A courageous Egyptian dissident finds a Turkish human rights lawyer to sue his country’s military rulers over crimes against humanity.
Omar Gamal Metwally Ibrahim was a young student at Egypt’s prestigious Al Azhar University, when he was first disturbed by the sight of police after the military coup in August 2013 against the country’s first democratically-elected President Mohammed Morsi.
Ibrahim’s protests in favour of upholding democratic principles and the rule of law was met with severe treatment at the hands of general-turned-president Abdel Fattah al Sisi’s security forces in Egypt’s infamous detention centres.
“I started protesting against them [Sisi and his coup apparatus] when I was in Al Azhar University. I protested the coup in Rabaa Square and also in my hometown, Suez city,” says 27-year-old Ibrahim, who now lives in Turkey’s Istanbul, after leaving his home country in difficult circumstances in 2018.
After ousting the Morsi government in 2013, Sisi’s military killed more than a thousand people, most of whom were massacred in Rabaa Square, where they were peacefully protesting the coup like Ibrahim.
“They arrested me [in March 2014] and took me to a police station, where I stayed for 46 days. They tortured me. They did everything. They tortured me mentally and physically. They gave me electricity. They tied me to a wall. They put my head under water for like two minutes. I almost died there,” Omar recounts the torture he claims he faced at the hands of the Sisi regime.
But this was just the beginning.
He had stayed in a number of detention centres across the country for three years with an alleged “crime'' of protesting Sisi’s coup, dragged by security forces from one prison to another.
“During that time, they did not allow my mom to visit me. They did not allow me to take my exams in the university. They put me in solitary confinement for days without food, water or anything else,” Ibrahim tells TRT World.
In January 2017, he was unexpectedly released. Why? It is still a mystery to him.
“I got out of prison. I don’t know how. I don’t know why. Really, I was so surprised that they let me go,” he says incredulously.
Leaving Egypt for a life in Turkey
As soon as he left prison, Ibrahim began thinking about leaving Egypt, where he felt completely unsafe as the government continued to harass him and his family. Ibrahim’s father, Gamal, was a member of the powerful Muslim Brotherhood movement, which came to power with Morsi’s presidency in 2012.
The Sisi regime declared the movement a terrorist organisation straight after it claimed power in Egypt, arresting tens of thousands of people allegedly connected to the Brotherhood.
Ibrahim’s father, Gamal, an electrician, was also arrested after the coup along with his two brothers. His father was released, but lives in undisclosed locations running for his life given that all of the family assets were confiscated by the Sisi regime as a punishment for the family’s opposition to the military dictatorship.
Ibrahim has no information about his detained brothers, one of whom they lost complete contact with in recent months. Another brother has medical problems. “He feels so much pain in his prison,” says Ibrahim. The young Egyptian exile speaks to his father and mother, who are forced to live in separate houses, only once a month.
In November 2018, he came to Turkey after staying in a country which he and his lawyer do not want to disclose. He is determined to complete his education, and is currently a business management student in Medipol University.
About ten months ago, during a protest against the Sisi regime in Istanbul’s conservative district, Fatih, Ibrahim met Gulden Sonmez, a Turkish human rights lawyer.
“I asked her if I can make a case in Turkey [against Egyptian perpetrators],” Ibrahim remembers their crucial conversation at the time.
“She told me ‘yes’. ‘The rules in Turkey allow you to make such a case’,” he recounts from the conversation.
Ten months after the meeting, yesterday, Sonmez fulfilled her promise.
Invoking ‘universal jurisdiction’ against Sisi
After tirelessly collecting documents, pictures, names and other materials as evidence of Ibrahim’s case, she made an application to Istanbul’s Chief Prosecutor to demand the opening of an investigation against Sisi and others who they allege are involved in violating her client’s human rights, on the grounds of crimes against humanity.
Following discussions with both Ibrahim and her colleagues, deliberating legal avenues to prosecute Sisi and his enablers, Sonmez has decided to use a legal avenue called ‘universal jurisdiction’ in international law.
According to ‘universal jurisdiction’ a national court could prosecute individuals like Sisi and his collaborators for serious violations of human rights such as crimes against humanity, war crimes, genocide, and torture because these crimes might harm the international community and international order, which is supposed to be protected by every individual state like Turkey.
“In Turkey, as you might know, there is a universal jurisdiction. As a result, we have the right to try people, who have committed crimes against humanity in their respective countries, here in Turkey,” Sonmez tells TRT World.
Even as a foreign citizen, Ibrahim can request Turkish courts to investigate the alleged crimes of Sisi and other Egyptian individuals against himself and others, Sonmez says.
After an intense three-month preparation, which has seen many documents’ translated from Arabic to Turkish, Sonmez put Ibrahim’s legal request in motion yesterday. In cases of universal jurisdiction, before any prosecution, the case needs the approval of Turkey’s justice ministry to allow the Istanbul chief prosecutor to go ahead with the investigation, she adds.
“Our application is not only about Ibrahim’s victimisation by the Sisi regime but also his witnessing of similar crimes against humanity. Without any doubt, there is a systematic torture in Egypt as all documents show,” Sonmez says.
With three decades of experience, 52-year-old Sonmez is no ordinary lawyer.
She did not hesitate to go to Egypt where the coup was playing out in the country’s capital in August, making a shocking application to Cairo’s pro-Sisi chief prosecutor to demand the disclosure of the whereabouts of the legitimate President Morsi, who was detained by coup forces at the time.
“I demanded from the Cairo chief prosecutor to facilitate me a visit to Morsi as a lawyer,” she remembers her efforts at the time.
“They obviously rejected my application. But I have all the related documents at my disposition, my application, their rejection and everything else,” she says with legal authority, suggesting that she is still pursuing her application.
No giving up
Ibrahim witnessed so many terrible things, not only on the streets of his country, but also in seven prisons and several other detention centres, where he had been held, during and after the coup.
Basically, he cannot erase the scenes of death and torture even if now as he lives in a country where he enjoys safety.
“They [Egyptian authorities] constantly threaten my mom to demand her to persuade me to withdraw my case here. They told my mom that ‘We will hurt you. We will hurt your family’,” Ibrahim says.
“I am afraid for her. They might go and take her from her place. They actually did that a week ago. They also took a lot of student girls from their homes,” he recounts.
But he is in no mood to give up.
“I will not give up on what they did,” he says decisively.
“This is my right. I can’t give up easily.”