(New York) – Egypt’s transfer of five members of former President Mohamed Morsy’s administration to Tora prison since December 17, 2013, fails to remedy over five months of secret military detention. Tora prison authorities have denied access to the aides’ lawyers and relatives, preventing them from helping to ensure the men’s basic rights.
The Egyptian military had held the five aides at the Republican Guard Headquarters in Cairo without legal basis or access to a lawyer since July 3, when the army ousted Morsy from power. Family members of each of the aides told Human Rights Watch that they had visited their relatives at the guard headquarters periodically during the latter months of their detention, including as recently as December 20, the day before the transfer of the last two aides. Government officials have issued conflicting statements about the detainees’ fate, though, including falsely claiming in recent days that they arrested the men in late December at apartments in Cairo.
“It’s a Kafkaesque world when Egypt’s government can secretly detain people for over five months and make up stories that they were arrested months later,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East and North Africa director at Human Rights Watch. “Egypt should punish those who ordered the secret detention of these five men, and compensate the victims.”
Security officials transferred three of the aides – Khaled al-Qazzaz, former foreign relations secretary; Abdelmeguid al-Meshaly, former media adviser; and Ayman al-Serafy, former secretary to the office director – to the maximum security al-Aqrab unit in Tora prison in the late evening of December 17. Tora prison authorities confirmed to Sarah Attai, al-Qazzaz’s wife, on December 19 that the detainees were there.
The military moved Essam al-Haddad, former foreign relations assistant, and Ayman Ali, former expatriate affairs assistant, to the al-Aqrab unit in Tora prison on December 21. The official Middle East News Agency, citing a security source, confirmed that the men are now detained at al-Aqrab.
Relatives of all five aides told Human Rights Watch that Tora prison officials denied them visitation rights, although, according to Ali Kamal, a lawyer who represents many Muslim Brotherhood leaders, the officials have allowed relatives to drop off some necessary supplies, including medications and clothing. Kamal also told Human Rights Watch that Tora prison officials have denied him and the other lawyers chosen by the aides’ families access to the men or to information about the charges they face.
State prosecutors interrogated al-Qazzaz, al-Meshaly, and al-Serafy on December 19, the lawyer appointed by the prosecutor to represent the men, Ramadan al-Arabi, told Human Rights Watch.
He said the men face charges of joining an illegal organization, spreading false news that threatens national security, and acting to harm national security, damage relations with a foreign state, and lead the country to war with that state. The charges did not specify the state in question. Prosecutors adjourned the session after the men denied the charges and refused to proceed without the lawyers of their choosing, according to al-Arabi. The aides’ lawyers said they have not been permitted to enter the prison and are uncertain whether subsequent interrogations have taken place.
The prosecutor charged al-Haddad, along with other prominent Muslim Brotherhood figures, on December 18 with conspiring with foreign powers to destabilize Egypt. The aides’ lawyers told Human Rights Watch that they are unaware of whether Ali has been charged or whether al-Haddad or Ali have been questioned by prosecutors, as required by Egyptian law.
Human Rights Watch documented the enforced disappearances of the five aides in a report on December 1. Until that point, the authorities had not acknowledged their secret detention. The five aides were initially detained at the Republican Guard Headquarters alongside five other members of the presidential team, including Morsy, before the military transferred the others to other facilities and charged them in July and August. In response to Human Rights Watch’s findings, Hany Abdel Latif, Ministry of Interior spokesman, told Daily News Egypt on December 1 that the government was holding all five men in Tora prison. By December 3, however, an Associated Press article cited military, Ministry of Interior, and national security agency officials as saying that al-Qazzaz and al-Haddad were still being held in secret military detention.
On December 17, the ONA News Agency cited a security source as saying that security officials had arrested al-Meshaly, al-Qazzaz, and al-Serafy at an apartment in Heliopolis. Similar articles appeared in other Egyptian newspapers, including one in al-Nahar that claimed that security forces had found the three aides in the apartment with automatic rifles, hand grenades, and TNT.
The pro-government newspaper al-Akhbar cited a security source as confirming the recent arrest of the three aides, but refusing to disclose details about how and where they were detained. The newspaper al-Watan quoted a security source as saying, though, that officials had held the aides at the Republican Guard Headquarters since July 2. Youm 7 issued a correction to a prior article in which it had cited a security source as saying that security officials had arrested the men on the streets of Cairo on December 18; the correction stated that the leaked information it had originally published was inaccurate and that the men had been detained since June 30.
Authorities issued similarly conflicting statements regarding the arrests of al-Haddad and Ali. Interior Minister Mohammad Ibrahim told the Egyptian newspaper al-Masree al-Youm on December 22 that security forces had arrested the men at a Cairo apartment after months of monitoring them. The state-run al-Ahram newspaper also reported that security forces had arrested the men on December 21 at an apartment in the Cairo suburb of Heliopolis, after monitoring them for over five months and said that the men had moved among various apartments after security forces dispersed pro-Morsy protests in Raba’a and Nahda squares in August. Similar stories ran in the Egyptian newspapers al-Badil, al-Masriyoon, and al-Balad, all quoting security sources.
In reality the military was secretly detaining the men all along, Human Rights Watch said. Some security sources, including one quoted in the same al-Masree al-Youm article and others cited by the Egyptian newspapers Elfagr, al-Watan, and al-Wafd, accurately stated that the men had been in government custody before their transfer to Tora.
The government has been carrying out an aggressive crackdown against the Muslim Brotherhood since Morsy’s ouster. Authorities have killed more than 1,000 pro-Muslim Brotherhood protesters; arrested thousands of its supporters, including the majority of its leadership; formally outlawed the Muslim Brotherhood; and engaged in a systematic media campaign to demonize it.
“Officials have so egregiously misled the public about Morsy’s former presidential team that they can’t even keep their own story straight,” Whitson said. “The outlandish claims about these men offer a good indication of the reliability of the ‘evidence’ the government plans to offer up against other Brotherhood detainees.”
Egyptian law requires authorities to bring criminal suspects in front of a prosecutor within 24 hours. Under international law, a state’s refusal to acknowledge that a person has been detained or to reveal a person’s whereabouts or 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. Under international law, countries must investigate enforced disappearances, hold anyone responsible to account, and properly compensate victims.
In a November 13 opinion, the United Nations Working Group on Arbitrary Detentions found the secret detention of members of the former presidential team to be “arbitrary” in contravention of the rights to be free from arbitrary arrest and detention and to a fair trial under the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. It called on Egypt to “release Dr. Morsy and his advisors and to take necessary steps to provide redress for all the material and moral damage suffered by these individuals through reasonable compensation.”
Human Rights Watch urged the Egyptian government to release the five aides or immediately charge them with legally recognizable offenses and allow them access to a lawyer of their choosing and their families.
“How can Egyptians have any faith in the government’s commitment to the rule of law if it denies basic due process rights to former presidential aides?” Whitson said.