Accounting for Egypt’s ‘disappeared’
CAIRO - Egyptian authorities have admitted that scores of activists, missing under mysterious circumstances, were in state custody pending “criminal charges”, but activists say more are still missing and unaccounted for.
Authorities had insisted they had no information about missing activists, thought to number in the hundreds, and suggested that some of them had joined militant groups.
Retired police major-general Farouk al-Megrahi said the term “enforced disappearance” was coined by political opponents to tarnish the image of the government.
However, the Egyptian Interior Ministry conceded on January 25th that 99 of 118 people whose names were given to ministry officials by the state-controlled National Council for Human Rights (NCHR) were in police custody and faced “criminal charges”.
The council acted after it was notified by family members about missing relatives. Some of the disappeared citizens were government opponents, others were sympathisers of the Muslim Brotherhood but the remaining had no known link to political movements.
The ministry’s acknowledgment came 20 days after NCHR Chairman Mohamed Fayek met Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi and probably relayed the growing public anger at enforced disappearances.
Rights activists and groups said they were now more certain that the government had a hand in the disappearances of at least some of the missing.
“The authorities are bound by the law to notify the detainees’ families of their whereabouts and the charges brought up against them,” leading rights activist Hafez Abu Saeeda said. “Enforced disappearances are a crime.”
The first allegations of involuntary disappearances came after the 2011 uprising, when it was rumoured that hundreds of political activists had been arrested and held in secret prisons. This suspicion, according to rights groups, was supported by the discovery of underground prison cells at State Security headquarters in Cairo in March 2011.
Secret cells, thousands of documents, files and tapes were found containing information about public figures, TV hosts and political activists and revealed that the secret police eavesdropped on many Egyptians.
“Enforced disappearance is a crime in every sense of the word,” rights advocate Gamal Eid said. “We try to help the families of the disappeared as much as possible but there are limits to what we can do.”
Human Rights Watch accused Egypt’s police of operating outside the law and forcibly making dozens of people disappear. The organisation said in a news release that it had documented cases of five people who had disappeared and two others most likely forcibly disappeared between April 2014 and June 2015.
“In three of the cases, the people were last seen in the custody of state officials, although state authorities initially denied that the people had been detained or refused to reveal their whereabouts,” Human Rights Watch said.
Local rights groups documented scores of cases of enforced disappearances in 2015 and in some cases from 2013.
Freedom for the Brave, an independent group offering support to detainees, documented in a June 7th report what it said were 164 cases of enforced disappearances since April and said that the whereabouts of at least 66 people remained unknown.
The report listed 64 people whose whereabouts were revealed after more than 24 hours, the maximum time allowed to detain someone without charge under Egyptian law.
Nasser Amin, a member of the state-run National Council for Human Rights, said the group had received notifications from the families of 160 missing people and who they claim had involuntarily disappeared.
A local rights group recently said it documented 125 cases of enforced disappearance throughout Egypt.
Political activist Amr Hamzawi said the reports turn Egypt into a “republic of fear”.
“Fear of enforced disappearance and killing outside the law continues to grow,” Hamzawi wrote on Twitter.
Egyptian Interior Minister Magdi Abdel Ghaffar said on December 1st that reports of enforced disappearances were untrue. He added that perpetrators of the November 23rd attack on a North Sinai hotel had disappeared months earlier and joined militants in Sinai.
Also, an Egyptian, reported to have disappeared a year ago, appeared in a video from Kurdish fighters who took him hostage in northern Iraq for fighting within the ranks of the Islamic State (ISIS).
A woman who had allegedly collected $500,000 from people in a pyramid scheme was arrested at an airport as she tried to escape to Lebanon. Her father claimed that she had involuntarily disappeared because she was a political activist.
Families of the disappeared say they have enough reasons to believe that the government knows where other missing people are.
Maha Mekawi, whose husband disappeared two years ago, says she is confident her husband is in Homeland Security jails.
“I gave them [the authorities] proof of that but they insist on denying and lying to the people,” she said.
An Interior Ministry official told her that her husband might be in police custody but under a different name.
Egypt is not a signatory to the International Convention for the Protection of all Persons from Enforced Disappearance, which was adopted in 2006 by the UN General Assembly.