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Fighting Repression in the Middle East

Securing the Release of Detained Human Rights Activists in Egypt

At the height of Egypt’s 18-day revolution, Human Rights Watch Senior Researcher Daniel Williams was detained during a military-led raid on Cairo’s Hisham Mubarak Law Center, a pioneering Egyptian human rights organization. Human Rights Watch immediately condemned the crackdown and called for Daniel’s release and that of several international and local colleagues. Within 2 days, all 28 activists and journalists had been freed.

On the afternoon of February 3 a mob gathered to block the Mubarak Center’s exit, and Daniel immediately called Human Rights Watch Emergencies Director Peter Bouckaert, who was also in Cairo. Peter stayed on the line while Daniel hid the phone in his pocket. As military police stormed the building, Peter monitored the raid with an Arabic translator. They listened as everyone inside the center was ordered to sit on the floor with their hands above their heads while military forces broke windows and hurled insults at the captives.

Soldiers bound everyone’s hands with white plastic handcuffs. In addition to Daniel and two researchers from Amnesty International, 25 other Egyptian and international activists and journalists were detained. They looked on as the military confiscated bags containing computers, wallets, money, passports, and other documents. One of his captors accused Daniel of being an Israeli spy, and another slapped him repeatedly on the back of the head after noticing that Daniel was chewing gum.

After ten hours of detention at the center, the group was paraded through a hostile street mob, put on two buses, and taken to Camp 75, a military base in northeast Cairo. When they arrived, the handcuffs were removed and blindfolds put on, and Daniel and other members of the group were interrogated. Daniel spent the next 24 hours sitting blindfolded on concrete being fed only small amounts of bread and water and listening to loud screams of pain that echoed through Camp 75 into the early hours of the morning. When Daniel was caught trying to use the phone again, guards removed its battery.

Meanwhile, Peter had already mobilized Human Rights Watch advocates and program staff in Cairo, London, Washington, and New York to secure the group’s release. Once Daniel’s family had been notified, Human Rights Watch issued a press release condemning the crackdown and calling for the detainees’ immediate safe release. Peter briefed the French and Italian embassies in Cairo, as well as the US Embassy, which was under lockdown because of violent attacks by mobs on its own staff. In Washington, Human Rights Watch advocates and members of the international executive board reached out to the US Department of Defense and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Mike Mullen to ratchet up pressure on the Egyptian military to release the detainees.

The next morning, several Egyptian lawyers from the Mubarak Center arrived at Camp 75 to inquire about the detainees, but guards hastily dismissed them.

By this time, Human Rights Watch international board members had begun reaching out to influential members of Egypt’s business community. It was through one of these contacts that Egypt’s foreign minister informed us he would endeavor to have the group released as quickly as possible in the interest of avoiding an international incident.

About an hour later, at midnight on February 4, Daniel, our colleagues from Amnesty International, and two international journalists were released and deposited at the roadside on the outskirts of Cairo with hurried apologies.

Once this group’s safety was secured, Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International called on the Egyptian military to release the remaining detainees. Daniel made contact with Kanae Doi, Human Rights Watch’s Tokyo-based advocate, to pass along the name and passport details of a Japanese photojournalist he had encountered during his detention, and she immediately began publicizing his plight with the Japanese government and media.

The following morning, on February 5 at 7:30 AM, the Japanese photojournalist and other detainees were released unharmed. They continue documenting Egypt’s revolution and its aftermath today.

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