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(New York) – The Egyptian military has detained five members of former president Mohamed Morsy’s administration at an undisclosed location without judicial process and with very little outside contact since July 3, 2013. Almost five months later, the government has yet to formally acknowledge their detention or disclose their fate or whereabouts, conditions that constitute enforced disappearance. 

The government has been carrying out a systematic crackdown against the Muslim Brotherhood. The police have rounded up thousands of the organization’s leaders, members, and perceived sympathizers. Human Rights Watch has documented significant evidence of arbitrary arrests, selective targeting of activities and individuals based solely on their political objectives, and serious due process violations. 

“What kind of roadmap is this where a military-backed government can brazenly disappear former presidential aides for 150 days without any explanation?” said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East and North Africa director. “Forcibly disappearing people for months on end doesn’t inspire confidence that this government intends to follow the rule of law.”  

On the day it removed Morsy from power, July 3, 2013, the Egyptian military forcibly detained him and nine high-ranking members of his administration:

·         Ahmed Abdelaty, office director
·         Essam al-Haddad, foreign relations assistant
·         Ayman Ali, expatriate affairs assistant
·         Abdelmeguid al-Meshaly, media adviser
·         Khaled al-Qazzaz, foreign relations secretary
·         Ayman al-Serafy, secretary to the office director
·         Mohammad Rifaa al-Tahtawy, chief of staff
·         Assad El-Sheikha, deputy chief of staff
·         Ayman Hudhod, security adviser
 Family members of six detained aides who spoke to Human Rights Watch said that they lost contact with their loved ones around the time Defense Minister Abdul Fatah Sisi announced the government’s ouster on July 3. The military initially held the presidential aides incommunicado, with the exception of al-Qazzaz, who placed several short calls to his family during the first 10 days after their disappearance, assuring his family that the aides were safe and would be home soon.

In the days after July 3, the government refused to acknowledge that it was holding the former aides or to confirm their whereabouts, putting them outside the protection of the law. On July 10, Badr Abdellatty, Foreign Affairs Ministry spokesman, told Agence France Presse that, although Morsy had not been “charged with anything up until now,” he “is in a safe place, for his safety, and he is being treated with dignity.” 

Ahmed El-Muslimani, spokesman for the interim president, Adly Mansour, announced on July 16 that Morsy is “in a safe place and is treated in a matter appropriate for a former president.” Neither statement, though, provided details of where Morsy was detained, nor made mention of the nine other members of his administration. It is widely presumed that the military initially held the group in the Republican Guard Headquarters.   

The military failed to bring any member of the group in front of a prosecutor within 24 hours, as Egyptian law requires, the relatives of the six detained aides interviewed by Human Rights Watch said. Based on conversations with their husbands, the wives of two detained aides said that the military separated Morsy, al-Tahtawy, and El-Sheikha from the remainder of the group several days after their initial disappearance. 

Prosecutors on July 26 formally ordered Morsy imprisoned pending investigation on a range of charges and on August 4 brought charges against al-Tahtawy and El-Sheikha, ordering their pretrial detention for 15 days pending investigation. Their location, though, remained secret. Security officials eventually transferred El-Sheikha to Tora Prison, where he is currently held. No official statement has been made about where al-Tahtawy, who previously served as Egypt’s ambassador to Libya and Iran, is being held, although a relative told Human Rights Watch that authorities held him with Morsy at an unknown location until Morsy’s preliminary court appearance on November 4, at which point they transferred both to Borg al-Arab Prison.

Prosecutors on August 6 ordered Abdelaty and Hudhod to be detained pending investigation. On that date, security officials moved both from the secret location where they had been held for over 30 days to Tora Prison, Abdelaty’s wife, Mona al-Masri, told Human Rights Watch. El-Sheikha, Hudhod, and Abdelaty appeared in court on November 4 as co-defendants along with Morsy on charges related to the clashes outside the Ettihadiya presidential palace in December 2012. 

The five other aides – al-Haddad, Ali, al-Meshaly, al-Qazzaz, and al-Serafy – remain detained without any legal basis at an undisclosed location. On July 19, al-Qazzaz called his wife, Sarah Attia, and requested that each family deliver white clothes, the uniform for prisoners in Egypt, to a particular secure facility, where an army general would receive the clothes and deliver them to the detained aides, six relatives told Human Rights Watch. The families have since periodically delivered clothing and other items and picked up laundry in this manner. 

The families of the other four aides each had a phone call about a minute long on speakerphone from their loved ones about a month after their disappearance. The aides have had limited family contact since, though they remain unable to speak with a lawyer or have any other outside contact.

Attia, al-Qazzaz’s wife, told Human Rights Watch that she learned, based on her limited communication with her husband, that the military has held the aides together in a single room,  allowing them outside for only one hour a day and denying them access to phones or the Internet. Relatives expressed particular concern about Ali and al-Haddad, who they said have chronic health conditions that require regular access to medication and doctors. 

Several relatives of the disappeared detainees told Human Rights Watch that they feared the government was detaining their relatives to use as leverage for future negotiations with the Muslim Brotherhood. A relative of al-Tahtawy said he fears the authorities will continue to hold al-Tahtawy until a new president is elected. Mona al-Qazzaz, al-Qazzaz’s sister, said she believed her brother was being “kept in the fridge” for use by the government as a negotiating lever with the Muslim Brotherhood. Al-Haddad’s son Abdullah said he has similar anxieties about his father, given that he had a close relationship with Morsy. 

All of the relatives interviewed said they felt intimidated when it came to speaking out about their family members. The al-Haddads and al-Qazzazes, in particular, said that a number of their family members have been detained. Security forces in September arrested al-Haddad’s son Gehad, who became the spokesman for the Muslim Brotherhood after June 30. Al-Qazzaz’s father, Adly, was arrested in October. Three families told Human Rights Watch that security forces have raided their homes. 

Government officials have also made statements and opened investigations into the aides’ personal affairs, making them lightning rods for relentless criticism in Egyptian media without any opportunity to respond. The Egyptian newspaper Youm 7, for example, reported on November 25 that a government committee, headed by the justice minister’s first assistant, had placed al-Haddad’s name on a list of Muslim Brotherhood members prevented from accessing their personal assets. 

A November 24 article in al-Akbar, a pro-government newspaper, said that Education Minister Mahmoud Abu Nasr called for the Moqattam Language School and Moqattam International School, which Adly al-Qazzaz runs, to be added to the list of Muslim Brotherhood schools to be brought under government control following court rulings calling for confiscation of the organization’s assets. 

Mona al-Qazzaz said that she had learned from her detained brother that authorities in mid-November had printed her picture and a tweet of hers that had criticized the interim government and handed it to him, in an attempt to silence her. She and Abdullah al-Haddad, both based in London, worry that, as a result of their political activism, they may never be able to return to Egypt to see their families. 

The family members expressed deep frustration with not knowing why the authorities were holding their loved ones and how much longer they would remain in custody. A relative of Ayman al-Serafy said, “I want to know where he is. I want to see him and know that he is okay.” With four young children and no family in Cairo, Attia, al-Qazzaz’s wife, said, “I have basically been a single mother for the last four months.” “They have taken everything from us,” Mona al-Qazzaz said.

Under international law, a state’s refusal to acknowledge that a person has been detained or to reveal a person’s whereabouts and fate following detention or arrest by state forces, placing the detainee outside the protection of the law, is an enforced disappearance. Enforced disappearance violates many of the rights guaranteed under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which Egypt ratified in 1982, including the requirement to bring detainees promptly   before a judge. The UN General Assembly has repeatedly described enforced disappearance as “an offense to human dignity” and “a grave and flagrant violation” of international human rights law.

An enforced disappearance also constitutes a “continuous” crime under international law: it persists, and continues to inflict suffering on the victim’s family, as long as the fate of the missing person is unknown or concealed. The UN Declaration on the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearances, proclaimed by the General Assembly in 1992, recognizes the practice of “disappearances” as a violation of the rights to due process, liberty, and security of a person. To prevent disappearances, the declaration stipulates that detainees must be held in officially recognized places of detention, of which their families must be promptly informed; that they must have access to a lawyer; and that each detention facility must maintain an official up-to-date register of everyone in that facility deprived of their liberty.

Although nonbinding, the declaration reflects the international norm against enforced disappearance, which has been further reinforced by the adoption of the International Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearance in 2006. 

Article I of the convention, which Egypt has not signed or ratified, holds that “[n]o exceptional circumstances whatsoever, whether a state of war or a threat of war, internal political instability, or any other public emergency, may be invoked as justification for enforced disappearance.” The convention further calls for states to investigate disappearances, hold perpetrators responsible, and properly compensate victims. 

“The prolonged enforced disappearance of anyone is a crime, pure and simple,” Whitson said. “The Egyptian authorities should immediately free them unconditionally.”

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