Egypt: hundreds disappeared and tortured

Egypt's National Security Agency (NSA) is abducting, torturing and forcibly disappearing people in an effort to intimidate opponents and wipe out peaceful dissent, Amnesty International charged in a new report July 13. "Egypt: 'Officially, you do not exist': Disappeared and tortured in the name of counter-terrorism" reveals a trend which has seen hundreds of students, political activists and protesters, including children as young as 14, vanish without trace at the hands of the state. Three to four people are being seized each day—usually when heavily armed security forces led by NSA officers storm their homes. Many are held for months at a time and often kept blindfolded and handcuffed for the entire period.

"This report reveals the shocking and ruthless tactics that the Egyptian authorities are prepared to employ in their efforts to terrify protesters and dissidents into silence," said Philip Luther, director of Amnesty's Middle East and North Africa program. "Enforced disappearance has become a key instrument of state policy in Egypt. Anyone who dares to speak out is at risk, with counter-terrorism being used as an excuse to abduct, interrogate and torture people who challenge the authorities."

The report details cases of 17 people subjected to enforced disappearance, who were held incommunicado for periods ranging from several days to seven months, cut off from the outside world and denied access to lawyers, their families, or any independent judicial oversight. The report includes harrowing accounts of torture during interrogation sessions lasting up to seven hours, in order to extract "confessions" later used as evidence against them to obtain convictions at trials. In some cases, those tortured were children.

One of the most shocking cases examples is that of Mazen Mohamed Abdallah, who was subjected to enforced disappearance at the age of 14 in September 2015 and suffered horrendous abuse, including being repeatedly raped with a wooden stick in order to extract a false "confession."

Aser Mohamed, who was also 14 at the time of his arrest, was beaten, given electric shocks all over his body and suspended from his limbs in order to extract a false "confession" when he was forcibly disappeared for 34 days in early 2016. He was eventually brought before a state security prosecutor who warned him that he would face further electric shocks when he tried to retract his "confessions."

In other cases, family members were arrested in order to pressure the principal target into giving a "confession." In July 2015, Atef Farag was arrested alongside his 22-year-old son, Yehia. The family believes Atef was arrested for participating in a sit-in and his son, who has a disability, was arrested to pressure him to "confess" to serious offenses. Both were held for 159 days and now have been charged with belonging to the banned Muslim Brotherhood.

There has been a visible spike in the use of enforced disappearances since Magdy Abd el-Ghaffar was appointed Minister of Interior in March 2015. He previously served in the State Security Investigations (SSI), the secret police force notorious for human rights violations under Hosni Mubarak's rule, which was dismantled after the 2011 uprising and re-organized as the NSA.

In one horrific case Islam Khalil, 26, was subjected to 122 days of enforced disappearance in 2015. He was blindfolded and handcuffed for the whole of that time and was brutally beaten, given electric shocks including on his genitals, and suspended naked by his wrists and ankles for hours at a time by NSA interrogators in Tanta, a town north of Cairo. At one point his interrogator said: "Do you think that you have a price? We can kill you and put you in a blanket and throw you in any trash bin and no one will ask about you."

Hundreds of people are estimated to be held in the NSA offices inside the Ministry of Interior headquarters in Cairo's Lazoughly district. The offices are just a short distance from the iconic Tahrir Square, symbol of the 2011 revolution against Mubarak.

The disappearance of the Italian student Giulio Regeni, who was found dead in Cairo in February 2016, with his body bearing signs of torture, attracted worldwide media attention. The Egyptian authorities have repeatedly denied involvement in his disappearance and killing, but Amnesty found that the similarities between his injuries and those of Egyptians who died in custody suggests that his death is part of a wider pattern of enforced disappearances by the NSA and other agencies across Egypt.

"President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi must order all state security agencies to stop enforced disappearances, torture and other forms of ill-treatment and make clear that anyone who orders, commits or is complicit in such violations will be brought to justice," said Philip Luther.

The report also calls on President al-Sisi to urgently set up an independent commission of inquiry to investigate all allegations of enforced disappearances, torture and other ill-treatment of detainees by the NSA and other agencies, with the power to probe all government agencies, including the military, without interference. (AI, July 13)