“You disappear from the surface of the earth as if you had never been. No one knows your whereabouts except your jailer, who if he wanted to torture you could, if he wanted to kill you could, and if he wanted to release you he could. Fear eats your soul and body. You think about your fate and the suffering of your family who are searching for you. You wish you were imprisoned for the rest of your life for a crime you did not commit on condition that you are placed in a known prison and not in an unknown abyss.”
This is how a survivor of enforced disappearance in Egypt described his suffering during the period of his enforced disappearance in the basements of the National Security Agency, in flagrant violation of all laws, constitutional texts and international agreements.
What does enforced disappearance mean?
Enforced disappearance is defined as “the arrest, detention, abduction or other deprivation of liberty by officials of different branches or levels of government, an organised group, or private individuals acting on behalf of or with the support of the government, directly or indirectly, or with its consent or acceptance, and then refusing to disclose the fate or whereabouts of the persons concerned or refusing to acknowledge the deprivation of their liberty, which deprives these persons of the protection of the law.”
Enforced disappearance is frequently used as a strategic method of instilling terror within society. The sense of insecurity that this practice generates is not limited to the relatives of the disappeared, but also affects their local population groups and society as a whole. The United Nations has designated August 30 of each year as the International Day of Victims of Enforced Disappearances, in order to draw attention to this heinous crime, and to appeal to the countries that perpetrate it to stop it.
Crime against humanity
Both the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court and the International Convention for the Protection of Persons from Enforced Disappearance state that enforced disappearance is a crime against humanity when committed as part of a widespread or systematic attack against any civilian population, and is therefore not subject to the statute of limitations. In addition, the families of the victims have the right to seek compensation and to demand the truth in connection with the disappearance of their loved ones.
Although the Egyptian constitution does not explicitly criminalise enforced disappearance, this is the understanding of its texts, as Article 54 states that “personal freedom is a natural right, and it is inviolable, and except in the case of flagrante delicto, no one may be arrested, searched, or imprisoned.” Anyone whose freedom is restricted must be immediately informed of the reasons for this, be informed of his rights in writing, and be able to contact his family and lawyer immediately, and submit to the investigation authority within 24 hours from the time of restricting his freedom. Article 55 stipulates that “Anyone who is arrested, imprisoned, or has his freedom restricted must be treated in a manner that preserves his dignity.”
For six years, the “Stop Enforced Disappearance” campaign launched by the Egyptian Commission for Rights and Freedoms has been a national beacon to talk about the forcibly disappeared and to demand the disclosure of their fate and the prosecution of those responsible for this crime. On the occasion of the International Day of Victims of Enforced Disappearances, the campaign issued its sixth report documenting the incidents of enforced disappearance in Egypt.
From August 30, 2015 to August 30, 2021, the “Stop Enforced Disappearance” campaign documented 3,029 cases of enforced disappearance of Egyptian citizens, committed by the security services in Egypt, led by the National Security Agency of the Ministry of Interior and the General Intelligence Service. During the period from August 2020 to August 2021, 306 people were subjected to enforced disappearance for varying periods, including 19 children under the age of 18, distributed in 21 governorates, 251 of whom later appeared as “survivors of enforced disappearance,” 36 are still in the process of disappearance, and 19 their status is unknown.
Given that enforced disappearance deprives a person from the protection of the law, it makes them more vulnerable to other violations such as torture and ill-treatment, as many victims confirmed that they were subjected to severe torture in the basements of the National Security and General Intelligence. Among the most shocking of these examples is the case of Mazen Muhammad Abdullah, who was forcibly disappeared at the age of 14 in September 2015 and was subjected to heinous violations such as repeated rape with a wooden stick in order to extract a false confession from him.
Aaser Muhammad, who was also 14-years-old at the time of his arrest, was also beaten, electrocuted all over his body, and hung by the limbs, with the purpose of extracting a trumped-up confession. That was when he was forcibly disappeared for 34 days in January 2016 at the National Security headquarters in the Sixth of October City in Greater Cairo. Finally, he was brought before a State Security prosecutor who warned him that he might be subjected to further electrocutions when he tried to retract his “confessions.”
The Egyptian authorities deny the existence of enforced disappearances in Egypt, as officials assert that the forcibly disappeared are either absent or have joined armed groups. This denial coincides with the prosecution of civil society organisations and human rights defenders interested in this issue, and the threat of imprisonment and physical harm to the families of the disappeared, in order to discourage them from raising the issue to public opinion and exposing the violations committed by the regime.
Enforced disappearance has become a major tool of state policy in Egypt. Anyone who dares to raise their voice is threatened with counterterror measures which is used as a pretext to kidnap, interrogate and torture anyone who challenges President Sisi’s regime.
The regime aims behind these practices, which are escalating and non-stop, to terrorise the masses of citizens and sow terror in their hearts so that they remain afraid and silent and do not deviate from the lines it draws for them. The regime does not care about any international agreements or constitutional texts that protect citizens from enforced disappearance, as it ignores all of this without impunity, in light of the silence of the international community.