Suspicions swirl after Egyptian scientist’s death in Morocco

Several Egyptian nuclear and physics scientists have been killed outside the country and, in many cases, it was not determined who was responsible.
Saturday 14/09/2019
A cloud of mystery. Abu Bakr Ramadan, the former head of the Network for Radiological Monitoring, attending an event in Marrakech, September 4.  (Facebook)
A cloud of mystery. Abu Bakr Ramadan, the former head of the Network for Radiological Monitoring, attending an event in Marrakech, September 4. (Facebook)

CAIRO - The death of an Egyptian nuclear scientist in Morocco fuelled debate alleging possible foul play aimed at depriving Egypt of its nuclear energy specialists.

Abu Bakr Ramadan, the former head of the Network for Radiological Monitoring, a section of the national radiology watchdog, Egyptian Nuclear and Radiological Regulatory Authority, travelled to Marrakech, Morocco, in early September for a workshop on pollution trends in coastal areas.

On September 6, the final day of the conference, it was reported that he said he felt tired and went to his hotel room to get some medication. A hotel worker passing the room minutes later said he found Ramadan’s door open. When he entered, he said he found Ramadan lying on the floor.

An ambulance was called but Ramadan, 61, was declared dead before reaching the hospital.

An initial report by the hospital said Ramadan died of a heart attack. Egyptian Ambassador to Morocco Ashraf Ibrahim said heart medication was found in the professor’s hotel room. Moroccan authorities have opened an inquiry into Ramadan’s death.

In Egypt, news of Ramadan’s death was met with suspicions and accusations.

“Enemy states have their eyes fixed on Egypt’s scientists abroad,” said Khaled Abu Taleb, a member of the Defence and National Security Committee in parliament. “History is full of examples of scientists murdered outside Egypt.”

Several Egyptian nuclear and physics scientists have been killed outside the country and, in many cases, it was not determined who was responsible, although some people accused the Israeli intelligence agency, Mossad.

Egyptian nuclear scientist Fatma Moussa died in a road crash in California in August 1952. Another scientist was killed in another traffic accident in Detroit in August 1967. In June 1980, scientist Yahia al-Mashad was killed in Paris. In July 1989, missile technology scientist Saeed al-Sayed Bedeir was found dead at his brother’s flat in Alexandria.

Ramadan, a physicist, was assigned by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) in 2015 to help assess environmental effects of nuclear plants in Bushehr, Iran, and Dimona, Israel, Egyptian media reported.

He had cooperated with the agency since 2004 in assessing the effects of nuclear activities on maritime pollution. In January this year, he participated with an Egyptian-IAEA team assessing the environmental effects of a multibillion-dollar nuclear power plant to be built in north-western Egypt in cooperation with Russia.

His nephew, Mohamed Gamal, said his uncle had never talked to the family about his work. “He considered his work a strictly personal affair,” said Gamal.

Egypt has been trying to develop its own peaceful nuclear programme since the 1950s. It had its first nuclear reactor, for research purposes, in 1954. In 1958, President Gamal Abdel Nasser opened the Anshas reactor in the Nile Delta. In 1992, Egypt received a multipurpose nuclear reactor from Argentina.

Egypt’s nuclear energy ambitions were slowed by the 1986 Chernobyl disaster in Ukraine. Difficulties in developing the national nuclear programme led to many Egyptian nuclear scientists emigrating to other countries.

Nevertheless, the Egyptian nuclear programme was picking up ahead of construction of the nuclear power plant in Dabaa. The plant is to include four reactors, each with the capacity to generate 1,200 megawatts of electricity. The first reactor is scheduled to start operating in 2026.

“Nuclear energy is very important for Egypt’s economic development,” said Ali Abdel Nabi, a nuclear energy expert who worked with Ramadan. “Egypt is badly in need of diversifying its energy sources, given its rapidly growing population.”

The plant is to be constructed over 45 sq.km and cost $28.8 billion. Russia will contribute $25 billion in a loan to be repaid by Egypt over 13 years at an interest rate of 3%. A year after the operation of its first phase in 2026, the plant will contribute 10% of all electricity in Egypt. By 2050, it will provide 30% of the country’s electricity.

Egypt’s nuclear ambitions bring fears for the safety of the country’s scientists.

Abu Taleb asked the Egyptian government to send a team of investigators to participate in the inquiry into Ramadan’s death. He called for protecting Egyptian scientists who travel to other countries.

Security analysts said measures had been taken to protect some scientists.

“This is especially true with some scientists because of the nature of their work,” said security expert Mahmud Khalaf. “The type of information in the possession of these scientists makes it necessary for the authorities to pay special attention to their protection.”

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