Egypt Targets Disappearance Activist Working on Regeni Case
By Brian Dooley
Drawing attention to what the Egyptian authorities want to hide is a dangerous move. The government of President Abdel Fatah Al Sisi has much it wants to cover up: torture is rife, sham political trials are commonplace, and enforced disappearances are increasingly common.
Last month Human Rights First reported on extensive human rights abuses under Sisi’s dictatorship, and we’ve documented the targeting of human rights defenders who expose the disappearing of people by the security forces.
Many leading activists have been forced into exile or prison since Sisi took power in a coup in 2013, forcing the democratically elected government of President Mohammed Morsi out of office. Tens of thousands of Morsi supporters have been jailed. Dissidents are routinely targeted and disappeared.
Last week lawyer Ebrahim Metwaly, who represents the families of people forcibly disappeared, was himself disappeared at the Cairo airport on his way to Geneva. He was traveling to speak at a meeting about disappearance cases,
Including that of Italian student Giulio Regeni, whose mutilated body was found after he had been disappeared last year.
Metwaly turned up in the Egyptian system two days later, and is now charged with various crimes, including “co-operating with foreign organizations.” He’s being held at the notorious maximum security Scorpion Prison in Cairo.
After his own son Amr was disappeared in 2013, Metwaly founded the Association of the Families of the Disappeared. “He’s a very serious guy, strong and full of hope as you have to be when you’re working on disappearance cases, “ said fellow activist Ahmed Abdallah, who was jailed last year for his work on the Regeni case and other disappearances.
“Ebrahim gives strength to others, he’s a key player on this issue. He’d given some interviews in the Italian media about disappearances in Egypt, and was on his way to Geneva to speak at the United Nations working group on enforced disappearances when he was arrested.”
Activists like Metwaly run serious risks. His organization works closely with Cairo-based NGO Egyptian Commission for Rights and Freedoms (ECRF) on the Stop Enforced Disappearances campaign. Last week ECRF’s website was blocked in Egypt.
The Sisi government is hypersensitive about the murder of Regeni, a 28 year-old PhD student at Cambridge University, whose body showed sign of severe torture when it was discovered nine days after he had disappeared.
Last month New York Times reporter Declan Walsh revealed that the U.S. government has “explosive evidence” that “Egyptian security officials had abducted, tortured and killed Regeni.” Walsh’s excellent research quotes former Obama Administration officials confirming they had “incontrovertible evidence of official Egyptian responsibility.’’
The United States is getting tougher with Sisi. A few weeks ago Secretary of State Rex Tilllerson announced the United States was denying Egypt $60 million in military aid and suspending $195 million more until reforms are made. It’s the first time a U.S. administration has cut military aid to Egypt since the 1979 Camp David agreement began an annual donation of $1.3 billion.
And the Senate version of the 2018 Appropriations Bill now under discussion proposes cutting the $1.3 billion down to $1 billion, with 25 percent—up from 15 percent—conditioned on human rights reform.
Last week, Human Rights First, working with dozens of other human rights and anti-corruption groups, called on Tillerson to use the Global Magnitsky Human Rights Accountability Act to invoke targeted sanctions against fifteen individuals around the world who have engaged in significant human rights violations and grand corruption. These include Egyptian officials Mohamed Ali Hussein, Ismailia Governorate police chief, and Mohamed Khaleesi, assistant minister of Interior for Upper Egypt.
Impunity for torture and other abuses is at the heart of Egypt’s corrupt legal system. Metwaly is now caught in the horrific unpredictability of Egypt’s criminal justice process, with an initial order of 15 days in detention. His is a case the U.S. government should be watching closely as a test for any sign of reform.