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VI. Muhammad al-Zawahiri and Hussain al-Zawahiri

At the time he was rendered from UAE to Cairo in March or April 1999, Muhammad al-Zawahiri had not set foot on Egyptian soil for a quarter-century.  After graduating from the faculty of engineering at Cairo University, Muhammad, the brother of senior al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri, left Egypt to work for various construction firms in Saudi Arabia.  In 1981, his name was on the list of defendants in the mass trial of alleged conspirators in the assassination of President Sadat. He was acquitted of all charges in absentia by an Emergency State Security court.85

Despite his acquittal, Muhammad was still wary of returning to Egypt, fearing that he would be picked up and retried upon return. “He was afraid to return to Egypt after that,” his uncle said. “He was worried that they would accuse him again.”86

In the mid-1980s, Muhammad joined the Saudi government-run World Islamic Relief Organization as an architect, helping to build schools and hospitals in different parts of the Muslim World. He traveled to Indonesia, Bosnia, Malawi, and other countries for the charity.

But Muhammad later began to feel insecure in Saudi Arabia. After an Egyptian imam of a mosque in Jeddah was arrested by Saudi authorities and returned to Cairo in the early 1990s, Muhammad began to prepare for his own departure. He took his family first to Yemen, and then to Sudan, where he was reunited with Ayman. Both Muhammad and Ayman were forced to leave Sudan in 1995; Ayman returned to Afghanistan, and Muhammad went back to Yemen with his wife and six children.

His work in Yemen with engineering contractors took him to the UAE on a regular basis. He was picked up there in March or April 1999, and returned to Cairo. Little is known about the circumstances of his arrest in UAE, but it roughly coincided with the death sentence handed down by an Egyptian military court in April of 1999 in the mass trial that included the so-called “returnees from Albania”.

According to the uncle of Muhammad and Ayman, Mahfuz `Azzam, Muhammad’s family in Yemen waited to hear from Muhammad for six months before finally contacting the Egyptian embassy in Sanaa in October 1999. Without any means of support in Yemen, Muhammad’s wife `Aliyya asked the Egyptian embassy for permission to return to Cairo. The embassy immediately granted her request. According to Mahfuz `Azzam, 

They played nice, said of course you can return. They got them flight tickets and they picked her up from her home, and they even took her to the airport in an embassy car. Then they escorted them to the plane. But as soon as she arrived in Cairo, she was detained. She was held for three days. They interrogated her, but she wasn’t abused.87

Shortly after `Aliyya’s release, Muhammad’s youngest brother, Hussain al-Zawahiri, was arrested in Malaysia and sent to Egypt in an operation apparently coordinated between Malaysian security, Egyptian intelligence, and the CIA. Hussain was working as an engineer for Multidiscovery, a Malaysian company, building power plants. He had been arrested few times in Egypt on suspicion of affiliation with al-Jihad al-Islami, but was never indicted and was not wanted in Egypt or elsewhere at the time of his arrest.88

Hussain was nabbed by Malaysian security while driving to work. He was detained for thirty-six hours, blindfolded and handcuffed, and was flown on a private flight to Cairo. He says he was allowed water only once during the trip.

Egyptian intelligence held him briefly upon arrival in Cairo, and then handed him over to the SSI. The Egyptian government did not acknowledge the rendition, and refused to disclose any information about Hussain’s whereabouts to his family in Cairo.89

Some six months later, Hussain was summoned to a SSI commander’s office in the middle of the night, and told he could go free. Though Hussain was anxious to return to his family, he was physically unprepared to leave. “He said he couldn’t just go out like that. He had no passport, no ID. He hadn’t shaved for six months, and was wearing an old torn galabiyya a detainee had given him,” Mahfuz `Azzam, his uncle, said. After some discussion, Hussain was allowed to call his sister from the SSI office. His brother-in-law came later to pick him up, and drove him home.90

Hussain is under orders from Egyptian security not to speak about his ordeal, his family told Human Rights Watch, and he has yet to speak publicly about his time in prison. His uncle would only say that Hussain was interrogated and tortured after being returned to Egypt, and that it was “worse in State Security than in the mukhabarat [intelligence],” without further elaboration.91

Even after Hussain’s release, there was still no new news about Muhammad. His family learned of Muhammad’s return to Cairo later that year in 1999, but the government refused to say anything about his case. According to one of the lawyers hired by the family to look into the case, Mamduh Isma`il:

We tried to go through unofficial channels to get information through the military-judicial committee. Security agencies have to notify the court if the person in question has been arrested after the judgment is rendered. So we tried to get information through the committee, but we couldn’t get anything.92

Following the US-led invasion of Afghanistan in October 2001, rumors circulated in Islamist circles that Muhammad had been executed, and that the Americans asked the Egyptian government for a sample of his DNA from the dead body to match it with that of a skull found in Tora Bora, which they suspected was Ayman al-Zawahiri.93 The Egyptian government kept silent, neither confirming nor denying any of the rumors about Muhammad’s fate. After so many years in detention, Muhammad’s family eventually gave up hope that he was still alive, his uncle said.

For these five years, none of his family knew anything about him. Everyone believed that he was dead. For five years, his family didn’t even know, is he alive or is he dead? Is he dead or alive? We didn’t even know who to ask.94

Muhammad’s mother, Umayma `Azzam, separated from her two sons for several years, could not give up hope that Muhammad was still alive. But her brother counseled her to put the matter to rest:

No one knew anything about him. I even used to tell his mother, don’t ask about him. The lawyers have told me that he is dead. And she used to cry and tell me that maybe we should just ask. And I told her no, don’t waste your time. We shouldn’t ask.95

The first news that Muhammad might be alive came on February 28, 2004, five years after his forced transfer to Egypt, when the London-based daily al-Sharq al-Awsat broke the story that he was still alive and being held in the Tora prison complex. The report was accompanied by a recent photograph of Muhammad.96

The Egyptian Minister of Interior, Habib al-`Adli, confirmed the news in a press conference on March 4, 2004. Minister al-`Adli also announced at the conference that Muhammad would be retried in front of a military tribunal.97

After the government acknowledged that Muhammad al-Zawahiri was in custody, it allowed members of his family to visit him in detention. The first visit took place on March 18, after repeated requests by Muhammad’s family.

During these visits his family learned that Muhammad had been tortured. Mahfuz `Azzam told Human Rights Watch that Muhammad’s sister, Heba, a doctor by training, noticed that Muhammad had trouble shaking hands. Heba also saw scars on his wrists, and noted that his feet were swollen. She concluded that the marks were a result of being hung from the ceiling by his wrists.

Although Muhammad could not speak freely in front of the prison guards who monitored all of his visits with his family, he asked his mother to make a formal request to the Prosecutor General for a forensics exam. He wanted one to be done as soon as possible, before the marks on his body disappeared. His mother presented the formal request to the government on August 4, 2004; the family has yet to receive any response from the government. There was also no response from the government to Muhammad’s separate request to be examined by a forensics expert.

In April 2004, Mahfuz `Azzam managed to win his first and only visit with his nephew. The visit lasted only a few minutes, and the entire conversation took place in the presence of the SSI liaison officer in Tora prison. In those few minutes, Muhammad briefly conveyed to his uncle glimpses of the torture and ill-treatment that he had endured:

He stayed for four years and half in an underground detention facility run by the mukhabarat, where he did not see sunlight, and could not distinguish between day and night. The interrogation and torture went hand in hand. He lost hope in seeing the sun again.98

After four-and-half years, Egyptian intelligence handed Muhammad over to the SSI, which detained him for six months, either in their main headquarters in Lazughli Square in downtown Cairo, or in their new citadel-like premise in Nasr City, an eastern suburb of the capital.

Despite allowing his family some access to him, the government otherwise gave little ground on Muhammad’s due process rights. Notwithstanding repeated requests from Muhammad himself, the government refused to allow him access to an attorney. It also refused to clarify his legal situation, which, given that he had been sentenced to death in 1999, was a matter of some concern. According to his lawyer, Mamduh Isma`il:

Even after the Ministry of Interior announced that they have Muhammad al-Zawahiri in custody, I went to the military judiciary committee to get information on his whereabouts. But they told me that they haven’t yet been officially notified that he is in custody. This is still the case today.99

Muhammad’s legal defense remains paralyzed by the government’s refusal to set the wheels of the legal process in motion:

The security services should notify the court that they have him, and then I have sixty days to file a petition on his behalf. But I can’t do that because the state security hasn’t notified the court, and so they haven’t contacted me, even though the newspapers are flooded with stories about him.

This is a big problem. He is in a serious legal situation. He has been sentenced to death by a military tribunal, but they have put all of the legal procedures aside.100

For Muhammad, the legal limbo has created a sense of uncertainty. “He wanted to know his legal status: is he going to be retried or not? Is he going to be executed?” asked Mamduh Isma`il. “But I couldn’t tell him anything. We are just waiting for the state to act first, so that we can respond. But up to now, it’s been a dead end.”

His uncle shared the same concerns about his nephew’s unclear status. In his view, no branch of the Egyptian government will do anything on the case, despite their legal obligation to do so:

If you go to the military tribunal which sentenced Muhammad and you present a complaint, and say that this sentence was based on an unconstitutional article, and should be overturned, then the military tribunal would just reject us. If you go to the Prosecutor General, you’ll get the same result… If you go to the Prosecutor General and ask for a visit, he will basically say I don’t know anything about this. So where should I go?101

As a result, Muhammad al-Zawahiri does not know if he will ever be allowed out of prison, or even whether or not the government will carry out the 1999 death sentence, still hanging over him. According to his uncle:

His legal position is hanging in the balance. Is he going to be tried? Is he going to be executed? Is he going to be set free? This is the question that we want answered. This is the question that he himself wants answered.102

[85] Ayman al-Zawahiri identified his brother Muhammad as a member of the same militant cell, according to the transcript of his 1981 Higher State Security Court confession, as reproduced by the Islamist lawyer Muntassir al-Zayyat in his The Road to Al-Qaeda: The Story of Bin Laden’s Right-Hand Man (London: Pluto Press, 2004), pp. 36-45.

[86] Human Rights Watch interview with Mahfuz `Azzam, Cairo, Egypt, December 2004.

[87] Ibid.

[88] Ibid; Lawrence Wright, "The Man Behind Bin Laden," The New Yorker, November 2002.

[89] Human Rights Watch interview with Mahfuz `Azzam, Cairo, December 2004

[90] Ibid.

[91] Ibid.

[92] Ibid.

[93] Lawrence Wright, “The Man Behind Bin Laden,” The New Yorker, September 16, 2002.

[94] Human Rights Watch interview with Mahfuz `Azzam, Cairo, December 2004.

[95] Ibid.

[96] Al-Sharq al-Awsat, February 28, 2004.

[97] Al-Sharq al-Awsat, March 5, 2004.

[98] Human Rights Watch interview with Mahfuz `Azzam, Cairo, December 2004.

[99] Human Rights Watch interview with Mamduh Isma`il, Cairo, December 2004.

[100] Human Rights Watch interview with Mamduh Isma`il, Cairo, December 2004.

[101] Human Rights Watch interview with Mahfuz `Azzam, Cairo, December 2004.

[102] Ibid.

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