msnbc.com staff and news service reports
updated 5/31/2011 2:34:06 PM ET 2011-05-31T18:34:06

Activists and bloggers are pressing Egypt's military rulers to investigate accusations of serious abuses against protesters, including claims that soldiers subjected female detainees to so-called "virginity tests."

Bloggers say they will hold a day of online protest Wednesday to voice their outrage, adding to criticism of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, which took control of the country from ousted President Hosni Mubarak in February.

In the face of the criticism, four journalists along with a prominent blogger were summoned for questioning by the military prosecutor, according to a rights group. They were released without charges.

Hossam el-Hamalawy, the blogger, tweeted: "The visit to the military prosecutor became a chat, where they wanted clarifications for my accusations."

Story: Egyptian bloggers brave police intimidation

The virginity test allegations first surfaced after a March 9 rally in Cairo's Tahrir Square that turned violent when men in plainclothes attacked protesters and the army intervened forcefully to clear the square.

One woman who was arrested spoke out about her treatment, and Amnesty International further documented the abuse allegations in a report that found 18 female detainees were threatened with prostitution charges and forced to undergo virginity tests. They were also beaten up and given electric shocks, the report said.

A senior general, who asked not to be identified, told CNN that the virginity tests had been carried out.

"The girls who were detained were not like your daughter or mine," the general said, according to the broadcaster. "These were girls who had camped out in tents with male protesters in Tahrir Square, and we found in the tents Molotov cocktails and (drugs)."

"We didn't want them to say we had sexually assaulted or raped them, so we wanted to prove that they weren't virgins in the first place," the general added. "None of them were."

Egypt's military rulers have come under heavy criticism from the youth protest movement, which is upset at the pace of reforms that they hope will lead Egypt to democracy.

Leaders of more than 20 youth groups on Tuesday turned down an invitation from the military government for a "national dialogue" meeting on Wednesday, saying it was hastily called while human rights violations and attempts to silence critics continued. The invitation was issued two days before the conference was to be held.

"The way revolutionary groups were invited to the dialogue indicates lack of seriousness in dealing with them," the groups said in a statement. "We can't accept this dialogue in light of the military trials of revolutionaries, violations of military police, lack of investigations into those."

Since Mubarak's fall on Feb. 11, the military has led crackdowns on peaceful protests, and critics accuse it of failing to restore security in the streets or launch serious national dialogue on a clear path forward for Egypt.

The military council denied soldiers attacked protesters at the March 9 rally. But one general used a news conference to make negative remarks about women who mingle with men during the sit-ins and suggested lewd acts were taking place in protest camps.

"There were girls with young men in one tent. Is this rational? There were drugs; pay attention!" Gen. Ismail Etman, the council spokesman, said at the end of March.

He confirmed then that the military police arrested 17 female protesters among 170 others at the March 9 rally. He said the women were among a group of protesters given one-year suspended prison sentences.

"We secure the people. We don't use the violence," he said.

At the peak of the protests, the now-ousted regime sought to characterize the protesters as a group of rambunctious youth more intent on spreading chaos than genuine reform. Even after Mubarak's ouster, that notion carries some resonance in Egypt's conservative society, where the idea that unmarried women would spend the night with strangers — albeit in public — carried the tacit implication that the women were loose.

One of the women arrested, Salwa el-Husseini, gave a detailed account at a news conference in March of her treatment and said she was made to undergo a virginity test.

She said she was slapped in the face and subjected to electric shocks in her legs before being taken to a military prison.

"When we went to the military prison, me and the girls, we were placed in a room with two doors and a window. The two doors were wide open," she said. "The girl takes off all her clothes to be searched while there were cameras outside filming to fabricate prostitution charges against us later on," she added.

"The girl who says she is single, she undergoes a test by someone; we don't know if he is a soldier or some kid on their behalf," she said.

Amnesty said in its report that one of the women told her jailers she was a virgin but was beaten and given electric shocks when the test supposedly proved otherwise.

"Forcing women to have 'virginity tests' is utterly unacceptable," the Amnesty report said. "Its purpose is to degrade women because they are women."

The military council has promised to return the country to civilian rule after elections later this year, but some Egyptians fear the council is adopting the same autocratic ways that characterized Mubarak's rule. They point to what they say are attempts by the council to make any criticism of the military taboo.

The Arabic Network for Human Rights Information, in a statement Tuesday, said that the questioning of journalists or bloggers was an attempt to silence critics and create "an atmosphere of fear."

It warned: "The military council is committing a grave mistake if it continues to shut the mouths of those criticizing it. The council is not made up of angels."

The group also referred to virginity tests, saying that the military council is aware that "those belonging to it have practiced torture against the youth of the revolution and has subjected women to virginity tests."

Also Tuesday, in a rare move, Egypt's interior minister ordered an investigation into reports that a detainee was tortured to death in police custody. Torture of prisoners was a main issue that sparked the revolt that toppled Mubarak.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Photos: Egypt bloggers persistent in protests

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  1. Meeting where they can

    Egypt has the largest and most active blogosphere in the Arab world, and their work is done at great personal risk, facing arrest, prison, torture -- and even death, in some cases, says British photojournalist Anastasia Taylor-Lind, who is based in the Middle East. In this photo, the 'godfather' of Egyptian bloggers Wael Abbas, right, with fellow activists Kareem El Behiry, center, and Ahmed El Sayad, left, at Al Borsah Cafe in downtown Cairo, Egypt in 2010. Many bloggers are the children of Cairo’s intellectuals, radicals and activists and they gather late into the night in the shabby downtown street cafes their parents inhabited in the 1960s and 70s. (Anastasia Taylor-Lind / VII Mentor) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. Satellites offer access

    A view over the satellite-topped rooftops of downtown Cairo, Egypt. Egypt, the Middle East’s business leader, is unique among its Arab neighbors in that it does not restrict the flow of information online. This is due to the “Ministry of Communications and Information Technology “ which has a policy of keeping the Internet open to encourage commerce and investment. In addition, the government also promotes a one laptop per child policy and offers payment plans for as little as 45 Egyptian pounds ($8) a month to students who wish to purchase computers. (Anastasia Taylor-Lind / VII Mentor) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. Long, familiar effort

    Blogger Nora Younis reads the morning paper on her balcony at home in Maadi, Cairo, Egypt. She is also a journalist and editor for Al-Masry Al-Youm newspaper, and writes about human rights abuses, something she has spent years documenting. In 2008, she and an activist from another country shared the annual Human Rights award from the Human Rights First Organization. (Anastasia Taylor-Lind / VII Mentor) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. Bringing bloggers to the fore

    Ehab El Zelaky, Web editor for the independent newspaper Al-Masry Al-Youm, pictured in the newsroom in Cairo, Egypt. El Zelaky is considered one of the first Egyptian print editors to engage bloggers in the print media. The bloggers are supported by IT specialists, human rights lawyers, and independent newspaper editors. (Anastasia Taylor-Lind / VII Mentor) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. Making and following the news

    Ahmed Garbeia, a freelance software engineer who organizes workshops for bloggers, is pictured at his family home in Al Moqatam, Cairo, Egypt. (Anastasia Taylor-Lind / VII Mentor) Back to slideshow navigation
  6. Initially, driven by reports of women's torture

    Human rights blogger Noha Atef poses for a portrait on the street outside Al Shorouk newspaper offices, where she also works as a journalist, in Mohandessin, Cairo, Egypt. Her interest in her country's human-rights abuses was sparked by reading a report about how women were tortured in police stations. Online young Egyptian activists speak freely and can escape political repression by challenging the regime openly on their blogs. They write about the country’s record of human rights abuses, police torture and social injustices, often distributing information about events and incidents that would otherwise be unreported. (Anastasia Taylor-Lind / VII Mentor) Back to slideshow navigation
  7. A break from the pressure

    Blogger and political activist Shahinez Abdelsalam pictured in a cafe in downtown Cairo, Egypt. The following day Abdelsalam emigrated to France because she was 'too tired' of living and working in Egypt. Bloggers,, says photojournalist Anastasia Taylor-Lind, "are routinely harassed, imprisoned, sometimes tortured and occasionally murdered." (Anastasia Taylor-Lind / VII Mentor) Back to slideshow navigation
  8. Wide-ranging views

    Socialist blogger Hossam El Hamalawy in his office at Al-Masry Al-Youm newspaper, where he also works as a journalist, in Garden City, Cairo, Egypt. The Southern California-based Levantine Cultural Center has described him as an "an outspoken proponent of human rights, labor movements, and free speech." (Anastasia Taylor-Lind / VII Mentor) Back to slideshow navigation
  9. Defense help

    Lawyer Gamel Eid, founder of The Arab Network for Human Rights Information, is pictured at work in his office in downtown Cairo, Egypt. Cyber activism, however, comes at a price in Egypt and bloggers are routinely arrested and imprisoned for speaking out. During these detainments, police torture is not uncommon and there are currently more than 20 people serving prison sentences for “crimes” connected to cyber activism in the country. Eid's group helps defend many bloggers when they are arrested and tried by the government. (Anastasia Taylor-Lind / VII Mentor) Back to slideshow navigation
  10. Activist on Facebook

    Ahmed Maher, blogger and founder of the Facebook activists' group 6th of April Youth Movement, smokes a shisha pipe while checking e-mails at Takeiba cafe in downtown Cairo. Egypt. Egyptian bloggers use social networking sites such as Facebook and Twitter to get people onto the street by rallying anti-government protesters, organizing workers’ strikes and mobilizing demonstrators in cities across the country. (Anastasia Taylor-Lind / VII Mentor) Back to slideshow navigation
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