(Cairo) - The Egyptian government should account for all detained demonstrators and free those arbitrarily arrested during the recent anti-government protests, Human Rights Watch said today. Egyptian Human rights monitors and two internet activist groups have collected names of scores of people who have been reported missing since January 28, 2011, when the military took charge of security after police withdrew in the face of the popular demonstrations.
Based on reports from released detainees and families of missing people, Egyptian human rights activists say that the military, which assumed direct governmental power in Egypt on February 11 following the resignation of President Hosni Mubarak, is holding most of those still missing. Human Rights Watch documented five cases in which detainees were beaten, whipped, or given electric shocks in military custody. Egyptian rights groups say they have documented more cases of abuse.
On February 20, the military-led government acknowledged that the army holds protesters, but has yet to publish a list of those detained since it assumed responsibility for internal security. Prime Minister Ahmed Shafik said at a February 20 news conference that "the government is doing research into releasing" people detained since protests began on January 25.
"Vague promises to release detainees are not enough," said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East and North Africa director at Human Rights Watch. "Egypt's interim authorities should immediately publish a list of everyone they are holding, and every detainee should be brought before a judge straight away."
The military should move swiftly to release detainees or charge them with a recognizable offense, and hold accountable those responsible for abusing people in custody, Human Rights Watch said. The authorities should also allow independent inspection of all detention centers, without notice.
The number of people still being detained in connection with protests is difficult to determine, in part because it is uncertain that all detentions were reported and in part because families who report missing relatives do not necessarily report their release.
Working from a list of 66 missing or detained people compiled by Egyptian human rights groups and from monitoring informal internet appeals posted by relatives, Human Rights Watch has been able to confirm from relatives that of those 66, eight remain missing, 17 were detained and released, two returned home after hospitalization for injuries, and four were found to have been killed when police fired on demonstrators between January 25 and January 28.
Released detainees or their families who were willing to talk said that the detainees were held incommunicado, without access to families or lawyers. In these 17 cases, the authorities gave no justification for the arrests.
On February 17 El Hadji Malick Sow, the chair-rapporteur of the United Nations Working Group on Arbitrary Detention, called on the Egyptian authorities "to ensure that all persons who peacefully participated in demonstrations are promptly released or allowed to challenge the legality of their detention in accordance with domestic law."
"Arbitrary arrest and secret detentions were hallmarks of the repression of the Mubarak era," Whitson said. "Egypt's new authorities should end these practices now."
Missing and Presumed Detained
Egyptians who have reported missing friends or relatives to human rights groups assume they were picked up by security forces, but in most cases there were no witnesses and they cannot be sure. In some cases they do not know if the missing person was attending a protest, but only that the person disappeared during the days of turmoil. Some have received anonymous tips indicating their relatives are in detention.
Ziad Bakir, a 37-year-old graphic designer at the Cairo Opera House, went to Tahrir Square to take part in protests the evening of January 28, his sister Mirette Bakir told Human Rights Watch. A colleague of Bakir's told the family he saw Bakir around midnight, four hours after police had withdrawn from the area and soldiers had taken charge of security. The Mubarak government had blocked mobile telephone service that day so the family could not reach Bakir. The next day, they searched hospitals all over Cairo as well as military bases and police stations. One army officer told them there were "many detained" but had no information on Bakir, Mirette said.
Since then, the family has searched morgues throughout the city and found no trace of Bakir. They sent a telegram to the defense minister, Field Marshal Mohammed Hussein Tantawi, who also heads the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, which is governing Egypt. The family received no response.
"We are scared," Mirette Bakir said. "There is no one to turn to. We don't know why they are treating everyone like this. It's unbelievable."
Amal Ihab, a 19-year-old college student, has been missing since she boarded a public minibus in Giza, a district west of Cairo, on February 19. Her brother-in-law, Ahmed Talaat, said that she had been returning from taking a school exam and that a witness saw her board the bus. Thinking that she might join Tahrir Square demonstrations "out of enthusiasm," relatives called her on her mobile phone and she assured them she was fine.
But she did not answer a second call by her relatives a short time later and has not been heard from since.
Talaat told Human Rights Watch that relatives visited "several" police stations searching for her but that police officers were indifferent to their appeals, in one case operating a PlayStation while telling them to come back the next day. They reported Ihab missing to the Hisham Mubarak Law Center, a legal aid organization in Cairo.
Tarek Abd al-Latif, 25, an engineer, left home on January 28 to pray in Mustafa Mahmoud mosque in Cairo's Mohandesin district, his cousin Ahmed Amin told Human Rights Watch. Al-Latif had planned to meet friends to go to Tahrir Square to join a demonstration, but never joined them. Authorities had shut down mobile phone services, so friends could not contact him. A friend said he saw al-Latif in Tahrir Square at 10 p.m.
Amin said the family thinks al-Latif is "definitely detained" and that they surveyed hospitals through a contact in the Health Ministry but could not find him. They inquired at Salam Military Base outside of Cairo and with security officials, but received no information. At one point, a "personal contact" with the State Security Intelligence service, a branch of the Interior Ministry, told them al-Latif is alive, but his whereabouts remain unknown.
Mohamed Hussein Ali, a pre-paid mobile phone card salesman, was last seen near the Somooha Club in Alexandria on January 31. He was carrying money and mobile phone cards and was on his way to the Sidi Gabr district, his brother Ibrahim Hussein Ali told Human Rights Watch. Relatives visited hospitals to look for him and then inquired at the Northern Military District headquarters as well as at Hadra prison. At the prison they were told that 1,000 detainees were inside, but that there was no list of those held. A soldier near Somooha told Ibrahim that detainees had been taken in for questioning, but he knew nothing about his brother.
Reports of abuse and torture from Egyptians who have been released from detention compound the anxiety and desperation of the families of those missing. Human Rights Watch, in a February 9 report, documented cases in which people said that when they were in detention, military personnel tortured them. Three released detainees and the mother of a fourth reported slapping, beating, whippings, and electric shocks administered to themselves or other prisoners. A fifth former detainee also described such abuse, but declined to let Human Rights Watch use his name or publish the details he provided.
Ramy Nashed, a 20-year-old garbage collector, told Human Rights watch that he was driving to work on El Naem Street in Cairo's Ain Shams district at 2 p.m. on February 2 when an army officer stopped him. He and two of his cousins, who were also in the car, Youssef Nageh, 18, and Eyad Mikhaiel Girguis, 22, were taken to a place called the Ain Shams Training Center, where soldiers beat them with sticks and shocked them with electric prods. The soldiers abused them for an hour, insistently asking them for information about the Muslim Brotherhood, an organization formally barred from politics that took part in the anti-Mubarak demonstrations.
The soldiers then moved them to a military police office in El Khalifa El Ma'amoun, where officers tied their hands with wires, beat them with sticks, and shocked them with electrical devices, Nashed said. They were kept there six days and then transported to a military jail on Suez Road outside Cairo. There they received the same abusive treatment from guards. Their captors stripped them and forced them to stand in the cold for an hour. One night, guards drenched them with water while they slept, saying they should be treated like dogs. The guards fed them a half slice of bread in the morning and another in the afternoon.
Nashed said that about half of the hundreds of detainees at the prison were released on February 10. On February 13 the remaining prisoners were transported by train from Ramses Station in downtown Cairo to Wadi El Gadid prison in the southern town of Assiut, about 200 miles south of Cairo. Their treatment in Assiut was humane, Nashed said: no beatings; and they received medical exams, food, and cigarettes. Prison authorities released them on February 20, without explanation, and they made their way to houses of relatives in Assiut and then to Cairo. During their detention in both Cairo and Assiut, Nashed said, they were not permitted to contact either family or lawyers.
Samir Ismail Abdelaziz, a 25-year-old professional photographer, said he and a companion were grabbed out of a taxi on February 6 by a mob as he was leaving Tahrir Square. The crowd handed him over to soldiers, who confiscated his camera. Finding foreign currency on Ismail's friend, the soldiers began to slap them and accuse them of working for "foreign powers." The military then transported the pair to a prison on Suez Road outside of Cairo, where their mistreatment stopped. However, Ismail said he saw other prisoners whipped and given electric shocks there.
On February 9 a military prosecutor accused the pair of working for foreigners. They refused to sign a confession. They were convicted by a military court located at the jail of breaking curfew and sentenced to 15 days, pending further investigation. The next day, they were released along with hundreds of other prisoners.
Mohammed Maher Hussein, a 24-year-old accountant, told Human Rights Watch that on the night of February 11, police took him from Tahrir Square to a street behind the Mugamma, a large state bureaucratic center on the square, and beat him with sticks. The police put Hussein into a van with five other detainees. All were blindfolded and taken to an unknown destination.
During the following three days, he said, soldiers applied electric shocks and beat and whipped them, and interrogated them about their nationalities and sources of income. Upon their release on February 14, their captors told them to sign confession documents. From beneath his blindfold, Hussein glimpsed his, which said he had taken money from foreigners, bought bombs, and was hiding weapons in a subway station. He filed a complaint about the incident to the Prosecutor General's office, for "fear that someone may use this false confession against me."
Mohammed Yehia, an 18-year-old high school student, was picked up near the Egyptian Museum on Tahrir Square on February 3, taken inside a building, and slapped, his mother, Samia Abdel Rahim, told Human Rights Watch. Abdel Rahim said she received a call that day from a "military person," who said her son was injured. She searched hospitals in Cairo and then asked soldiers stationed at the museum and other checkpoints where he might be. She said the soldiers were cooperative, but that they might have been "leading me on." Five days later, a friend of Abdel Rahim whom she declined to identify, called her and said her son had been put into a military armored personnel carrier at Tahrir and taken to a military jail called S-28.
On February 10, Yehia phoned his mother, saying he was somewhere in Giza. He said he had been dropped "in the desert." Yehia returned home the same day and told her he had been whipped, beaten, and given electric shocks while in detention. His interrogators "insulted" him and tried to get him to confess that his parents belonged to the Muslim Brotherhood. He told his mother he was hung by his arms for a day and a half. Yehia was unavailable to talk.