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Forced disappearances increasingly common in Egypt

November 10, 2016
topic:Transparency and Corruption
tags:#Cairo, #Egypt, #forced disappearances, #kidnapping, #police brutality, #security, #Terror
Despite denials by security forces, cases of forced disappearances in Egypt are increasing every day.

This story was originally published on Correspondents.

On August 30 this year, Mohammad Sadeq, a 36 year-old lawyer and member of the defense board for the detainees in Aqrab Prison, was driving one of his relatives to Giza railway station when he was arrested by the police. Sadeq’s family tried to obtain information about where and why he was arrested, but the Ministry of Interior denied any knowledge of the incident.

“It is tragic that his disappearance happened on the International Day of the Victims of Forced Disappearance,” Ali Ayoub, a lawyer working on Sadeq's behalf, told Correspondents.

Ayoub, Sadeq's friend, submitted a complaint to the attorney general. He says the case is a continuation of the terror policy adapted by the Ministry of Interior and security forces to deter human rights defenders from standing for victims of police brutality. “They arrest activists, kidnap them, abuse them and they torturer them to death,” says Ayoub, who demands an immediate disclosure of Sadeq’s whereabouts, along with his release and a subsequent investigation.

Mass 'disappearances'

Ayoub's case is not an exception. Estimates as to the number of 'forced disappearances,' a synonym for people who are arrested and then held in detention without charge, vary from source to source. NGOs say thousands in the last two years. The annual report of the National Council for Human Rights –the governmental human rights body- claims that the number of forced disappearance cases between April 2015 and the end of March 2016 amounted to only 266 cases. The Ministry of Interior says that it has released 27 of these detainees after verifying that they did not break the law. It still has 143 detainees under investigation. As for the 44 other reported cases, the council said that the ministry did not claim responsibility for them. The ministry says that they may have disappeared for other reasons, like “joining jihadist groups.”

Independent human rights organisations however challenge the government's figures. A report by Amnesty International claims “three to four people per day are seized.” The report holds the Egyptian security apparatus responsible for kidnapping and torturing students, political activists and protesters including children under 14. The ministry denied these accusations saying that it does not know about any “torture” or “disappearances”. Officials accused the Muslim Brotherhood outside of Egypt of trying to promote these allegations, and said that the people in the lists may have run away from their families or fled the country.

Disputed figures

Local NGOs and civil society organizations however support Amnesty's claims that several hundred, if not thousands, of people disappear every year at the hands of security forces. Some NGOs says up to 3000 people were abducted by security forces in the last year. In at least 500 of these cases, nothing is known about the detained's whereabouts or condition.

Forced Disappearance Victims Association, an Egyptian civil society group, has filed a lawsuit against the National Council for Human Rights, challenging the numbers in its latest report. The organization claims it recorded 215 cases of 'forced disappearance' in August and September this year alone. Thirty-six of those detainees appeared later in police stations and Central Security camps, while the fate of the others is still unknown.

Ibraheem Mitwalli, head of the Forced Disappearance Victim Association, says that no one can give accurate information about the number of victims except the attorney general and the Ministry of Interior. Trying to find out the number from other sources is especially difficult, he told Correspondents, because many families abstain from reporting the disappearance of their members, either because of direct threats or because of fear and distrust in the state authorities. Mitwalli says that the number of cases that were reported to him alone is a little over 600 and so he continues to challenge the government's figures.

Gone without a trace

Correspondents received several reports of family members who had disappeared in suspicious circumstances. Um Mohammad says that her two sons, Mohammad Ashraf Al-Saied, a 21 year-old student of economics, and Sharif, a 20 year-old student of engineering in Sohag University, were arrested on 24 August 2016. Um Mohammad says the police took her sons from their home in the Al-Basrawi area in Giza province. No one knows where they are now. When the family contacted the police and the attorney general’s office to know the fate of their sons, the police denied the arrest. The 21 year-old son has a heart condition, say the concerned mother, who believes her children have been tortured. Supported by local human rights organizations, she has filed complaints to the relevant police authorities and the attorney general.

Abdulrahman Jamal Mohammad, a student at the University of Natural Sciences, was arrested along with four other people a day after Um Mohammad's two sons, on 25 August 2016 by police officers in civilian clothes. His family thinks that he may be detained in one of the National Security prisons. The family filed complaints to the attorney general, the Ministry of Interior the National Council for Human Rights, but like Um Mohammad, they received no information.

Taken at airport

In many cases, people disappear in congested public spaces. Mahmoud Taj Al-Deen says his brother disappeared at Cairo International Airport en route to Dubai on November 10, 2015. Mohmoud says that the authorities took Mohammad, his 35 year-old brother, to the Security office in 6 October City, a satellite town in the suburbs of Cairo. “Then they came to search my house and took me too, but I was later released while my brother is still in detention,” Mahmoud told Correspondents. The concerned brother says he has sent many written complaints – the latest to the attorney general two weeks ago – but he also has been given no information regarding his sibling's whereabouts or condition. Mohammad was the breadwinner for eight children, says Mahmoud.

Sons behind bars

The mother of Mohammad Al-Attar says that her son disappeared in January 2016 for 35 days. He was arrested in the exam room at the faculty of Islamic theology. Later his family learned by accident through an acquaintance that he was in Torrah Prison. When his mother visited him, she found he had been tortured, she says. “He was left blindfolded and naked for over a month in the winter cold, which was proven in the forensic report,” she added. The mother is allowed to visit Mohammad for 30 minutes every week; she says that her son is suffering an acute psychological trauma because of the torture and the humiliation he has been through. Two other sons in the same family, truck drivers Ahmad and Abdullah, have been detained without a formal charge being made known to the family. They were accused, but never charged, with vague crimes like jeopardizing national security.

Lawyers fight back

Despite the growing number of cases of 'disappearances,' where families have little or no means of resorting to the legal apparatus for basic answers, several activists continue to challenge the authorities. Radwa Dawoud, founder of the Association of Families of the Disappeared, says that her association has documented 1860 cases of forced disappearance in the last three years. Some of these victims were later released, but 330 are still missing. Dawoud says her husband own, a 40 year-old teacher of Arabic, disappeared in 2013. He was arrested on the street when the authorities were dispersing a demonstration, Dawoud told Correspondents.

The Association says that the National Council of Human Rights report is at “odds with reality,” since it does not mention all the documented cases. The association is preparing to file lawsuits against the activists in the council for ignoring cases and reducing the number of victims.

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NGOs say thousands of people disappeared in the last two years in Egypt.
A report by Amnesty International claims “three to four people per day are seized.”
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