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Mada Masr journalist subjected to extralegal security measures at Cairo airport, passport confiscated

Over the last several days, Mada Masr journalist Rana Mamdouh was subjected to a series of arbitrary security measures by Egyptian authorities, which Mada Masr’s lawyers and members of the Journalists Syndicate board have characterized as “illegal” and “unconstitutional.”

Mamdouh, a registered journalist with the Journalists Syndicate, submitted a memorandum to the syndicate head and its board members on Wednesday outlining the actions taken against her, which include being interrogated at Cairo International Airport during her departure to and return from a business trip overseas, having her passport withheld by National Security Agency (NSA) officers, having her personal notebooks confiscated by customs officials and being informed that her name has been added to an airport watchlist. A policeman was also sent to her place of residence and her email addresses and social media accounts have been compromised.

The series of measures Mamdouh was subjected to began when she arrived at Cairo airport at 7:30 am on Friday to board a Royal Jordanian flight to Amman to attend the annual ARIJ conference on investigative journalism. She completed check-in procedures normally until she reached passport control, when the officer who checked her passport told her to “step aside and wait.”

Mamdouh described what happened next: “The officer made a phone call and a non-commissioned police officer escorted me to a large office, in which many police personnel were present. One of them asked me, ‘Were you carrying a large amount of foreign currency with you on your last trip?’ I told them that I only had my credit card on me at the time. He then asked me if I had ever previously been cited for possession of foreign currency and I responded that I hadn’t. ‘Do you travel abroad a lot?’ he asked, and I informed him that this was far from the case. He then ordered my luggage to be retrieved from the plane after it had been checked in.”

“The retrieval and inspection of my bag took an hour and a half, and I missed my flight,” Mamdouh continued. “A police colonel informed me that, from now on, I would have to arrive at the airport at least three hours before departure to undergo extra security screening to be allowed to travel, and that, upon arrival, I must go straight to an officer and inform him I am on a watchlist.”

“At first, I thought the issue must have been a name mix-up, but the officer told me that my full name had been registered with them a year ago, after I was flagged. I attempted to find out why I’d been flagged, but the officer wouldn’t provide me with a response. A non-commissioned officer informally told me that this was the ‘normal procedure for dealing with journalists.’ I ended up purchasing a new ticket through the conference’s travel agency for a 5 pm flight the same day. I returned to the airport before the new departure time, but procedures this time were even more difficult and convoluted.

“I had to go through the same process once more: being stopped by the officer at passport control, taken to the security office, and from there to customs. The inspection began this time with a search for documents or notebooks in my luggage. The customs officer was looking through scraps of paper and reading them, even going through the personal pictures in my wallet. A non-commissioned police officer then escorted me to the NSA office at the airport.”

At the NSA office, Mamdouh asked the officer about why her trip was being delayed for a second time. He replied by saying that he would ask her some questions and then let her board her flight. However, Mamdouh was held in the office for over two hours, during which the officer interrogated her about work, the subjects she covers, the reason she was travelling to Jordan, and about the nature of the ARIJ conference. He then asked her to wait for him outside, before calling her inside again and asking her the same questions once more. The officer finally allowed her to board her flight, but only after asking her for the date of her return, her home address and her telephone number.

When Mamdouh arrived in Cairo from Amman on Monday, she was forced to undergo the process for a third time. “The passport control officer stopped me and I was made to wait there until he had finished processing the majority of passengers on board the flight. Then he escorted me to an office for deportees and detainees. A lieutenant colonel came out and said, ‘Welcome back, Rana. Did you enjoy yourself in Jordan?’ Then he handed the non-commissioned police officer a note and I was taken to customs officers. A customs employee emptied the contents of my bag and searched inside the pockets of my clothes and elsewhere. After that, my hand luggage was searched three times and two of my notebooks were confiscated. The customs officer wanted to write a report listing the contents of my bags, but her superior asked her to hand them over to the non-commissioned police officer.”

Mamdouh returned to the NSA office, where an officer — the same one who had questioned her before her travel to Jordan — interrogated her again about the conference. Her passport was then confiscated and she was instructed to go to the NSA headquarters in Abbassiya at 10 am on Tuesday morning to retrieve it, and to ascertain why her name had been included on an airport watchlist.

When Mamdouh arrived at the headquarters on Tuesday, however, she was informed that the officer was not present and her passport would arrive within three weeks, and that she should return at that time to reclaim it. Several hours later, a policeman was sent to her place of residence to inquire whether she lived at that address.

On Wednesday morning, both Mamdouh’s Facebook account and email addresses were compromised.

Hassan al-Azhari, Mada Masr’s legal representative, said that “all the proceedings taken against Mamdouh are illegal and completely unconstitutional. There is nothing in the law that allows for the seizure of passports by the police.”

“The surveillance that the press is subjected to by security and police forces is a blatant violation that must be stopped,” he added. “We are going to take all the necessary legal measures to understand the extent of the issue and to provide Mamdouh with legal protection.”

Before Mamdouh submitted a memorandum to the Journalists Syndicate board, council member Mohamed Saad Abdel Hafeez said that he contacted the concerned parties to inquire about the security measures taken against Mamdouh. Abdel Hafeez told Mada Masr that he would “present the issue to the rest of the Council to contact the security bodies in an official capacity.”

“The seizure of the passport of a colleague at Cairo airport by the security officials, even after they confirmed that she was returned from training in the Jordanian capital of Amman, is illegal,” he said. “The syndicate will contact the office of the Minister of Interior to inform them of the situation, and will contact the Public Prosecutor’s office if our colleague’s passport is not returned.”

In the memo she submitted on Wednesday, Mamdouh demanded that the head of the Journalists Syndicate and the syndicate board intervene to retrieve her passport from the NSA and that the Ministry of Interior be contacted to determine the reasons for her the security measures taken against her and the presence of police personnel at her home.

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