Egypt’s ‘forced disappearances:’ Between fact and hearsay
On June 1, three young Egyptians - a female and two males - went out for dinner together and never came back
On June 1, three young Egyptians - a female and two males - went out for dinner together and never came back. For more than two weeks, their families failed to obtain information about their whereabouts despite contacting all relevant security bodies, including the Ministry of Interior and Military Prosecution. The issue went viral on social networking websites as concern over their safety heightened with each passing day.
On June 18, news of the female, photojournalist Israa al-Tawil, appeared for the first time when a judiciary source told the press that her arrest warrant was issued by the National Security Prosecution, and that she was detained pending interrogation.
“She is charged with spreading false news about Egypt,” said the source, who spoke on condition of anonymity. “She accused the Egyptian judiciary of inaccuracy, and sent photos to foreign organizations to be used as proof of violent suppression of protests by security forces.”
Shortly after, the Facebook page Freedom for the Brave, which focuses on political prisoners, announced that the other two, political science student Sohaib Saad and engineer Omar Mohamed, were seen in detention together. No official announcement has been made about them yet, so the exact charges leveled against them remain unknown.
Despite relative happiness that the three turned out to be alive, their initial disappearance has become a source of major concern, especially after other names, reportedly disappearing in the same manner, started emerging.
Following Tawil’s disappearance, the National Council of Human Rights (NCHR) said it received dozens of complaints about disappearing citizens. “We received complaints about 50 cases, while other independent organizations such as Freedom for the Brave documented 163 cases since April,” said activist and NCHR member George Ishak.
Nasser Amin, head of the NCHR complaints committee, said the council will officially address the prosecutor general and the Ministry of Interior to inquire about those cases. “The authorities should inform the families of the detainees’ whereabouts as soon as they are arrested,” he said. “They also have to clarify the charges they are facing and the dates of their trials.” Amin added that the committee is going to sort out the cases to decide which of them can be categorized as “forced disappearance” according to international criteria.
A different number appeared in the info graph issued by the Egyptian Coordination of Rights and Freedoms (ECRF), which said 786 people disappeared between March and May. “The estimate provided by Freedom for the Brave is much lower than the actual figures,” said ECRF director Ezzat Ghoneim. “Organizations working on this issue will never get the same numbers, since it mainly depends on the number of people working for each organization on the ground.”
In a report entitled “Forced disappearances: Egypt in the footsteps of totalitarian regimes,” the Human Rights Documentary Organization (HRDO) said the detainees lose all their legal rights when their whereabouts are unknown, which is against all international agreements and charters. According to the report, forced disappearances mirror the state’s inability to deal with its problems in accordance with regular procedures.
“Making people disappear betrays a great deal of inefficiency on the part of the state since it prioritizes stability and security over its citizens’ rights and the rule of law,” said the report. “This is exactly what is done in Iran and North Korea.” The report noted that arbitrary arrests were against the constitution, particularly Article 54 on personal freedom.
According to the article, “citizens may only be apprehended, searched, arrested, or have their freedoms restricted by a causal judicial warrant necessitated by an investigation.” The article also says all detainees must be allowed to contact their families and lawyers.
Lawyer Hoda Abdel Moneim, spokesperson of the Egyptian Women’s Revolutionary Union, said disappearances raise concerns about the health of detainees, especially those requiring special medical care such as Tawil, who has a leg injury and needs regular physiotherapy. “I am holding the Interior Ministry accountable for any deterioration in her condition,” Abdel Moneim said.
Mona Seif, activist and founder of No to Military Trials for Civilians, said forced disappearances usually involve arbitrary arrests by people who do not present themselves as policemen. “Usually people are taken from the street by men in civilian clothes without being told what their charges are. Then security bodies would deny knowing anything about them.” This, she said, was the case with the three disappeared youths.
While human rights organizations almost unanimously agree that the frequency of forced disappearances has become quite alarming, political parties disagree over the gravity of the situation.
The Egyptian Social Democratic Party issued a statement calling on the president to intervene. “The president is responsible for ensuring that the law and the constitution are respected, and this is not the case with forced disappearances, where the detainees are not informed of their offenses and are detained without trial,” said the statement.
Abdel Aziz al-Husseini, secretary general of the Karama party, said since the constitution was voted on by most Egyptians, violating it implies disrespect for them. “This is an attack against all Egyptians,” he said, also calling on the president to intervene.
Other parties say the matter has been blown out of proportion. Ahmed Ezz al-Arab, deputy chairman of the Wafd Party, said reports about forced disappearances are issued by domestic and foreign bodies that aim to destabilize Egypt and tarnishing its image.
“Human rights organizations are not to be trusted, since they always focus on the rights of detainees and overlook the offenses they might be involved in or the people they might have harmed,” he said. “How can they be sure that those so-called ‘disappeared’ are not criminals?”
Nagi al-Shehabi, head of Al-Geel Party, said he did not believe the numbers announced by the NCHR. “These are exaggerated figures that only aim at making a fuss about nothing,” he said, calling for the restructuring of the council so it can be purged of “members with ulterior motives.”
Shehabi said the term “forced disappearance” was inaccurate. “Disappearances are quite common. People can just leave, and their families would not know anything about them for years and maybe for life. How can we know that they were taken against their will and did not leave voluntarily? And we never heard about security forces being held accountable for the disappearance of people except now.”