The Cable

White House tells Morsy to quell rape epidemic in Egypt

The White House on Friday called on the Egyptian government to combat a wave of sexual assaults, and urged President Mohammed Morsy's administration to avoid blaming the victims for the violence sweeping the country.

The White House was responding to reports of alarming increases of sexual assault and gang rape in Egypt over the last few weeks, including this March 25 New York Times report stating that in Cairo's famed Tahrir Square, where the 2011 revolution began, "the sheer number of women sexually abused and gang raped in a single public square had become too big to ignore." 

The issue first came to the widespread attention of the American media in 2011, when CBS news correspondent Lara Logan was violently sexually assaulted in Tahrir Square while covering the protests. Opposition party leaders blame the ruling Muslim Brotherhood, some of whose members have made comments that appear to blame the victims. Some attackers have said they were paid by the Brotherhood to intimidate women protesters.

White House Principal Deputy Press Secretary Josh Earnest said on Friday that the Obama administration was "deeply concerned" about the rise in sexual violence in Egypt and called on the Egyptian government to do more to prevent the rapes and bring the attackers to justice.

"Sexual violence, including gang rape, has occurred during recent demonstrations in Egypt, and this is a cause of great concern to the United States, the international community, and to many Egyptians. These victims are the mothers, wives, daughters and sisters of Egypt," he said. "The Egyptian government has a responsibility to take legal measures to prevent sexual violence and to prosecute people who are involved in such crimes. The idea that some Egyptians are blaming the victims for being raped and assaulted is abhorrent. We strongly condemn these views and reaffirm the rights of women to express themselves in public squares alongside men, as well as the responsibility of the Egyptian government to protect them."

Separately on Friday, the State Department alerted Americans in Egypt, particularly women, to be careful.

"Political unrest, which intensified prior to the constitutional referendum in December 2012 and the anniversary in 2013 of Egypt's 25th January Revolution, is likely to continue in the near future," the State Department said in a Friday travel alert. "Of specific concern is a rise in gender-based violence in and around protest areas where women have been the specific targets of sexual assault." 

Several major cities have now been the sites of violent clashes between police and protesters, and while U.S. citizens are not necessarily targeted, Westerners are sometimes caught up in the melee, the State Department alert said.

"The U.S. Department of State strongly urges U.S. citizens to avoid all demonstrations in Egypt, as even peaceful ones can quickly become violent, and a foreigner could become a target of harassment or worse," the alert stated. "U.S. citizens are urged to remain alert to local security developments and to carry identification and, if moving about alone, a cell phone or other means of communication that works in Egypt."

KHALED DESOUKI/AFP/Getty Images

The Cable

U.S.-Russia war of words ramps up after NGO raids

The United States and Russia are engaged in a new diplomatic war of words following Russian government raids on several international NGOs this week -- and the battle is set to escalate.

Following this week's raids of dozens of international organizations by the Russian police, several countries have condemned the actions of President Vladimir Putin's government as dangerous assault on civil society and another step backwards in Russia's path toward open and democratic governance. Harsh statements of condemnation have come from the EU's foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton, the top levels of the German government, the French Foreign Ministry, and numerous international organizations.

The State Department entered the fray on Thursdayaccusing the Russian government of conducting a "witch hunt" as it seeks to implement a new law placing new restrictions on NGOs and what the Russians call "foreign agents" on their soil.

"The sheer scope of these inspections now -- which are now, as I said, targeting not just NGOs who are subject to the changes under Russian law but also targeting civil organizations that are not subject to those laws, like religious organizations, educational organizations -- really gives us concern that this is some kind of a witch hunt," State Department Spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said. "We think that these laws are extremely restrictive, that they are chilling the environment for civil society, which is taking Russian democracy in the wrong direction."

The offices of several U.S. NGOs were raided in recent days, including Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International. U.S. Ambassador to Russia Mike McFaul has raised American concerns about the raids with several Russian officials and met on March 26 with Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov. Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs Wendy Sherman also placed a call to her Russian counterpart on the issue.

The Russian Foreign Ministry issued a statement Friday defending the raids as "a common practice in Russia and in other countries."

Rachel Debner, deputy director of the Europe and Central Asia division of Human Rights Watch, told The Cable that the raids are not at all a common practice in Russia or anywhere else for that matter.

"This is wave of inspections the scale of which is utterly unprecedented in Russian contemporary history. In the past 20 years there's been nothing like it," she said. "Putin has made clear that he sees the whole idea of the internal monitoring of a country's human rights record by foreigners as an assault on Russian sovereignty, which contradicts decades of how the human rights infrastructure has been functioning. The question now is whether the international community is going to let Putin shift the terms on which human rights accountability is based."

The NGO raids are the latest in a series of similar moves by the Russian government, including Moscow's unilateral withdrawal from the Nunn-Lugar nuclear threat reduction initiative, its expulsion of USAID from Russia, and its new ban on Americans adopting Russian orphans.

National Security Advisor Tom Donilon will travel to Russia next month, but that trip is expected to focus heavily on the administration's push to entice Russian into a new round of negotiations over further reductions in nuclear weapons arsenals.

Meanwhile, the current tensions with Russia are expected to heighten in mid-April, when the State Department is required to release its list of Russian human rights violators in accordance with the Sergei Magnitsky Accountability and Rule of Law Act of 2012, which seeks to name and shame Russian officials who are guilty of human rights violations and subject them to visa bans and assets freezes. The list is due April 13.

"In some ways, we're seeing retaliation for something the U.S. hasn't done yet," one human rights official said.

BERTRAND LANGLOIS/AFP/Getty Images