Activists launch campaign against forced disappearance, state denies involvement

Lina El-Wardani , Tuesday 3 Nov 2015

Egyptian activists and lawyers started a week-long solidarity campaign against alleged forced disappearance by the government, while the government denies holding anyone without charges

Maha Mekawy, wife of disappeared Ashraf Hussein, and a volunteer doctor from Nadeem taking her sugar measurement and blood pressure (Photo: Ahram Online)

"Over a year ago, my husband got a phone call and left work, he never came back," said Maha Mekawy, whose husband Ashraf Shehata disappeared on 13 January 2014.

His colleagues and friends have launched a campaign against what they believe was a "forced disappearance" perpetrated by the Egyptian government. Shehata is a school owner and a member of the Dostour Party.

Ahram Online interviewed Mekawy at Al-Nadim Centre for the Rehabilitation of Victims of Violence. The centre hosted Tuesday a solidarity event with Mekawy, who has been on hunger strike for two weeks.

This marks the beginning of a week-long campaign by some human rights organisations to stop forced disappearances. Among the campaigners are the Freedom for the Brave campaign, Stop Forced Disappearance, the Egyptian Commission for Rights and Freedoms (ECRF), the Freedom of Thought and Expression Foundation, and Al-Nadeem Centre.

Some of the campaigners announced they will go on hunger strike in solidarity with Mekawy, and lawyers said they will file on Wednesday legal complaints with the State Council regarding what they say are at least 10 documented cases of forced disappearance.

Thursday has been declared by activists as a day dedicated to an online protest under the hashtag #stop-forced-disappearance.

A press conference is set to take place on Saturday at the National Council for Human Rights pending the council's approval.

There will be other events that are yet to be announced, according to a statement by Baho Bakhsh of the Freedom for the Brave campaign. The campaign puts the forced disappearance cases at 163 from April to June of this year.

Assistant to the interior minister at the Human Rights Sector Salah Fouad said that no forced disappearance cases have been recorded in Egypt, state media reported last month.

"With complete confidence [I can say that] there are no forced disappearances in Egypt, and whoever claims otherwise must provide evidence," Fouad said.

He did, however, insist that the state has the right to deprive a person of their liberty under certain circumstances. In some cases, people believed to have been kidnapped by the government had turned up in detentions centres within a few days, facing charges related to terrorism or illegal protesting.

Speaking about the report issued by the Freedom for the Brave campaign regarding the 163 cases of forced disappearance, Fouad said that these are unfounded allegations.

"If people are claiming that there are forced disappearance cases, they should provide the ministry with specific names so we can search for them instead of just creating a state of confusion," Fouad said.

Mekawy responded to Fouad and the interior ministry by saying, "I am not a fictional character and neither is my husband. We are here and I am sure my husband was taken by the interior ministry."

Although Mekawy has not provided any direct evidence of her husband's kidnapping, she claims he was sighted by several witnesses in different national security facilities.

"I fear for his life, I fear he may be tortured," she said.

Some of Mekawy's relatives have suggested that her husband may have been kidnapped due to a perceived connection to the outlawed Muslim Brotherhood. As such, Mekawy constantly carries a bag which she says is full of documents proving her husband is a supporter of the both the 25 January and 30 June revolutions.

"We have nothing to do with the Muslim Brotherhood and we have nothing against the current regime," she said.

During our interview, Mekawy took a break so a doctor could check on her blood pressure and sugar levels to make sure her hunger strike is not putting her at health risk.

The Egyptian Commission for Rights and Freedom r(ECRF) ecently released a report stating that it documented 215 cases of forced disappearance in August and September alone.

Abdel-Rahman Gad of the ECRF, who was present at Tuesday's event, told Ahram Online that in most cases people like Mekawy are kidnapped from home, university or the street by security agents in plain clothes or formal attire.

"They then disappear for days or sometimes months," he said. "Some later turn up facing formal charges, while others are tossed onto highways, turn up having been tortured, or are found dead or not at all."

"The worst cases I have encountered were 14 incidents that took place following the dispersal of the Rabaa sit-in," he said, referring to the government's forced dispersal in 2013 of a sit-in at Cairo's Rabaa El-Adaweya which supported ousted Muslim Brotherhood president Mohamed Morsi.

Gad gave the example of Amr Ibrahim Metwally, who disappeared following the dispersal and whose family filed reports with all legal bodies in search of him, though he remains missing to this day.

Gad also recalled another incident involving Islam Khalil, who was arrested with his younger brother Noor and his father Sayed Khalil while they were on their way home in northern Egypt's Gharbeya governorate.

Within a few days, Noor and Sayed Khalil were tossed separately onto desert roads, but Islam Khalil was held for 122 days, with his family completely unaware of his whereabouts.

Khalil later reappeared in Alexandria along with a group of people charged with escaping prison and belonging to the banned Muslim Brotherhood. He later told his family that he was tortured and electrocuted.

Several of the campaigners present at the Tuesday event also recounted stories of forced disappearance. Tarek "Tito" of the Dostour Party recalled the case of Ahmed Nasr, who went missing in Beheira and reappeared at a hospital after a month, suffering from amnesia, an amputated leg and apparent burn injuries. His brother Salah was reportedly prevented from taking his brother from the hospital and was told by security forces that his brother was dead.

One of the most high-profile cases involving alleged forced disappearance is that of Mostafa Massouny, who went missing four months ago as he was out to buy food. His family said they looked for him everywhere; in hospitals, police stations and morgues.

Walaa El-Masry, Massouny's girlfriend, said that two weeks after his disappearance his employer revealed that national security agents have inquired about Massouny at his workplace.

Massouny's family said that they found out through "different channels" that Massouny was being held by State Security and that his release was imminent, so they kept a low profile as they feared for his safety. However, as weeks and months passed without Massouny resurfacing, his family decided to speak to the media.

Massouny, a film and programmes editor, worked for a private company before his disappearance. His family said he was not a political activist, although he did join the 2011 protests against dictator Hosni Mubarak. He was briefly detained during the Mohamed Mahmoud protests in 2012, after which he dedicated his life to his work and kept a low profile.

Though the interior ministry initially declined to comment on Massouny's disappearance, it later denied he was being held in any detention facilities.

El-Masry insists, however, that Massouny has been spotted in detention by several witnesses.

Gad says the interior ministry has never acknowledged it was holding anyone involved in forced disappearance, including Israa El-Taweel, who they denied was being held up until she was brought before the prosecution.

Gad added that this tactic was employed by Mubarak's notorious interior minister Habib El-Adly.

"But at least with El-Adly he only arrested political leaders, prominent political activists and Islamists," Gad said. "But now they arrest anyone, including women and children who have nothing to do with politics."

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