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August 23, 2016

High Price for Exposing Disappearances in Egypt

This blog is cross-posted on The Huffington Post.

Next Tuesday, August 30, marks the International Day of the Disappeared, a day dedicated to reminding us of secret detentions, abductions, and forced disappearances. In many countries—including some of Washington’s close allies—this horrifyingly common, with people being seized by governments armed and supported by the United States.

It’s become an increasingly common tactic in Egypt under the regime of President Sisi. He routinely uses his security forces to silence and intimidate peaceful criticism of the government. Despite this intense repression, the U.S. government continues to send Egypt $1.3 billion of military aid every year. 

In Egypt and many other countries next Tuesday is a chance to focus attention on this crime, and to remind the United States and other major powers to use their influence to end it. 

One day after the International Day of the Disappeared, Wednesday August 31, Ahmed Abdallah is due in court in Cairo to hear if his detention is to be renewed for another 45 days. He’s accused of ten things, including various terrorist offenses, but he’s really been targeted because of his work as CEO of local human rights organization the Egyptian Commission for Rights and Freedoms (ECRF), which has exposed the rise in enforced disappearances in Egypt over the last year two years. ECRF has also been providing legal advice to the family of Giulio Regeni, the Italian student murdered in Cairo earlier this year.

Ahmed was arrested at his home on April 25 this year after a smear campaign against him in parts of the Egyptian media, highlighting his contacts with American government officials, which—despite Egypt’s status as a U.S. ally—is regarded as highly suspicious. Footage was broadcast on TV showing him having coffee with an official from the American embassy. When I saw him in Cairo in January he showed me the clips of him sitting with the diplomat in the gardens of the Marriott hotel. He told me too that a couple of days before we met he had narrowly escaped abduction by Egyptian intelligence officers. 

He’s being held at Tagamu Police Station Number One in Cairo’s suburbs, in a small cell with about eight others. Sometimes there are more. Ahmed says that he suffers knee and back problems because of the immobility.

There are no beds, and someone who visits one of the prisoners there told me about conditions: “I can sometimes look into the cell and sees some of the men standing near the door in the hope of finding a glimpse of light or some air. The only window is a small one which allows the guards to look into the cell. There’s really no room for them all to lay down properly, they don’t get exercise and the boredom is crippling.” 

Those in the cell say last Tuesday evening two men from state security accompanied by police went into the cell and when they found a mobile phone beat up the prisoners. ECRF says Ahmed was "punched and shoved during the rough search of the cell and detainees' food was thrown on the floor. All of his books were confiscated." These included novels by Kafka and George Orwell's 1984.

The United States has struggled to use its influence with various Egyptian governments since its ally President Mubarak was forced from office by popular uprising in early 2011, and the Obama Administration has failed to use its huge military aid package to prevent massive human rights violations, including hundreds of disappearances, under President Sisi.

An American embassy official has been to see a previous court hearing for Ahmed, as have others from the Italian embassy. The State Department knows he is no terrorist, but one of Egypt's courageous human rights defenders helping to expose disappearances and other rights violations. The United States should send a senior official to court next Wednesday, should speak out against disappearances in Egypt and everywhere else, and should publicly call for Ahmed’s immediate and unconditional release.