(Beirut) – Egyptian authorities have carried out arrests, house raids, interrogations, and travel bans against dozens of relatives of dissidents who live abroad, apparently in reprisal for their activism, Human Rights Watch said today.
Human Rights Watch documented 28 cases of Egyptian journalists, media workers, and political and human rights activists who have criticized the government and now live abroad. In each case, authorities have harassed or threatened one or more family members in Egypt, or in some cases subjected family members to extrajudicial punishments, apparently as reprisals for their relatives’ activism. The cases Human Rights Watch documented occurred between 2016 and 2019.
“Egyptian authorities, determined to stifle dissent, have been punishing families of opponents abroad,” said Joe Stork, deputy Middle East and North Africa director at Human Rights Watch. “The government should cease these vindictive attacks, which amount to collective punishment.”
The reprisals against relatives of dissidents abroad appear to be widespread, organized, and increasing, Human Rights Watch said.
Of the cases Human Rights Watch documented, security forces raided or visited homes of relatives of 14 dissidents, and in 5 of these raids ransacked or damaged belongings. In no instance did security forces show any arrest or search warrants. Authorities banned from traveling or confiscated the passports of 20 relatives of 8 dissidents.
The authorities also detained or prosecuted 20 relatives of 11 dissidents. In 13 cases, authorities accused or charged the relatives themselves, including in one instance a child, with joining “terrorist” groups and disseminating “false news.” Authorities sent to trial at least 5 relatives, and courts acquitted 1. Human Rights Watch is not naming some sources and dissidents interviewed and masked some personal details for their safety.
More than 5 other activists and journalists living outside Egypt said that they avoid criticizing the government publicly or engaging in other opposition activities because they fear for their families’ safety in Egypt.
Haytham Abu Khalil, an anchor at the Turkey-based opposition Al-Sharq TV, told Human Rights Watch that Interior Ministry forces raided the apartments of his mother, Fadia, and his sister, Diana, who are both located in Alexandria, on October 2, 2019. In a separate raid, police arrested Abu Khalil’s 58-year-old brother, Amr, in front of patients at his psychiatric clinic. Security forces “stole the phones, the [electronic] tablet devices, the passports and all the cash they found,” Abu Khalil said. Security forces searched his sister’s apartment for hours and interrogated her about his activity abroad, he said.
The raids and arrest, which were also reported by the independent Cairo-based Egyptian Coordination for Rights and Freedoms, came the day after Abu Khalil displayed, in his TV show, photos that he said showed members of President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi’s family at different events.
Abu Khalil said his family did not know his brother Amr’s whereabouts for four days until he appeared on October 6 before a State Security prosecutor in Cairo. The prosecutor ordered him detained pending investigation and transferred him to Cairo’s Tora Prison Complex, where he is now held in the notorious Tora Maximum Security Prison, also known as Scorpion. Abu Khalil said that his brother suffers from diabetes and hypertension and that the family has not been able to deliver medicine or food to him.
Mohamed Ali, a self-exiled contractor whose Facebook videos about alleged government corruption stirred widespread anti-government protests in September, told Human Rights Watch that days after he posted his first video, authorities raided his company’s office in Cairo and arrested at least seven of his employees. Three were later released.
He said that after his second video, two of his cousins, Ahmed Ezzat and Fahd Ezzat, who live in the al-Agamy area in Alexandria, were reported missing. Fahd, who was reported missing first, Ali said, had shared political posts on Facebook, including Ali’s videos. Ahmed spent a few days visiting police stations to inquire about him, but he then was also reported missing. Both Ali and another source close to the family said that they believed security officers had arrested Fahd and Ahmed but that the family felt too intimidated to file a complaint with prosecutors.
The other source also said that security officers arrested and interrogated two other cousins of Ali in Cairo in September and released them a few days later. Ali said that many of his acquaintances, including several family members, have avoided contact with him for fear of reprisals and that security agencies had threatened some of them. Ali’s father, Ali Abdel Khaliq, appeared on a September 4 pro-government TV show denouncing his son.
On September 19, the well-known activist Wael Ghonim tweeted that security forces had arrested his younger brother Hazem after Wael posted a series of videos on Facebook criticizing Egyptian security agencies, including Mahmoud al-Sisi. Human Rights Watch reviewed several videos in which Ghonim gave a detailed account of the security raid on his family’s home.
Ghonim’s aunt, Mona Imam Abd al-Mottaleb, speaking minutes after the arrest, said in a video she recorded that “some people we don’t know came and took Hazem … I appeal to the prosecutor general to investigate who took Hazem.” Ghonim said that the security forces ransacked his parents’ bedroom and seized US$28,000 in cash, the family’s passports, and mobile phones, then took Hazem to an undisclosed location.
Lawyers said that Hazem, a dentist, appeared two days later before State Security prosecutors who ordered him detained on charges of “joining an outlawed group and spreading false news,” Al-Masry al-Youm newspaper reported. The lawyers were quoted as saying that the prosecutor’s questions revolved mainly around Wael Ghonim’s activities and work in the United States, where he currently lives. Ghonim said in the videos that his brother was arrested after Wael rejected a request to “stay silent” in a phone call he received days earlier from an Egyptian intelligence officer in Washington.
“The message Egyptian authorities want to send is clear” Stork said. “Don’t criticize, don’t oppose, and don’t talk. Even if you live abroad, we can hurt your loved ones.”
Other Cases of Reprisals Against Dissidents’ Relatives
Ghada Nagiub and Hisham Abdullah
A Turkey-based political activist, Ghada Naguib, and her husband, the actor and TV anchor Hisham Abdallah, separately told Human Rights Watch that security forces conducted house raids and arrested Abdallah’s brother Abd al-Dayem Abdallah, 65, and Naguib’s brothers Yusif, 26, and Islam, 17 in the summer of 2018. Authorities held the three incommunicado for four or five days before taking them before a prosecutor, Naguib and Abdullah said.
Relatives told them that security forces arrested Islam at his home in al-Obour city in al-Qalyubia governorate on July 31, 2018. On the same day, three police cars arrived at Yusif’s home in al-Zagazig in al-Sharqiya governorate and masked men arrested him after a “violent” search. Security forces arrested Abd al-Dayem Abdallah on August 1, after raiding and ransacking his summer house in Marsa Matrouh in northwestern Egypt.
Prosecutors added all three detained relatives to Case 441 of 2018, which includes a large number of arbitrarily detained journalists and activists, including Wael Abbas, a well-known blogger who was later conditionally released, Adel Sabry, a journalist, and Ezzat Ghonim, a human rights lawyer. Naguib said her brother Islam was released three months after his arrest, but Yusif and Abd al-Dayem remain in Tora and Wadi al-Natron prisons more than a year later without a trial.
Naguib also said that her older sister has been banned from leaving Egypt since 2018. Authorities prevented Naguib’s sister from boarding her flight and seized her passport when she finished a short visit to Egypt, even though she had lived outside of Egypt for decades, keeping her apart from her children and husband.
Naguib said that police officers told her family that the relatives were arrested because of her and Abdallah’s activism. Officers told Naguib’s family to send her a message to tell her husband to “be quiet.” Naguib and Abdallah both said that their arrested relatives were “apolitical” and “had nothing to do with our activism.”
Emad Eddin al-Sayid and Colleagues
Emad Eddin al-Sayed, a producer with Al Jazeera network in Qatar, told Human Rights Watch that security forces raided his family home near Alexandria on November 28, 2016, the day after Al Jazeera broadcast a film he produced about forced conscription and alleged abuses against army conscripts in Egypt. Al-Sayed said his family was out of the country and did not want to go back for fear of reprisals. Families of two other journalists who worked with him on the film and were named in the credits section were also targeted following the film release.
One of those journalists, Atiya Abu al-Ela, told Human Rights Watch that security forces arrested three family members – a brother, an uncle, and a cousin – at their homes in al-Sharqiya governorate the day after the film was broadcasted. He said that the three were held for a month in a police station and in a National Security Agency building in al-Sharqiya, then tried on charges of participating in unlicensed protests. A criminal court sentenced all three to three-year prison terms. Their release is expected in November 2019.
Moataz Matar, an anchor at Turkey-based al-Sharq TV, told Human Rights Watch that security officers arrested his brother Moaz, a 38-year-old businessman, in January 2018 at his home in Cairo, and that the family did not know his whereabouts for six months. Matar said that prosecutors added Moaz to Case 640 of 2018, in which several of the detainees were accused of joining an illegal group, spreading false news, and protesting without permission.
Several pro-government media reported on Moaz’s arrest and said that authorities are prosecuting him together with several other defendants in the Case 640. Another defendant in this case is Anas al-Beltagy, the son of the imprisoned Muslim Brotherhood leader Mohamed al-Beltagy. The son has spent almost six years in pretrial detention since his arrest in December 2013. Courts acquitted him in 3 different cases, but authorities did not release him and charged him in Case 640.
On March 6, the pro-government website DotMasr published a report claiming that Moaz and another brother of Matar, Montaser, had been indicted in several cases of financial fraud.
A lawyer who preferred to remain unnamed told Human Rights Watch that Moaz settled all the financial cases against him 1 week after his arrest and that the only case against him now is Case 640.
Matar said that on March 5, 2019, one week after he initiated a social media campaign that gained wide popularity called “You Are Not Alone,” security forces in Cairo arrested two other brothers, Mo’tasim and Mohannad, and detained their wives and four children. The wives and children were freed after several hours.
Human Rights Watch reviewed copies of complaints the family sent to prosecutors inquiring about the brothers’ whereabouts as well as two administrative court decisions issued in July that ordered the Interior Ministry to reveal the two brothers’ whereabouts.
Matar said that he and their families did not know the brothers’ whereabouts until late September or early October, when they appeared before prosecutors in Cairo. He said that prosecutors added them to the Case 1338 of 2019, which includes hundreds of activists, academics, and protesters. The case stems from the widespread protests that erupted in September following Mohamed Ali’s videos. Authorities charged Case 1338 defendants of protesting without government permission, joining a “terrorist” group, and spreading false news, among other accusations.
Ola al-Qaradawi and Her Husband
Human Rights Watch previously documented the arbitrary arrest of Ola al-Qaradawi and her husband Hossam Khalaf in June 2017. Ola, a US resident, is the daughter of Yusif al-Qaradawi, a prominent Qatar-based preacher with historical ties to the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt. Authorities have imprisoned the couple without a trial for more than two years. Their arrest appears to be entirely because they are Yusif al-Qaradawi’s daughter and son-in-law.
A journalist who has been living outside Egypt for several years and who asked to remain anonymous told Human Rights Watch that the authorities banned his wife and child from traveling outside Egypt and seized their passports for a few weeks in early 2019.
A former activist in Germany who said he has not been active for years told Human Rights Watch that the authorities have banned his wife and three children from leaving the country since 2017 and seized their passports. Both the journalist and the former activist said that National Security Agency officers in Cairo Airport interrogated their spouses about their activities abroad. The spouses were later released but were barred from traveling.
The journalist also said that the National Security Agency summoned his wife in for an interrogation lasting several hours and which revolved mainly around him. The officer later called the journalist on the phone and told him he had caused “severe harm” to his family by writing “against the country.” The officer later allowed the wife to leave Egypt but told the journalist, “Because of you, your wife will never visit Egypt normally again.”
A leader of the Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party, which authorities dissolved in 2014, told Human Rights Watch that the authorities banned his wife, a doctor, and their two children from leaving the country for several months in 2018 and confiscated their passports. On his wife’s second attempt to travel in 2018, authorities arrested her and held her incommunicado for 10 days. State Security Prosecutors ordered her detained, charging her with joining a “terrorist” organization. Three months later, a court conditionally released her. She left Egypt later in 2019.
Her husband said that prosecutors told his wife “explicitly” that they had nothing against her, but they had “orders” to carry out; they also told his wife that her arrest was solely related to her husband. He was in prison from August 2013 as authorities prosecuted him in a mass trial over charges of inciting violence. A court acquitted him in a retrial in May 2017. He has been living outside of Egypt since then.
Abdallah al-Sharif, a video blogger whose harshly critical videos on YouTube have had millions of views, said in media statements that armed men accompanied by a National Security Agency officer raided his parents’ home in Moharram Bek in Alexandria on October 8, 2019 and “forced” his father and other family members to record videos denouncing him. Pro-government media later broadcasted a video showing a man they said was al-Sharif’s father criticizing his son. Al-Sharif said that this happened after he broadcasted videos on YouTube of alleged corruption and wasteful spending on presidential palaces.
In North Sinai, where Egyptian security forces have been fighting an Islamic State affiliate for six years, reprisals against relatives of dissidents abroad or in hiding have included home demolitions. Four dissidents from Sinai who are now abroad told Human Rights Watch that the army unlawfully demolished their families’ homes in al-Arish city at different times throughout 2018. The independent news website Mada Masr reported on several incidents of punitive home demolitions of families of dissidents in al-Arish since 2017.