Egypt widens crackdown on real and imagined foes

Human rights abuses now worse than under Mubarak dictatorship, lawyer claims

Esraa el Taweel, a disabled photographer who says she was forcefully abducted by the Egyptian government for two weeks before surfacing in a courthouse. Photograph: Sima Diab/The New York Times

Esraa el Taweel, a disabled photographer who says she was forcefully abducted by the Egyptian government for two weeks before surfacing in a courthouse. Photograph: Sima Diab/The New York Times

 

After the security forces raided the home of Islam Khalil, a 26-year-old salesman, last summer, he seemed to vanish without a trace. Khalil, who lives about 50 miles north of Cairo in El Santa, Egypt, had not been formally arrested, so his family could not determine where he was being held, or by whom. His relatives, who said he did not have access to a lawyer, worried that he was dead.

When Khalil finally emerged, four months later, at a police station in the port city of Alexandria, Egypt, he looked dirty and emaciated, according to his brother Nour, and reported that interrogators had suspended him from his arms and his legs, and administered electric shocks to his genitals.

“He didn’t look like the Islam I know,” Nour Khalil recalled in a recent interview. Islam Khalil is one of hundreds of Egyptians who have recently been subjected to what human rights groups call “enforced disappearance”, a harsh tactic that has become increasingly prevalent in Egypt as the government of President Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi widens its crackdown on opponents, real or imagined.

Instead of being held in the formal legal system – where tens of thousands of people have been detained under al-Sisi – people like Khalil have disappeared into a network of secretive detention centres, run by the security forces, where they are held incommunicado, without charge or access to a lawyer, for weeks and sometimes months, according to the rights groups.

There, interrogators use the detainee’s isolation and lack of legal protections to interrogate them harshly. Some have been forced to open their Facebook pages, and other social media sites, to identify friends and relatives. Many say they have been tortured.

Bodies dumped

The detainees are usually released within months or, like Khalil, charged with a crime – usually membership in the outlawed Muslim Brotherhood, the accusation al-Sisi’s government lays against many of its opponents. But others stay missing much longer, such as the political activist Ashraf Shehata, who disappeared in January 2014. And some turn up dead, their bodies dumped in morgues.

Nasser Amin, a lawyer with the state-funded National Council on Human Rights, said the situation was far more stark now than during the nearly three-decade rule of president Hosni Mubarak, when human rights activists generally could locate detainees within 24 hours and visit them within 15 days.

“This is an unprecedented catastrophe for human rights and freedoms in Egypt,” he said. The Egyptian Commission for Rights and Freedoms, an advocacy group based in Cairo, said it had documented 340 cases of enforced disappearances, 11 of them involving minors, from August to November. Last summer, the UN Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances said it had referred the cases of 66 people to al-Sisi’s government for urgent action.

The disappeared include members of the Muslim Brotherhood but also civil society activists, journalists and members of the public who unwittingly become caught in the state security dragnet. “The goal seems to be to terrorise society, to show that anyone who dares criticise the government will face a similar fate,” said Mohamed Elmissiry, a researcher with Amnesty International.

Public disquiet over disappearances has steadily grown, even though Egyptians have become somewhat inured to daily reports of new detentions. Television channels that are normally supportive of al-Sisi have aired shows that highlight the plight of people seeking news of missing relatives, and urged the authorities to respond sympathetically to their pleas for help. Newspapers have started to cover the issue.

“It is a crime that cannot be forgiven,” Amr Adib, a popular chat show host, said during a broadcast in December.

Rights activists said the numbers started to surge after Maj Gen Magdi Abdel-Ghaffar, a veteran of the state security services, became interior minister in March. The minister’s office did not respond to a request for an interview. But after months of flatly denying that anyone had disappeared in Egypt, the ministry in early January said it was investigating the cases of 101 missing people.

Last week, officials raised that tally to 130. Lawyers and rights groups are sceptical that the ministry probe will go far: The government has already absolved itself in many of the cases under review, claiming that the detainees had been legally arrested, had joined militant groups or had fled Egypt illegally.

Still, some activists saw the fact that the ministry had responded at all as a measure of growing concern about the impunity enjoyed by the security forces under al-Sisi. Although many Egyptians view their leader as a source of stability, particularly at a time of violent turmoil in other Arab countries, well-publicised accounts of police brutality, including extrajudicial killings, caused a stir late last year.

Harsh treatment

Public attention was galvanised last month by the plight of Esraa el Taweel, a disabled young photographer who vanished for two weeks before eventually surfacing in a courthouse. Pictures of Taweel’s tearful court appearances struck a chord, and she was released from jail in December, although she could still face charges.

Taweel said that she wasn’t physically mistreated during her time in custody but that she “heard men screaming and crying from torture”. She said that security officials pressured her to read from a prepared script, before a camera, admitting to membership of the Muslim Brotherhood, and threatened to detain her sisters if she did not co-operate. “I told them ‘have pity, they are still young, I’ll tell you what you want,’” she said.

Other young people whose situations garnered less attention have received harsh treatment. Mazen Muhammad (15) disappeared for five days after a raid on his family home in Cairo in September. When he surfaced he told relatives that, in an effort to force him to confess to being a member of the Muslim Brotherhood, officials had raped him with a wooden stick and administered electric shocks to his genitals.

Mazen is now awaiting trial on charges of belonging to the Muslim Brotherhood. “He does not know what belonging to a group even means,” said his mother, Omina Marouf. “He is only a child.”

Most estimates of the disappearances do not include similar cases from Northern Sinai, where the military is fighting a branch of the Islamic State terrorist group and which is out of bounds for rights monitors. Rights groups believe that many suspected of being militants are held at Al-Azouly military prison in Ismailia, a secretive site that the groups say is a centre of some of the most egregious abuses.

Some activists fear they could fall prey to the phenomenon they are documenting. On January 10th, for example, the Egyptian Commission for Rights and Freedoms said that plainclothes security agents had tried to abduct one of its board members, Ahmed Abdullah, even though he faces no criminal charges.

Last July, security officials picked up Attef Farrag, a businessman and a Muslim Brotherhood supporter, and his son Yehia, who relatives say was not politically active, from their home in Cairo. “I thought they were going to kill us all,” said his wife, wiping away tears as she described the raid.

After months of silence, the two men reappeared in early January, when they contacted their family from Tora prison just outside Cairo. They now face charges of belonging to Islamic State, their lawyer said. Attef Farrag told the lawyer he had been tortured.

“There is no justice,” said Mariam, Farrag’s 17-year-old daughter. “We only expect to see them in our dreams.”

New York Times

The Irish Times Logo
Commenting on The Irish Times has changed. To comment you must now be an Irish Times subscriber.
SUBSCRIBE
GO BACK
Error Image
The account details entered are not currently associated with an Irish Times subscription. Please subscribe to sign in to comment.
Comment Sign In

Forgot password?
The Irish Times Logo
Thank you
You should receive instructions for resetting your password. When you have reset your password, you can Sign In.
The Irish Times Logo
Please choose a screen name. This name will appear beside any comments you post. Your screen name should follow the standards set out in our community standards.
Screen Name Selection

Hello

Please choose a screen name. This name will appear beside any comments you post. Your screen name should follow the standards set out in our community standards.

The Irish Times Logo
Commenting on The Irish Times has changed. To comment you must now be an Irish Times subscriber.
SUBSCRIBE
Forgot Password
Please enter your email address so we can send you a link to reset your password.

Sign In

Your Comments
We reserve the right to remove any content at any time from this Community, including without limitation if it violates the Community Standards. We ask that you report content that you in good faith believe violates the above rules by clicking the Flag link next to the offending comment or by filling out this form. New comments are only accepted for 3 days from the date of publication.