Accounting for Egypt’s ‘disappeared’

Friday 05/02/2016
Human rights campaigner Hoda Nasrallah (R), speaking during recent gathering at press syndicate in Cairo

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.