The half-empty conference room on the fourth floor of the Egyptian Journalists Syndicate in downtown Cairo was filled with women sobbing and children holding pictures of their fathers, waiting for the conference to begin so that each might tell their stories of family members detained without charge in Saudi Arabia.
The Monday press conference was organised by the Association of Families of Egyptians Detained in Saudi Arabia. The association was founded almost one year ago by the families of some 36 Egyptian nationals detained without trial in the oil-rich kingdom.
Seham Mohamed and her six-year-old son stood in the middle of the room holding a picture of Hamada Metwali, a husband and father arrested in Saudi in 2007.
"My husband was detained because he was suspected of knowing certain Saudis wanted by the Saudi authorities," said Seham, explaining that her husband had been slapped with a two-year jail sentence but had already served a whopping six years – and still had yet to be released.
Metwali had originally travelled to Saudi Arabia – leaving his pregnant wife in Egypt – to work as an air-control officer.
"He has never seen his son and his health is deteriorating," lamented Seham. "Who will compensate us for all the years he spent away from us?"
She went on to tell Ahram Online that she had tried contacting Egypt's foreign ministry and the Saudi ambassador to Egypt, but that "no one responded."
Association founder Ashmawi Youssef told Ahram Online that the number of Egyptian nationals languishing in Saudi prisons stood at around 108 one year ago, but that the number had since fallen to around 30 cases.
"Six months ago, we met with Foreign Affairs Minister Mohamed Amr, who put us in contact with his aide who in turn sent us a letter promising that the ministry would continue its efforts to help us. But they're apparently still awaiting support from higher state authorities," said Youssef.
Youssef demanded a clear article in Egypt's constitution, currently in the process of being drafted, "to explicitly safeguard the rights of Egyptians abroad" so as to prevent similar incidents in the future.
The conference began at around 12:30pm, when family members were invited up to the podium to tell the stories of their relatives and loved ones detained in Saudi Arabia.
"My daughter faced severe injustice in Saudi Arabia; she was flogged for no reason except that she tried to demand her rights," said Yehia Wafa.
Wafa's daughter, Naglaa, is an Egyptian businesswoman who was sentenced to five years in prison and 500 lashes by the Saudi authorities following a quarrel between her and a daughter of the Saudi monarch.
Yehia described the verdict imposed on his daughter as "invalid," saying that his family had been "living in hell for three years" as a result of Naglaa's ongoing detention.
Before the conference began, Ahram Online spoke to Naglaa's son, Sherif, who said his mother had declared a hunger strike two days ago to protest her imprisonment. He went on to point out that an Egyptian delegation was scheduled to soon travel to Saudi to see his mother and check up on her condition.
"My mother must be released with dignity; she's entitled to this, especially given that she's in an Arab-Muslim country," said Sherif, who hasn't seen his mother since the day she was arrested three years ago.
Sherif added that the family was currently in contact with newly-appointed Egyptian Vice-President Mahmoud Mekki, who had promised to bring up the issue with Saudi's ambassador to Egypt.
Later, Shahenda Fathi, wife of lawyer Ahmed El-Gizawi, took the podium to tell the story of her husband, arrested in April by Saudi authorities while performing the Umra pilgrimage.
El-Gizawi was initially accused of "insulting Saudi Arabia's royal family," but the charge was later changed to that of smuggling drugs into the kingdom.
"What's happening to Egyptians in Saudi Arabia is nothing new, be in the detentions or the unjust kafeel system," said Fathi, who pointed out that her husband had been concerned with the issue of Egyptians jailed without charge in Saudi Arabi. El-Gizawi, she said, had gone so far as to file lawsuits against both Egypt's ambassador to Saudi Arabia and Saudi's ambassador to Egypt.
The desert kingdom has often been criticised for its kafeel, or 'sponsorship,' system, by which foreign nationals are only granted jobs if they are formally sponsored by Saudi citizens. Critics point out that the system essentially allows the Saudi sponsor to control the lives of foreign workers, including the latter's ability to leave the country.
"Last Ramadan, Ahmed sent us a letter telling us about the torture he faces and crying for help," recounted Fathi. She added that a protest was being planned for Wednesday – one day after her husband's trial in Saudi – in front of Egypt's foreign affairs ministry.
Later still, the mother of Mostafa El-Baradei climbed the podium to tell the story of her 24-year-old son, who travelled to Saudi Arabia in 2009 seeking work and ended up in a Saudi prison only a few months later.
El-Baradei has now been detained without charge by the Saudi authorities for two years and three months.
"Every week I travel from Gharbiya to Cairo. We've staged protests, held conferences – I even contacted the Saudi ambassador, but nothing came of it; no one stood by our side," El-Baradei's mother rued.
She choked on her tears behind her niqab as she told listeners how her son was gradually going blind due to alleged torture by his Saudi captors. She went on to urge Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi – for whom she voted – to work on bringing her son home.
"I'm living all by myself," she said. "I do nothing but hold his picture and pray for his return."
The distraught mother added: "I ask the king of Saudi Arabia to give me my son back. I promise him we will never step foot in his country – we don't even want to visit for pilgrimage; we don't care anymore."
On 15 August, Saudi officials stated that 82 Egyptian nationals jailed in the kingdom would be granted amnesties by Saudi King Abdullah. The names of those to be pardoned, however, were not revealed.
The decision had followed a visit to the kingdom by President Morsi – the latter's first trip abroad as Egyptian head of state – in which he met personally with the Saudi monarch.