International human rights groups warn that the Sisi regime is spreading fear amongst his critics and opponents by detaining and torturing the country's leading rights defenders.
CAIRO — Egyptian security authorities have been conducting one of the largest clampdown campaigns in years, arresting thousands of citizens and dozens of political activists, journalists and lawyers, under increasing repression by the regime of President Abdel Fattah al Sisi. Several activists have also reported being tortured while in detention.
Renowned Egyptian human rights activist and journalist Esraa Abdel Fattah was the most recent person to be targeted by violent security persecution in recent weeks.
Abdel Fattah was abducted in Cairo after a deadly road chase on the night of October 12 2019. Two unknown vehicles chased her, forcing her to stop in the middle of the road. Abdel Fattah and a friend accompanying her were both dragged out of the car by force. They were then bundled into two separate vehicles and her friend was later dumped on a highway after she was physically assaulted.
After Abdel Fattah was taken, her whereabouts remained unknown for several hours. Her personal belongings including bags, cell phone and money were also confiscated. Her friend returned to the 'kidnapping' spot with other friends to search for her car, which they found dumped nearby with flat tyres.
Lawyers form local rights NGOs said it was an unlawful abduction, a practice repeatedly used by the Egyptian security forces.
Abdel Fattah appeared before the court the next day. She was charged with colluding with a terrorist organisation, publishing fake news and misusing social media to spread false information. She is currently being held at Al Qanater women’s prison near Cairo.
Shortly before her arrest, Abdel Fattah had supported a protest call on Facebook, which sought release of prisoners of conscience. The call was made two weeks ago by pro-state TV anchor Amr Adeeb during his show ElHekaya broadcast on MBC Egypt.
Abdel Fattah was subject to physical and psychological torture while in detention, her lawyers said. After refusing to give her phone password, one officer reportedly stripped her off her sweatshirt and used it to strangle her saying: “Your life or your password.”
According to Abdel Fattah’s account to her lawyers, the officer tied her and held her fingers to activate the fingerprint recognition of her phone.
The officer then tied her hands to the wall above her head and fastened a rope on her legs too. A few hours later she collapsed from fatigue and torture. The officer broke into her phone to see who she communicated with. She told her lawyers that she went on a hunger strike.
After being interrogated by state security, Abdel Fattah was given a 15-day detention pending investigations, on Sunday.
"They blindfolded her, handcuffed her at the time of detention; she has also been beaten and has bruises all over her body," said Fatma Serag, a lawyer with the Association of Freedom of Thought and Expression, a Cairo-based NGO.
Lawyer Khaled Ali, also working on her case, said Abdel Fattah was linked to case 488 of 2019, which includes prominent lawyer Mahienour el Massry, journalist Khaled Daoud, political science professor Hassan Nafea and labour activist Kamal Khalil among others.
Abdel Fattah has been involved in pro-democracy and political activism since the mid-2000s. She is the founder of the Free Egyptian Women Group for women’s political empowerment and co-founder of the April 6 Youth Movement. During Mubarak's reign, she was imprisoned for two weeks due to her political participation in April 2008. Abdel Fattah was a prominent figure during the 25th January Revolution and played a vital role in mobilising for mass protests in Tahrir Square. In 2011, she was a nominee for the Nobel Peace Prize.
Abdel Fattah has been systematically targeted and harassed by the Egyptian authorities since 2014, through judicial harassment on the background of case 173/2011, commonly known as the ‘foreign funding’ case, and has been banned from travelling since 2015.
Renowned activist Alaa Abdel Fattah and lawyer Mohamed El Baqir were reportedly also subject to physical torture, according to relatives and lawyers. Alaa was arrested on September 29, while on probation after serving a five-year prison term on charges of illegal protesting, according to Egypt’s 2014 protest law.
Alaa was blindfolded, slapped and kicked, told to strip to his underwear then forced to walk down a corridor of people as he was beaten on his back and neck, He was robbed of all clothes his family sent him, insulted and threatened, his family said in a statement released on October 2.
El Baqir, the director of the local Adalah Center for Rights and Freedoms, was detained while attending an interrogation with Alaa and was also beaten and insulted, denied clean clothes, food and water, activists said.
The arrest of activists form part of a wave of security arrests that have resulted in thousands of detentions in the wake of rare anti-Sisi protests that took place across the country on September 20, according to local monitor groups.
More than 3,000 people face charges of illegal protesting, according to the Egyptian Center for Economic and Social Rights; only 394 were granted release.
The protests were prompted by a man named Mohamed Ali who identified himself as an Egyptian contractor who has worked with the army for years. Ali, who claimed to be in Spain, published a series of videos accusing Sisi of overseeing vast corruption within military business and the waste of public funds spent on his palaces and residences.
Sisi responded to such claims by saying that he has built palaces for Egypt. He has undermined those protests as the actions of hostile groups that he didn’t specify, saying they wish to “distort reality” and tarnish the image of the country, but the general prosecution authority said some arrested citizens confessed to protesting over economic hardship.
Addressing parliament on October 8, Prime Minister Mostafa Madbouly said: “Egypt faces a severe non-conventional war and the scenario of chaos will not be repeated again.”
Sisi was in New York when protests erupted, attending the 73rd session of the UN General Assembly. In a meeting with US President Donald Trump on the sidelines of the event, the latter told Sisi that he was “not concerned” with the protests.
The Egyptian government secured a $12 billion loan from the International Monetary Fund in 2016, and accordingly devalued the local currency and cut fuel subsidies in an attempt to reduce public expenditures.
The recent torture allegations coincide with the preparation of the Universal Periodic Review (UPR) of the Egyptian human rights file before the UN Human Rights Council, scheduled to be held on November 13, to submit a consolidated report on the human rights situation in Egypt during the past five years.
Egypt’s human rights situation is the worst it has been since 2014, a report by Egyptian rights organisations, released on October 7, found. The report, a joint submission by the Egyptian Taskforce for Human Rights comprising 11 NGOs, said the Egyptian government has increasingly inflicted severe violations upon its population, and noted the drastic deterioration in the human rights situation since Egypt’s last UPR in 2014.