with vital organs missing – presumed to have been sold into the illegal organ trade.

In the last fortnight alone, eight people have been burnt to death in the region after their families failed to pay ransoms, according to Dutch academic Mirjam van Reisen.

Most of the victims are from Eritrea, one of Africa's poorest countries. Many are fleeing conscription at home and hope to get to Israel, which is seen as less hostile to sub-Saharan Africans than other middle-eastern states - and less likely to deport refugees.

Refugees flee from Eritrea into neighbouring Sudan, which shares a border with Egypt to its north. They pay large sums of money to gangs who promise to get them to Israel. Instead, they end up captured by the nomadic Rashaida tribe who sell them to Egyptian Bedouins.

Victims are then taken to the other side of the Suez Canal, into Egypt's Sinai peninsula where they are kept on starvation rations, shackled, in large camps while ransoms can be sought.

The practice has gone on for years – The Guardian reported the case of a female victim back in February – but according to Van Reisen there has been an increase in deaths in the past few weeks as the gangs revel in their apparent immunity.

On Saturday, the Today programme carried an interview with a man called Philemon Semere who said he was being tortured every day by kidnappers who want $25,000 to release him.

Speaking by mobile phone to reporter Mike Thomson, who had arranged the interview through an Eritrean pastor who knows Semere's family, he said: "I have not enough food, I have not enough water.

"I've been hit by sticks and burnt by fire with electricity. Daily, burnt by fire and hit by sticks. My body is burning."

The call was interrupted by a man who said he was Semere's captor and asked Thomson to pay the ransom or "I must kill Philemon here". Asked by Thomson if he had murdered hostages in the past, the man said he had killed "a lot of people" and that kidnapping was the "work" he lived by.

The kidnapper told Thomson that Semere had only five days left to live if the ransom was not paid. Semere said: "Please help. Please help me, Mike. I haven't enough money. They will kill me. Please help me."

Amnesty International said the kidnappings and murders posed one of the most neglected human rights problems in the region, while Christian Solidarity Worldwide, a charity which has investigated them, said: "Eritreans are treated as a commodity. No one seems to be standing up for them."

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