More than two years have passed since the state announced its war on terror, a strategy that followed 2013’s political upheaval, collapsing the Muslim Brotherhood and its supporters into the spectral presence of the terrorist. Since that day, the Ministry of Interior has announced daily the number of people arrested for allegedly belonging to the outlawed group, without further mentioning their legal status or whereabouts, raising many questions behind detention conditions.
At least 6,733 people were arrested in 2015 on charges related to allegedly belonging to the outlawed Muslim Brotherhood group, according to the ministry’s reports that Daily News Egypt has aggregated.
The arrested were suspected of being members of middle-rank and specialised in the Brotherhood, performing attacks against security men. Other men were wanted on charges for other cases.
The first six months witnessed the largest number of arrests and the total is estimated to have reached nearly 4,000 people. The numbers particularly rose during the period of following the appointment of current Minister of the Interior Magdy Abdel Ghaffar, according to the announced reports.
As of June the average number of monthly arrests was 400 persons, with a significant decrease by the end of the year. In December, the ministry reported that only 134 people had been arrested on terrorism charges.
The ministry’s official page updated the number of arrests with archetypal statement that reappears daily “in efforts to chase the leaders of the Muslim Brotherhood and those who were involved in bomb explosions and attacks on security forces [number] of people had been arrested”.
“The announced census is incredibly large, even though they are far less than the truth,” coordinator of counter terrorism and human rights cases at the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights (EIPR) Sherif Mohey El-Din told Daily News Egypt. “We are dealing with some cases but no matter what we will never be able to uncover all of them.”
According to Mohey El-Din, there are three common scenarios for every suspect on terrorism charges, either they are referred to trial in which they receive a verdict or are released after proven not guilty. They disappeared into the opaque realm of the detention facilities or they are subject to extrajudicial killing at the time of arrest.
Those who have been arrested and received sentences barely accounts for 10% of the announced number of total arrests based on the trials held in 2015, according to Mohey El-Din. The number of enforced disappearances therefore increases to greatly outpace the number announced by the National Council for Human Rights (NCHR). The state’s extrajudicial killings mostly take place in North Sinai.
In June 2015 the Ministry of Defence released a video showing a group of young men, some of whom had been reported missing, confessing to crimes against security forces. The 11-minute video, called the arrest of the largest terrorist cell, featured Sohaib, 22, who was arrested two weeks earlier in Maadi along with photojournalists Esraa Al-Taweel and Omar Ali.
Following the inundations that overwhelmed an unprepared Alexandria with its derelict infrastructure in early November, the Ministry of Interior published a six-minute video of three men “confessing” to throwing cement mixtures into the drainage systems and damaging them. This video was released despite the comments from the Alexandria governor, who had earlier stated that the city’s ailing infrastructure was behind severity of the flood damage.
In the video, one of the men described how they allegedly performed the operation. The men were also seen to confess to belonging to specialised committees of the outlawed Muslim Brotherhood.
Daily News Egypt spoke to many lawyers who confirmed this has been the case for dozens of arrested people on terrorism charges.
“There are many people who had been subject to ‘enforced disappearances’, if I may put it this way, but how could we label the 15-day gap where Al-Taweel had been missing and appeared later with a police report stating she was arrested on a different date,” lawyer Haleem Henish said.
Henish, who works at the Association of Freedom of Thought and Expression (AFTE), also recalled another incident where his client Islam Khalil was arrested on 25 May and only appeared in the official judicial record on 21 September. The police report stated the latter date as the official date of arrest. Al-Taweel was charged with belonging to a terrorist group, while Khalil was charged with storming into a police station in Alexandria.
“It is not logical that any person could confess to committing crimes unless they’re under pressure. Those people are often exposed to physical torture especially when their detention place is unknown,” he said.
Chief of the state-affiliated NCHR Hafez Abo Saada criticised the state’s policy of illegal and secret detention but contended that there are cases in which a policy of non-disclosure is advisable. “Any family has the right to know the arrest details for their sons or relatives but it is not preferred that they be made public if they are still defendants since it may affect the person’s reputation,” he said.
The Ministry of Interior revealed Saturday the whereabouts of 118 citizens inquired for by NCHR upon receiving complaints of “alleged enforced disappearances”.
Led by local rights groups and launched in November 2015, an earlier rights group aggregated a higher number of arrests. Under the title of Stop Enforced Disappearances, a weeklong campaign took place online on social media platforms and offline during a press conference at the Press Syndicate. The campaign said there had been 1,400 cases of enforced disappearances during the first 10 months of 2015.
Researcher at AFTE’s student observatory Wessam Atta placed the total number of students arrested on allegations of terrorist affiliation at 760. However according to Atta, many of the students who have been arrested are not known to have been subject to illegal detention.
“Some [students] received verdicts, others were released and others are still missing,” Atta said.
Mid May, a student at Ain Shams University, Islam Ateeto, was killed after disappearing for one day. Eyewitnesses told Daily News Egypt at the time of his disappearance that he was escorted by security men after he finished his exam at the university.
However state forces have constantly denied the scope of their detentions. Major-General Abo Bakr Abdel Karim denied that the state has any political prisoners in a phone interview with a TV channel earlier in January. “We do not have any political prisoners in Egypt and the emergency law is not currently activated,” he said.
Major-General Abdel Karim disqualified the latest complaints made by NCHR which alleged state enforced disappearances. “We responded to 74 of them and are still examining the remaining cases,” he said.
“The phenomena of enforced disappearances is mainly a rumour being propagated and is far away from truth. Those people who propagate it have no idea about the other reasons behind disappearances such as illegal immigration and people who die on the roads and no one knows anything about them.”
A Ministry of the Interior official said 11,877 have been arrested since the beginning of 2015 through October on charges of belonging to the Muslim Brotherhood and a total of 171 terror cells have been discovered. The official’s comments came in an interview with state-run Al-Akhbar newspaper in early November.
The ministry meanwhile announced that it granted the release of hundreds of prisoners due to health concerns while others received presidential pardons. Some 249 prisoners were released in early 2015 due to health concerns and 181 on conditional releases. However the ministry has not mentioned whether those prisoners were from the same category of prisoners who were charged with terror crimes.
President Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi granted pardons for 100 political prisoners in September. He announced his decision in early January to release another 100 prisoners ahead of the fifth anniversary of 25 January Revolution.
But many remain in prison in unknown scenarios. “I cannot claim which scenario could be the worst because it depends on the defence team’s competence but at the end of the day you can never reach a completely fair decision,” Mohey El-Din said.