Islam Ahmad Khamis is a young Egyptian in his thirties. For seven years, his mother waited for him to return home after he was arrested one day in the winter of 2015 and was subjected to enforced disappearance — extrajudicial detention — on four occasions by the authorities. After disappearing over a pending case, Islam would reappear every time. Then, he would disappear again if a court declared him to be innocent or if it ruled that it did not have jurisdiction over his case.
In 2016, Khamis was in Egypt’s Tora Istiqbal Prison in connection with Case No. 185 of 2016. He disappeared again after his release to go back to prison in 2019 in connection with Case No. 4584 of 2019. He then disappeared again, this time for Case No. 76 of 2019.
The last time Khamis resurfaced was in April 2020, but at that time, his mother refrained from hiring a defence lawyer, possibly for fear that he would be disappeared again.
Khamis’ is one of 15 similar cases documented by this investigation based on the testimonies of relatives of those who were forcibly disappeared by Egypt’s security services without any specific charges and without revealing their place of detention. This violates Egyptian law and international conventions, and contradicts the claim by the Egyptian authorities that, “There are no forcibly disappeared persons.”
Some people have returned, and the fate of some remain unknown even as I write. This investigation respects the desire of some to conceal their identity for fear that they or their relatives may be subjected to persecution by the authorities in Egypt.
The investigator used human rights data, and a detailed list of 175 cases of disappeared persons prepared by the Egyptian Commission for Human Rights.
Mohammad Juma’a Yusuf is Islam Khamis’s maternal uncle, and he too was subjected to an enforced disappearance when his nephew disappeared the first time. Yusuf was less fortunate, however, as he is still missing. A human rights activist told Khamis’s mother that Yusuf’s seven-year disappearance most probably points to the fact that he might never return, but she refuses to believe this, and continues to hope, because his corpse has not been handed over to his family for burial.
Sayyed Hassan Ali Morsi also faces an unknown fate. He was subjected to an enforced disappearance five years ago after an acquittal verdict on 7 December, 2017 for the case known in the media as “the Soldiers of Egypt Organisation”. His wife had to file for a divorce after he was arrested.
Families of those disappeared are usually left with the option of praying for the release of their loved ones after they send a telegram to the office of the public prosecutor to report the disappearance. Some relatives reported that the local police station and or the security directorates close to their place of residence got in touch to enquire about the disappearance incidents reported, requesting extra details and information, but that usually led nowhere.
Enforced disappearance “is considered to be the arrest, detention, abduction or any other form of deprivation of liberty by agents of the State or by persons or groups of persons acting with the authorisation, support or acquiescence of the State, followed by a refusal to acknowledge the deprivation of liberty or by concealment of the fate or whereabouts of the disappeared persons, which place such a person outside the protection of the law.”
This definition forms the second article of the International Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearance, which was adopted by the UN General Assembly in 2010. Article 26 calls for the establishment of a committee of ten experts “of high moral character and recognised competence in the field of human rights, who shall serve in their personal capacity and be independent and impartial” as they “carry out the functions provided for” under the convention. State parties which are signatories of the convention “shall cooperate with the Committee and assist its members in the fulfilment of their mandate”. Significantly, Egypt is not a signatory of this convention.
Egyptian law does not recognise the term “enforced disappearance”, and most human rights organisations focused on this issue have had to abandon their activities in Egypt. Such organisations were active during the presidency of Hosni Mubarak, but now the task of reporting on disappeared persons has moved to social media, with pages such as “Stop Enforced Disappearances” and the “Association of the Families of the Forcibly Disappeared” on Facebook, where an administrator will publish a photo of the forcibly disappeared person along with some details to add to the credibility of the post.
A systematic policy
According to the Egyptian Commission for Rights and Freedoms, the last reported sighting of disappeared persons in 49 per cent of the cases was in a public place. In 21 per cent of the cases, the arrest of the disappeared person took place at home, seven per cent at security headquarters and six per cent at security checkpoints.
According to the commission, the way that disappearances happen varies, and they can last between one and seven years. One such disappeared person reappeared after two years in the high security Scorpion Prison pending the review of a legal case against him. The person is referred to by his pseudonym of “Warda’s husband” by the investigator. The disappeared person was not allowed to communicate with his family or lawyer, which is common in these cases.
Families never give up on waiting for the reappearance of their absent member(s) despite the increasing number of forcibly disappeared people, as confirmed by Khalaf Bayoumi, the head of El-Shehab Centre for Human Rights. The centre estimates that there have been nearly 15,000 disappeared persons in Egypt since 2013; 2,272 of those were disappeared in 2021 alone. It has reported the death of 61 of those forcibly disappeared.
The phenomenon of forced disappearances has risen in Egypt since the end of Muslim Brotherhood rule in mid-2013. This followed a wave of protests that ushered in a military intervention that deposed the regime of former President, the late Dr Mohamad Morsi.
Although many agree that forced disappearance is a systematic policy in Egypt, the Committee for Justice disagrees with the figures published by El Shehab Centre, and claims that enforced disappearances account for just 14 per cent of the 13,000 cases of human rights violations that it has monitored.
The youngest forcibly disappeared person
Al-Baraa Omar Abdel Hamid was forcibly disappeared before he turned one. He was with his parents when they were arrested in 2019, and all three disappeared for two years. They reappeared at the beginning of last year, but the small family faced another breakup when the child was handed over to his father’s family as his mother was sent to Al-Qanatir Prison while his father was sent to Scorpion Prison.
The child is now four years old. Amnesty International quotes him as saying, “I want to go back to the room.” His words reflect a desire to be reunited with his mother in the only place he knew that he could find her, and that is the cell where he had spent the early months of his young life next to her. He went through the stages of early life such as crawling, walking, being weaned off his mother’s milk, learning his first letters, numbers and short sentences within the walls of a narrow prison cell where the sun could only be seen through a small window.
His grandfather is now his grandson’s custodian. “Al-Baraa is fine,” he told the investigator, “and we spoil him with sweets, trips and games.” However, the family has not talked to the child’s parents since their re-arrest, as visits are prohibited.
The Egyptian Commission for Human Rights lists the disappearance of twelve children who represent seven per cent of the total number of forcibly disappeared people. Those who were disappeared in their twenties topped the list with 49 per cent; those in their thirties accounted for 24 per cent of the number of victims.
The list also shows that the percentage of university students among those who were disappeared has increased by 35 per cent. The disappeared hail variously from Cairo (34 per cent), Giza (18 per cent) and Sinai (eight per cent).
The search for Wesal
The crowded streets of Cairo might normally have delayed Wesal Mohammad Mahmoud’s return home from work by two or even three hours, so her parents worried when the mother of two was not home with her children and husband by midnight. Should the family search for her in local hospitals among reported accident victims first? Or should they report her as a missing person at the police station? That was the dilemma. She was never a member of any political opposition group, and yet she is a victim of an enforced disappearance.
Wesal’s brother, Mohammad, insisted on filing a missing person’s report at Al-Azbakeya Police Station in downtown Cairo. He heard a number of officers say, “Wesal is fine. She will be back in a little while.” Others told him, “Your sister is fine, and she will be back.”
Communications from the authorities with information for the families of the forcibly disappeared are usually verbal and so cannot be documented and verified. Sometimes information comes through security agency employees in order to calm down the victims’ families. In some cases, other detainees carry messages from those who have been disappeared.
This is how Moumin Abu Rawash Mohammad’s wife found out about her husband, who was a teacher of Italian. She found out that he was being kept at the State Security headquarters in Sheikh Zayed area. He was arrested at El-Monieb Bus Station and was tortured for several days before being transferred to another, unknown location.
Families of detainees told the investigator that detention usually takes place at the State Security headquarters, especially in El-Abbasiyyah, Sheikh Zayed and Nasser City, as well as at the Central Security units in the Red Mountain area. This site is the most common location where victims of enforced disappearances were first spotted and from where messages to their families were sent.
Detention at these facilities varies between solitary, collective and overcrowded confinement. The so called “torture parties” (as they are often called) last as long as the interrogation, which can be at least two weeks and up to two months according to victims’ families.
El-Azouly Military Prison in the city of Ismailia is one of the sites where the victims of enforced disappearances are often held for long periods of time. This is supported by a 2014 statement bearing the stamp of the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights and El-Nadeem Centre for the Rehabilitation of Victims of Violence, and in another statement by Amnesty International. The same statement reports that lawyers and activists informed Amnesty that the number of enforced disappearances has been on the rise in Egypt since November 2013.
For Egyptians, military prison is synonymous with the phrase “You will disappear beyond the sun”. This is an intimidatory message to warn people against opposing the regime. It is attributed to the director of a prison in the 1960s who had a reputation for his extreme cruelty against detainees.
The following two headlines were seen on Egyptian media websites in the second half of 2016 when the National Council for Human Rights issued its final verdict on its investigation about enforced disappearances that had been in circulation since the end of 2013. “The National Council for Human Rights Brings Down the Curtain on the Drama of Enforced disappearances”, and “The National Council for Human Rights Acquits the Egyptian Ministry of Interior of acts of Enforced Disappearances”.
The title of the report in question was: “Enforced Disappearances in Egypt, the Allegations and the Truth”. It concluded that the Ministry of Interior facilitated the process to look into the complaints about enforced disappearances cases which led to the release of 238 people out of the initial 266 complaints made. “The gaps between the reports filed by the families concerned and the dates of their presence in detention centres has created confusion about determining cases of those who exceeded the legal limit of their detention terms and the crime of enforced disappearance,” the report noted.
Issued by the government’s own human rights body, the report does not acquit the Ministry of Interior completely, but nor does it condemn the ministry explicitly. This made the families of victims of enforced disappearances reluctant to file complaints with the council despite the easy procedures in place. The end of 2016 marked the end of a critical national conversation about enforced disappearances in Egypt.
This is why the wife of the physician Abdel Rahman Ahmad Mahmoud, who disappeared in 2018, did not file a complaint with the National Council for Human Rights. “They are all one and the same,” she claimed. She also abstained from filing a report about her husband’s disappearance at her local police station and was satisfied with her mother-in-law informing the office of the Prosecutor General, the office of the Prime Minister and the president’s office in a telegram about the case.
Dr Abdel Rahman’s wife remembers the anxiety she felt when her husband was late to return home after finishing work at his clinic in Ain Shams area. She claimed that his mobile phone was turned off even though they were discussing issues related to their two sons throughout the day. His four-year absence made her realise that his disappearance could be connected to his political views usually expressed on his Facebook page. The doctor’s brother is serving a prison sentence for attempting to bomb the Asyut Court, but Abdel Rahman was not involved in political activities, and his wife works as a pharmacist in a government hospital.
After her husband’s disappearance, she settled in Asyut governorate with her children, delaying as long as possible an explanation for their father’s long absence. When she eventually told them, her seven year old asked, “Don’t you have the number of a nice police officer we can call, so we could see my father?”
During his four-year disappearance, Abdel Rahman’s family have heard a lot of rumours related to his whereabouts. This is in addition to fraudulent offers of information about his location in return for huge sums of money.
The law is not applied
Egyptian law does not provide a specific definition of enforced disappearances. Article 54 of the 2014 constitution stresses that “anyone whose freedom is restricted shall be immediately apprised of the reasons why he was detained and should be informed in writing about of his rights. He should have the ability to contact his family and his lawyer promptly and shall be handed over to the investigating authorities within twenty-four hours of his detention.”
Articles 40 and 41 of the Criminal Procedure Law No. 150 of 1950, which was amended on 5 September, 2020 states that the accused may only be detained in places that are designated for that purpose. Articles 42 and 43 allow members of the Public Prosecution and the heads and representatives of the Courts of First Instance and Courts of Appeal to visit prisons to ensure that there are no illegal detainees.
When the victims of enforced disappearances reappear, they have the right to file a lawsuit against the security agency that detained them. Human rights lawyer Mutaz Al-Fujairi believes that the effectiveness of this procedure depends on the Public Prosecution’s desire to monitor the performance of the security services. This is “not likely to happen, given the absence of oversight in many cases.”
Al-Fujairi added that at the international level, litigation in cases of enforced disappearances can be carried out in countries which recognise universal jurisdiction in other countries that are signatories to the International Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearance. However, there are no cases filed on this matter at the local or international level.
Egypt’s National Council for Human Rights was asked to give its reaction to the findings of this investigation, but at the time of its publication we had not received any response.
Enforced disappearances continue without accountability in Egypt. The fate of ten out of fifteen people covered by this investigation remains unknown. The Egyptian government and its relevant agencies continue to ignore this human rights issue even as the presidential pardon and political reconciliation committees continue to operate.