In less than a year, Egypt’s Ministry of Interior went from outright denial in the face of accusations that it increasingly carries out forced disappearances to addressing the issue in several statements and engaging with the National Council for Human Rights (NCHR) to locate those reported as victims.
In January the NCHR released the first list of names of forcibly disappeared people whose whereabouts were revealed by the Ministry of Interior. According to this list, 15 were released, 99 were detained pending investigations, three were fleeing criminal investigations, and another, the ministry asserted, had run away from her family.
This was the result of an ongoing back-and-forth between the Interior Ministry and the NCHR to reveal the fate of hundreds of citizens whose families have reported them as forcibly disappeared.
The fight of families to locate their loved ones has been a lonely one, as forced disappearance became an increasingly prominent tool in a security crackdown that began in 2013. But this changed somewhat last summer with the accidental arrest of a student whose case received media attention for two weeks.
Esraa al-Taweel, 23, was picked up along with her friends Omar Mohamed and Sohaib Saad in June 2015 after they had dinner. Her family remained unaware of her whereabouts until she was sighted at Qanater Women’s Prison two weeks later. According to the testimony of all three, an officer was on the phone while making the arrest, asking what to do with the other two people he found with Saad, indicating that he was the main target.
Islamists, or people tied to the Islamist movement through their participation in protests, remain the most common victims of forced disappearance, says Abdel Rahman Gad, a researcher in criminal justice and one of the founders of the Stop Forced Disappearance campaign. It is the cases of non-Islamist victims, he adds, that have managed to attract public sympathy and allow the campaign to grow, compelling the authorities to address the issue.
Taweel’s case was especially embarrassing for the ministry as it had insistently denied, under the media spotlight, having her in its custody, asserting that it was communicating with various sectors to look for her. She was then spotted in Qanater Prison and taken to court, where a detention that the state had denied was “renewed.” Taweel’s health had deteriorated due to medical inattention to a spinal injury sustained when she was shot in the back during the dispersal of a protest commemorating the third anniversary of the 2011 revolution. She remained detained on charges of belonging to a terrorist organization until her release in December 2015 for health reasons pending trial.
After scattered efforts by activists and lawyers working on individual cases in collaboration with rights organizations since the start of 2014, a campaign was launched in August 2015 with a strong start, spearheaded by the Egyptian Commission for Rights and Freedoms (ECRF). Coinciding with the International Day of the Victims of Enforced Disappearance, it launched a social media campaign that circulated widely and attracted the attention of mainstream media.
Along the way, public figures such as Nobel laureate Mohamed ElBaradei denounced the practice, increasing the campaign’s reach. As it grew into a matter of public concern, the topic began to be be regularly discussed in the media, reaching its peak in December. Talk show host Wael al-Ebrashy, who is rarely critical of the government, dedicated an episode to forced disappearance in December, calling the practice a catastrophe and an international scandal, while maintaining that the state’s responsibility was not confirmed. The same month, talk show host Amr Adeeb addressed the issue, calling it the highest level of state-sponsored terrorism and insisting that it could not be ignored.
Newspapers also started investigating forced disappearances as public interest grew.
Since August, the ECRF has documented 340 cases of forced disappearances — the whereabouts of 175 victims have been identified, while the others remain missing. Of those who have resurfaced, approximately half are in prison on charges ranging from illegal protest to plotting terrorist attacks, according to ECRF lawyer Halim Hanish.
Hanish says the last time the state resorted to the practice with such intensity was during a wave of terrorism in the 1990s, when Islamists were rounded up en masse.
International charters define forced disappearance as when a state actor or collaborator secretly abducts or imprisons a person and refuses to acknowledge their fate or whereabouts.
Hanish explains that Egyptian law does not acknowledge the phenomenon but does criminalize several of its consequences, including unlawful detention, torture and abuse, which victims of forced disappearance are often subjected to.
In its most vicious form, forced disappearance ends with death in the absence of any of the legally mandated rights of detainees. The family of Ahmed Galal received a phone call in January asking them to receive his body 10 days after he had been abducted from his house and held at an unknown location.
The momentum that started with Taweel’s case culminated with the NCHR presenting the issue to the Interior Ministry in December and the ministry releasing a list of names in January. Established in 2003, the NCHR is a quasi-official advisory body whose members, in the absence of parliament, were appointed by the prime minister.
Ragia Omran, an NCHR member, recalls that the ministry’s cooperation was not immediate. The NCHR started addressing the issue following Taweel’s case in June 2015. Omran says that the council has been holding open days for the families of victims in its headquarters once a week to receive complaints that are then passed on to the ministry. She says that she, alongside colleagues George Ishaq and Kamal Abbas, compelled the council to take up the cause by organizing the meetings without notifying anyone. Omran has previously experienced tensions with other members in the council for pushing the limits within which it usually functions, due to its ties to the state.
Initially, the Interior Ministry did not respond to the council’s requests, but when public interest and media pressure grew the situation changed, Omran explains.
The ministry’s deputy for human rights criticized an NCHR report on forced disappearance in October, saying it was unfounded and insisting that the ministry only detains people through legal means. In its report, which was issued in June, the council had documented 163 cases of disappearance, 66 of which they classified as forced disappearances.
In early December, NCHR member Nasser Amin said the ministry had still not responded to the council’s inquiries regarding the 163 disappeared people in its report.
The collaboration with the Interior Ministry started with a meeting between Interior Minister Magdy Abdel Ghaffar and NCHR head Mohamed Fayek, in which Fayek brought up reports of forced disappearance. Observers believed that the meeting occurred at Sisi’s direction.
Omran says that a lot of those who came to the council with complaints were targeted due to their participation in Muslim Brotherhood protests following former President Mohamed Morsi’s overthrow in 2013.
The case of the family of Abu Bakr Atef is a typical example. He was sitting at home on July 28 of last year in the area of Duweiqa when police barged in. His father, a wholesale merchant named Atef Mohamed, was the main target of the raid for his participation in the Rabea al-Adaweya protests and, as Atef recalls, there was a lot of indecision regarding what to do with everyone else.
Atef describes how the police initially just took his father and left the others. Then they decided to take the other men present, including himself and his brother Yehia, to the front of the building and handcuff them.
“At first someone said let them go, then someone else said bring them. After interrogating us, they removed our handcuffs, then another person pointed at Yehia saying, no, keep this one,” Atef recounts, suspecting that his brother’s small beard might be the reason why he was taken after a second change of heart by one of the officers. Yehia was supposed to be entering his third year at the Azhar University’s faculty of agriculture, but as a victim of forced disappearance, was not able to enroll like students whose custody the state acknowledges.
The Atef family followed the regular routine of victims of forced disappearance in looking for Yehia Abu Bakr and his father. They filed a report at the police station and sent letters to the Ministry of Interior and Public Prosecution.
Hanish, who makes the trip to police stations and prosecutor’s offices on an almost daily basis to make these arrangements on behalf of victims, says the complaints almost always end up ignored. Their only practical use is to document the incident in order to protect the victim if they reappear with charges brought against them. In several cases, he explains, victims wound up charged in relation to incidents that occurred while they were in detention.
The Atef family received a rare response, however. The prosecution followed the protocol of sending an inquiry to the police station about the incident, which is usually where the process stops. But in this case, the police station acknowledged that a force from the National Security Agency had carried out a raid and arrested the two men.
This acknowledgment, which Hanish thinks might have been a mistake by a low-ranking officer, did not help the family much. Since then the authorities have refused to acknowledge that the two men are detained, and the family gets its information from other detainees who come across them.
Before the Interior Ministry started releasing information in January, this was the primary means of obtaining information on the forcibly disappeared. Detainees have devised a system whereby whoever is released, or gets access to the outside world through lawyers, reports on the other disappeared people they have met.
But even after families identify the location of their loved ones, the state continues to ignore their detention and they do not get rights accorded to other prisoners, such as visitation.
In cases like that of Dostour Party member Ashraf Shehata, who disappeared over two years ago, families are able to receive informal confirmations from security sources that they have their disappeared relative. On an official level, however, the state denies their custody. As a member of a liberal party, and with his wife Maha Mekkawy’s vocal championing of his case, Shehata was another case that brought attention to this practice. Mekkawy says she gets informal confirmation from intermediaries that Shehata is in state custody, but no official response. Due to a mistake on the part of the NCHR, Shehata was initially believed to be on the list of people the Interior Ministry released in January, giving his family false hope. It turned out to be someone else with the same name.
Although getting a response from the ministry is a significant improvement from outright denial and non-responsiveness, Gad, of the Stop Forced Disappearances campaign, says there are limitations.
The ministry’s response does not imply an admission of the practice of forced disappearance, but rather an accounting for some individuals, with the aim to refute the claim that they are victims of forced disappearance. Gad explains that many of the people in the list sent by the ministry were disappeared for a period of time before reappearing in criminal cases, as listed in the ministry’s report.
One such case is Islam Khalil, who was charged four months after being disappeared. He resurfaced in September in the Alexandria prosecution and remains in detention on charges of belonging to the Brotherhood, inciting violence and using terrorism in an attempt to overthrow the regime. In a letter from prison, Khalil documented the severe abuse and torture he has been subjected to.
The ministry continues to offer alternative reasons for victims’ disappearance. In a television interview earlier this month, Ministry of Interior spokesperson Abu Bakr Abdel Karim declared that a large number of those who are reported as disappeared have fled to Syria and other countries to join extremist groups.