Update: On December 1, prosecutors ordered al-Iskandrani held for 15 days pending investigation. Lawyers told Human Rights Watch that prosecutors were investigating al-Iskandrani on three charges: belonging to an illegal group (the Muslim Brotherhood) and promoting its ideas, as well as propagating false news.

The lead defense lawyer, Khaled Ali, told al-Tahrir newspaper that police arrested al-Iskandrani under a warrant issued in May but that prosecutors did not allow lawyers to read the warrant memo. Al-Iskandrani’s family said they did not know that he had been wanted by the authorities or that they had charged him in any case. Multiple media outlets reported that al-Iskandrani told prosecutors that security officers at the airport decided to hold him for further interrogation after they searched his laptop and found articles he wrote about the Sinai Peninsula and other political issues.

Prosecutors should drop the charges against al-Iskandrani, which appear to be entirely based on his work as a journalist and researcher, and release him.

(New York) – Egyptian authorities should release Ismail al-Iskandrani, a researcher and journalist who has reported on Islamist movements and developments in the Sinai Peninsula. He has been detained since November 29, 2015.

Lawyers engaged by his family and Egyptian rights groups told Human Rights Watch that al-Iskandrani faced lengthy interrogations at the State Security Prosecution office in Cairo on December 1.

Ismail Alexandrani.

The lawyers said authorities did not permit al-Iskandrani to see anyone – including a lawyer – for the first two days of his arrest and that they do not know the charges against him. Four lawyers managed to enter the prosecution’s office, but Human Rights Watch was unable to learn if they were able to attend al-Iskandrani’s interrogation. His wife said that his family has not been informed about any charges against him. Al-Iskandrani’s detention appears to violate Egyptian law, which requires security officials to immediately inform anyone they detain of the reasons for their detainment and allow them to contact a lawyer. An investigation cannot begin without the presence of a lawyer.

“The arrest of Ismail al-Iskandrani is deeply disturbing and fits a pattern of Egyptian security agencies arresting people whose writings don’t conform to official views,” said Joe Stork, deputy Middle East director.

Airport immigration officers stopped al-Iskandrani when he arrived in Hurghada, a town on Egypt’s Red Sea coast, on a flight from Germany at around 1 p.m. on November 29. Al-Iskandrani’s family and friends told Human Rights Watch that they lost contact with him after he called and said officers stopped him and took his passport.

A security officer the family contacted at that time said that al-Iskandrani would be released within a few hours, the family told Human Rights Watch. The officer said the Interior Ministry’s National Security Agency was holding and interrogating him in the airport. The interrogators asked about his activities and travel outside Egypt, the officer told them. After about seven hours, the agents transferred al-Iskandrani to National Security headquarters in Hurghada and continued interrogating him.

Al-Iskandrani’s family said that the security source told them that his arrest could have been related to a memo that Egypt’s embassy in Berlin sent to security agencies about his participation in a conference in Germany. A journalist who works for a pro-government newspaper published on his Facebook account that al-Iskandrani is facing several charges including the propagation of false news on the forced evictions and arbitrary targeting of civilians by the security forces in Sinai. The journalist did not reveal his sources and Human Rights Watch was unable to verify them.

Human Rights Watch has documented how security agencies, particularly the National Security agency, have sweeping powers to put citizens on watch lists and apply travel bans without any judicial or prosecution oversight. Al-Iskandrani said – in the only call he managed to make – that he was stopped because his name was on a security list but that he “expected them to let him go after the usual harassment,” a friend told Human Rights Watch. Al-Iskandrani had been returning home for family reasons, his family said.

Malek Adly, a lawyer who has represented many defendants before the State Security Prosecution, told Human Rights Watch that the prosecution lacks basic guarantees to preserve the rights of defendants and that lawyers routinely face obstacles to meeting with defendants or even obtaining copies of official charges.

Al-Iskandrani has contributed to several publications at universities, including Leiden University in the Netherlands and the Netherlands-Flemish Institute. He was a fellow at the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington, DC, in 2015, and a Reagan-Fascell Democracy Fellow at the Washington-based National Endowment for Democracy in 2012-2013. He has contributed to the Lebanese newspaper Al-Safir, and Al-Modon and Masr Al-Arabiya, two independent news websites, as well as other Egyptian and Arabic newspapers.

Al-Iskandrani’s arrest comes three weeks after Egypt’s military intelligence summoned and detained for two days the investigative journalist and human rights activist Hossam Bahgat. The authorities referred Bahgat to military prosecutors for further investigation on charges of publishing false news after he wrote a story for the independent news website Mada Masr concerning the prosecution of about two dozen military officers for allegedly plotting a coup.

Egypt’s constitution states that citizens cannot be arrested unless they are caught in the act of a crime or there is a “reasoned judicial order” to arrest them.

Article 6 of the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights, to which Egypt is a party, prohibits arbitrary detention. The charter also states that “every individual shall have the right to express and disseminate his opinions” and that “shall have the right to leave any country including his own, and to return to his country.”

“If al-Iskandrani had any arrest warrant or official charges, he should have been informed immediately,” Stork said. “What happened to him is clear intimidation and has little to do with rule of law.”