Egypt’s forced dis­ap­pear­ances es­ca­late

Rights groups ac­cuse the gov­ern­ment of kid­nap­ping dozens of stu­dents and ac­tivists in a grow­ing cam­paign against dis­sent

The Washington Post Sunday - - THE WORLD - BY ERIN CUN­NING­HAM AND HEBA HABIB erin.cun­ning­ham@wash­post.com

cairo — They have been taken from their homes, the streets, even from schools. Some have turned up dead, while oth­ers have just van­ished.

They are Egypt’s dis­ap­peared: dozens of stu­dents and ac­tivists kid­napped in what hu­man rights ad­vo­cates say is an es­ca­la­tion of the gov­ern­ment’s cam­paign against dis­sent.

Egyptian ac­tivists say they have doc­u­mented a dis­turb­ing rise in forced dis­ap­pear­ances over the past two months, cases in which vic­tims are taken with­out war­rants and po­lice deny knowl­edge of their where­abouts. The de­tainees of­ten show up later in court or are re­leased with­out ex­pla­na­tion. At least two who were re­cently seized by se­cu­rity forces were later found dead, ac­cord­ing to rights groups.

“Peo­ple have dis­ap­peared in Egypt be­fore but def­i­nitely not at this rate,” said Khaled Ab­del Hamid, spokesman for the rights group Free­dom for the Brave.

The group says that se­cu­rity forces have kid­napped 163 peo­ple since April and that 64 of them have since been re­leased.

An­other rights or­ga­ni­za­tion, “3adala” (Jus­tice), said it had con­firmed 91 dis­ap­pear­ance cases in April and May and that 38 peo­ple are still miss­ing. The dis­crep­ancy in the tal­lies is at­trib­ut­able to dif­fer­ent verification meth­ods and con­tact net­works, as well as the opaque na­ture of Egypt’s se­cu­rity ap­pa­ra­tus, ac­tivists say.

Last month, the Cairo-based al-Karama rights group an­nounced that it had asked the U.N. Work­ing Group on En­forced or In­vol­un­tary Dis­ap­pear­ances to in­ter­vene in con­nec­tion with seven cases of forced ab­duc­tions in Egypt. The U.N. group has said in state­ments that it has sought since 2011 to visit the coun­try but that Egyptian au­thor­i­ties have not re­sponded to its re­quests.

The In­te­rior Min­istry did not re­spond to re­peated re­quests for com­ment about the al­le­ga­tions of mass de­ten­tions.

“We nor­mally find out [about the ab­duc­tions] through wit­nesses” who re­port see­ing peo­ple dragged away by po­lice or plain­clothes agents on the streets or from their homes, Ab­del Hamid said.

In one in­stance, he said, a woman watched as Ahmed alG­haz­ali, a mem­ber of the left­lean­ing April 6 Youth Move­ment, was de­tained by men she pre­sumed were plain­clothes po­lice of­fi­cers. Dur­ing a melee in which Ghazali was shoved into an un­marked van, ac­cord­ing to the woman, his phone fell out of his pocket. The woman picked it up and used it to con­tact his friends and fam­ily, the ac­tivist said.

Other times, sym­pa­thetic po­lice of­fi­cers leak in­for­ma­tion to rel­a­tives or lawyers search­ing for the miss­ing. Some­times, fel­low pris­on­ers with ac­cess to a lawyer spot the miss­ing de­tainees and help get word out to the com­mu­nity of ac­tivists.

Au­thor­i­ties don’t nor­mally alert rel­a­tives when a miss­ing de­tainee is about to ap­pear be­fore a judge. Ac­cord­ing to Ab­del Hamid, rights groups, with their webs of con­tacts, of­ten re­ceive anony­mous phone calls no­ti­fy­ing them that a dis­ap­peared per­son is about to turn up in court.

In re­cent weeks, the de­tainees who have seen a judge have been charged with en­gag­ing in un­law­ful po­lit­i­cal ac­tiv­i­ties or demon­stra­tions. The sus­pects are of­ten ap­pointed a public de­fender.

The now-banned April 6 Youth Move­ment had called for a gen­eral strike on June 11 to protest Egypt’s de­te­ri­o­rat­ing eco­nomic con­di­tions. Many of its lead­ers have been tar­geted for ar­rest, rights groups say.

“It’s a scare tac­tic to keep peo­ple in line,” Ab­del Hamid said of the dis­ap­pear­ances.

The state’s in­creased of­fen­sive against its po­lit­i­cal op­po­nents started in the sum­mer of 2013, when the mil­i­tary ousted the elected pres­i­dent, Mo­hamed Morsi — a re­sponse to mas­sive street protests against the Is­lamist leader’s rule.

But Morsi’s over­throw po­lar­ized the coun­try. His sup­port­ers demon­strated in the streets, and se­cu­rity of­fi­cers re­sponded force­fully, gun­ning down un­armed pro­test­ers on sev­eral oc­ca­sions. Pres­i­dent Ab­del Fatah al-Sissi, who was de­fense min­is­ter at the time, gained wide­spread sup­port for his bid to crush the Mus­lim Brotherhood, from which Morsi hailed.

But the crack­down soon widened to in­clude secular and left­ist ac­tivists as well as rights ad­vo­cates and em­ploy­ees of non­profit groups. In the months af­ter Sissi’s takeover, from July 2013 to May 2014, the gov­ern­ment de­tained, charged or sen­tenced more than 41,000 peo­ple, ac­cord­ing to Hu­man Rights Watch.

Egypt is experiencing “re­pres­sion the likes of which it hasn’t seen in decades,” Joe Stork, the deputy Mid­dle East and North Africa direc­tor for Hu­man Rights Watch, said in a state­ment this past week. The New York-based group said Sissi “has pro­vided near to­tal im­punity for se­cu­rity force abuses . . . and se­verely cur­tailed civil and po­lit­i­cal rights.”

When free­lance pho­tog­ra­pher Es­raa al-Taweel dis­ap­peared June 1, her fa­ther feared the worst. She had left her house in a Cairo sub­urb to have din­ner with two friends, he said. But nei­ther she nor her com­pan­ions re­turned home.

Her fam­ily launched a fran­tic search for Es­raa, 23, who was crip­pled last year when se­cu­rity forces shot her as she was pho­tograph­ing a demon­stra­tion. They ended up at a lo­cal po­lice sta­tion.

“They told us she was not there,” said her fa­ther, Mah­fouz al-Taweel.

But sev­eral low-rank­ing po­lice of­fi­cers later whis­pered to him that she had in­deed been de­tained, he re­counted. Some ac­tivists say they sus­pect that po­lice may have ar­rested her be­cause she had a cam­era, which she of­ten car­ried with her.

“They said the of­fi­cers would never tell us,” Taweel said of the po­lice re­cruits.

“She is hand­i­capped and needs treat­ment,” he added. “I just want to know where my daugh­ter is.”

On Thurs­day, Free­dom for the Brave re­ceived in­for­ma­tion that one of Es­raa’s com­pan­ions, a stu­dent named Omar Ali, had been seen at the max­i­mum-se­cu­rity Aqrab pri­son out­side Cairo by a fel­low de­tainee. Word was spread through trusted sources and sur­rep­ti­tious phone calls, the ac­tivists said. The group has been un­able to de­ter­mine what Ali might be charged with.

Mo­hamed Zarea is the head of the Hu­man Rights As­so­ci­a­tion for the As­sis­tance of Pris­on­ers and has de­fended and as­sisted de­tainees for nearly two decades. He said he dealt with 40 cases of forced dis­ap­pear­ances in the mid1990s, when Egypt was grap­pling with a vi­o­lent Is­lamist in­sur­gency.

“Most of the peo­ple who dis­ap­peared were rad­i­cal Is­lamists,” he said, adding that the vic­tims van­ished for years at a time — or in some cases were never found. “What hap­pens now is some­one is kid­napped and then sent to court later on trumped-up charges.”

The pe­ri­ods dur­ing which the cur­rent de­tainees dis­ap­pear are much shorter, he said.

In on­line spread­sheets and on Face­book, ac­tivists have cir­cu­lated lists of those who have re­port­edly gone miss­ing over the past two months. They in­clude young and old, teach­ers and stu­dents, fa­thers and sons.

“Taken into a mi­crobus and de­tained,” one en­try reads.

An­other, com­piled by the prom­i­nent ac­tivist Mona Seif, cat­a­logues the ar­rest of the fam­ily of April 6 Youth Move­ment mem­ber Nour al-Sayyed Mah­fouz.

“All three blind­folded & de­tained from their home,” it reads, re­fer­ring to Mah­fouz, her fa­ther and her brother. In a news story linked to the en­try, Mah­fouz’s mother says the po­lice took the three.

There is a June 1 note on the Si­nai-based rights ac­tivist Sabry al-Ghoul: “Re­port­edly died af­ter be­ing de­tained by the mil­i­tary.”

“Peo­ple have dis­ap­peared in Egypt be­fore but def­i­nitely not at this rate.”

Khaled Ab­del Hamid, spokesman for the rights group Free­dom of the Brave, which re­ports that se­cu­rity forces have kid­napped 163 peo­ple since April and that 64 of them have since been re­leased

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