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VII. From Stockholm to Cairo: Ahmad `Agiza and Muhammad Al-Zari`

The December 2001 transfers of Ahmad `Agiza and Muhammad al-Zari` from Sweden to Egypt remain one of the most controversial cases of rendition involving the use of diplomatic assurances by a European government.103

On December 18, 2001, Ahmad Hussain Mustafa `Agiza was walking back from his language class in downtown Stockholm when he was grabbed by Swedish security agents and forced into a waiting car. Muhammad Ibrahim Sulaiman al-Zari`, another Egyptian living in Sweden, was also apprehended in Stockholm about the same time. Within hours the two were put on a U.S. government-leased plane and returned to Egypt.104 `Agiza and al-Zari` had both sought asylum in Sweden, and were awaiting decisions on their claims. The government rejected their applications despite an earlier recognition by the Swedish Migration Board that the men had a well-grounded fear of persecution if returned to Egypt, and the Board’s judgment that they should be granted asylum.105 

`Agiza and al-Zari` were excluded from refugee status based on evidence provided by the Swedish secret police that the men were associated with Islamist groups responsible for terrorist acts. In 1999 an Egyptian military tribunal had convicted `Agiza in absentia on charges of membership in an organization whose aim was to overthrow the government, and sentenced him to twenty-five years in prison.106 This secret evidence provided to the Swedish authorities was not disclosed in full to either the men or their lawyers, and there was no right to appeal the expulsions, which were swiftly executed the same day that they were ordered.107

The December 18 transfer of the two men followed written assurances from Egyptian authorities that they would not be subject to the death penalty, torture or ill-treatment, and would receive fair trials. Egypt also agreed to post-return monitoring involving Swedish embassy visits to the men in prison.

In Egypt, however, `Agiza and al-Zari` were held in incommunicado detention for five weeks before their families were allowed to visit them. Despite the agreement between the Swedish and Egyptian governments that Swedish diplomats would have regular access to the two men, they didn’t meet with Swedish representatives until late January­ 2002.

There is considerable evidence that Egyptian security agents tortured the men during detention. A confidential Swedish government memorandum detailing the men’s first visit by embassy officials includes allegations from the men that they were repeatedly beaten by prison guards, denied necessary medication, blindfolded during interrogations, and were threatened with reprisals against family members if they did notcooperate with the interrogations and provide the information.108 These details of the confidential memorandum were omitted from the version of the monitoring report that the government made available to the public. Both `Agiza and al-Zari` maintain that after the first visit by the diplomats, the torture and threats increased—in a December 2004 radio interview, Carl Henrik Ehrenkrona, chief legal adviser to the Swedish Ministry of Foreign Affairs, argued that one reason for not communicating the men’s torture allegations to various United Nations human rights bodies was to protect them from possible reprisal from the Egyptian police!109

The men also made serious allegations of torture to family members and their Egyptian and Swedish lawyers. According to `Agiza’s mother, he told her that he was subject to repeated beatings and electric shocks, after which a cream was applied (to minimize evidence of burn), and that he was at one point left chained and blindfolded for 10 days, during which he urinated and defecated on himself. He also alleged that he was made to lick food off of the prison floor.110

Similar allegations made by `Agiza’s parents about their son’s treatment are detailed in submissions to the United Nations Committee against Torture, in an application filed by `Agiza’s wife. The committee’s summary of the parents’ testimony following their January 23, 2002 visit with `Agiza states:

[`Agiza] seemed pale, weak, seemingly in shock and near breakdown. His eyes, cheeks, and feet were allegedly swollen, with his nose larger than usual and bloodied. He told [sic] that he had been tied and hung upside down while transported to the prison, and then being constantly blindfolded and subjected to advanced methods of interrogation, including electric shocks. He said he was told the guarantees provided to the Swedish government were worthless.111

The committee’s summary of the parents’ subsequent visit of April 16, 2002 states:

He allegedly whispered to his mother that he had been further tortured by electric shocks after the January visit, and held in solitary confinement for about ten days. His arms and legs were tied behind his back and he could not relieve himself. He said he had told the Swedish Ambassador about the torture, and that prison officers had urged him to decline further visits from the Ambassador. He stated that officers had told him his wife would be returned soon, and they threatened to assault her and his mother sexually. He said he remained in solitary confinement, in a cell measuring two square meters, without windows, heat or light and that, while not tied, he could only visit the toilet once every 24 hours, which caused him kidney problems.112

Al-Zari` was released in October 2003 but restricted to a form of house arrest, after being held for almost two years without charge or trial. He is presently not allowed to speak to journalists or human rights groups without receiving clearance from state security.113

Ahmad `Agiza’s trial

`Agiza was given a new trial in April 2004–the first time the Egyptian government re-tried a person convicted by a military tribunal in absentia.  His retrial was also held before a military tribunal rather than a civilian court. Human Rights Watch monitored all four hearings of `Agiza’s retrial.

Contrary to the assurances made by the Egyptian authorities to the Swedish government, however, the fifteen-day trial was patently unfair. The court repeatedly refused the defense access to key prosecution documents and administratively delayed the defense’s access to others, forcing the defense to waste crucial time shuttling back and forth between the court and various government offices. `Agiza was not permitted sufficient time to consult with his lawyers—he was granted consultations of only ten to fifteen minutes immediately before the commencement of the hearings. The court repeatedly refused defense requests to call witnesses.114 

`Agiza testified in court that he had been tortured by Egyptian security officials immediately after his return to Cairo. He said that after he filed a formal complaint about the torture he suffered in prison, he was transferred to another prison, where he was put in “punitive isolation” for forty-six days. At the April 20, 2004 hearing, `Agiza told his defense lawyers that an officer of the Egyptian security forces warned him after the previous week’s hearing not to mention his torture or ill-treatment again in court.115

Although the government allowed this testimony, it did not allow `Agiza to be examined by an independent forensics expert, who would have been able to corroborate `Agiza’s allegations of torture. Instead, the judge sent `Agiza to a prison doctor. The prison doctor confirmed that `Agiza had sustained physical injuries while in prison, but the judge again refused to allow an independent forensic exam.116

`Agiza admitted that he had been a member of al-Jihad al-Islami, but insisted that he did not support the use of violent means to achieve the goal of an Islamic state, and that his views had appeared in the London-based pan-Arab press at the time. `Agiza claimed that he left the group over the question of violence, and that other members of the group left with him. According to a leading Islamist defense lawyer, Muntassir al-Zayyat,

`Agiza split from Islamic Jihad and took some members with him. `Agiza disagreed with Ayman al-Zawahiri over the use of violence. And he disagreed with Zawahiri about the importance of importing militants into Egypt to fight jihad.117

In order to establish that he had indeed left the organization, and that his views were in fact non-violent, `Agiza’s defense team wanted to call to the stand journalists who had interviewed him over the years. The court refused every defense request to allow witnesses to give testimony that contested the government’s charges.118

On the morning of April 27, 2004, the court announced its verdict: `Agiza was again sentenced to twenty-five years in prison for membership in an organization whose aim is to overthrow the Egyptian government by violent means. `Agiza did not have the right to challenge the decision—only President Hosni Mubarak can overturn the military court verdict. `Agiza’s sentence was subsequently reduced to fifteen years.

[103] For previous Human Rights Watch coverage of this case, see Human Rights Watch, “‘Empty Promises’: Diplomatic Assurances No Safeguard Against Torture,” April 2004, vol 16, no. 4, p. 32-36 [online at]. For additional details on the Swedish government’s wrongful use diplomatic assurances, see Human Rights Watch, Still at Risk: Diplomatic Assurances No Safeguard against Torture (April 2005), available at

[104] Human Rights Watch, “‘Empty Promises’: Diplomatic Assurances No Safeguard Against Torture,” April 2004, vol 16, no. 4, p. 32-36 [online at].

[105] “Script: “The broken promise,” TV4 [Sweden], Kalla Facta [Cold Facts], May 17, 2004.

[106] Human Rights Watch “Letter to Swedish Government on Behalf of Hannan Attia” December 17, 2003 [online] (retrieved March 4, 2005).

[107] Human Rights Watch, “‘Empty Promises’: Diplomatic Assurances No Safeguard Against Torture,” April 2004, vol. 16, no. 4, p. 32.

[108] Memoranda on file with Human Rights Watch.

[109] Sveriges (Swedish) Radio, Ekot Programme, December 10, 2004, transcript on file with Human Rights Watch. The exchange is translated in Human Rights Watch, Still at Risk: Diplomatic Assurances No Protection against Torture (April 2005), p. 64.

[110] The Human Rights Center for the Assistance of Prisoners, “Governmental Deportation: Egyptian Nationals as Islamic Activists” April 1, 2003.

[111] Attia v. Sweden, CAT/C/31/D/199/2002, November 24, 2003 at ¶ 7.1 [available at].

[112] Attia v. Sweden at ¶ 7.2

[113] Human Rights Watch, “Empty Promises:” Diplomatic Assurances No Safeguard Against Torture, April 2004, vol. 16, no. 4, p. 35-6.

[114] Human Rights Watch press release, “Sweden Implicated in Egypt’s Abuse of Suspected Militant: Egypt Violated Diplomatic Promises of Fair Trial and No Torture for Terrorism Suspect,” May 5, 2004 [online] (retrieved March 7, 2005)

[115] Human Rights Watch, “Sweden Implicated in Egypt’s Abuse of Suspected Militant: Egypt Violated Diplomatic Promises of Fair Trial and No Torture for Terrorism Suspect,” May 5, 2004 [online] (retrieved March 7, 2005)

[116] Ibid.

[117] Human Rights Watch interview with Muntassir al-Zayyat, Cairo, November 2004.

[118] Human Rights Watch, “Sweden Implicated in Egypt’s Abuse of Suspected Militant: Egypt Violated Diplomatic Promises of Fair Trial and No Torture for Terrorism Suspect,” May 5, 2004 [online] (retrieved March 7, 2005)

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