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CAIRO – The Egyptian government crackdown on political dissidents, particularly supporters of ousted President Mohammed Morsi, has extended to widespread and unprecedented abuses against a segment of the population once considered largely sacrosanct from arrest and political detention – women.

A half a dozen women who have been detained by police while protesting told McClatchy that they’ve been beaten, subjected to pregnancy and virginity tests that they must pay for themselves, forced to sleep on floors, and told they are considered worse threats to the state than major criminals.

Police officers reached by McClatchy said they consider political prisoners to be the worst of detainees in increasingly overcrowded jail cells.

The government’s targeting of women has turned jail cells into the front line in the battle between the military-governed state and its opponents. The prisoners said their experience – and that of their husbands, brothers, fathers and uncles – has become further ammunition to fight the government. The women said their treatment has made some consider retaliating by embracing jihadist tactics.

Fadwa Khaled, 27, a teacher, was arrested Dec. 27 at a protest against the government. She said her mistreatment began in the police wagon as officers beat her head against its wall.

“Two soldiers held me from the back of my jacket and they kept pulling me backwards and banging me against the police truck, several times,” Khaled said of her arrest. “I had bruises all over my body for a long time.”

Minutes after she was pushed into the police truck, Khaled said, she was slapped across the face by a police officer as she tried to pull her friend, Khadija Ismail, 19, away from police who were beating her.

During her 11-day detention, Khaled said, she was beaten, humiliated and forced to submit to a pregnancy test. She said the experience had transformed her from a political opponent to a fighter.

“We need to escalate,” one woman, who asked to not be identified because she feared government retaliation, said upon her release from jail. “The police officers should be threatened and horrified. You kidnap our girls, we will kidnap your children. We will send them threatening messages and make them live in fear and psychological pressure exactly the same way we are living now.”

The women’s accounts could not be confirmed independently, although some were able to provide medical records showing the effects of abuses in prison. A growing body of videos available on the Internet, however, show women being beaten as they are arrested. Five human rights groups working in Egypt said they have heard about such incidents but have not independently confirmed them.

The government steadfastly denies mistreating prisoners and insists those who have been arrested are a threat to the state.

Women have played a key role in the volatile events that began three years ago Saturday, when millions took to the streets and demanded the resignation of then longtime dictator Hosni Mubarak. Even women with serious medical conditions are not spared. Amany Hassan, 33, a mother of two, was in poor health even before she was imprisoned. She is now paralyzed, according to her mother, Somaya Sarhan, who fought for five months before her daughter was transferred to a medical facility.

“I am talking about her simplest rights as a human, as a patient,” Sarhan said.