On April 11, 2019, Yehia, a 24-year-old Egyptian man, planned to visit a friend who was ill in a hospital in Maadi, a wealthy neighborhood in southern Cairo. Shortly before arriving, the two spoke on the phone, and Yehia mentioned that she was only five minutes from the place. But the young Egyptian never appeared. As the hours passed, her family's anxiety grew. They first tried to contact him by phone, recalls the young man's sister, but his cell phone was disconnected. They then tried to locate him at the house of one of his friends, but no one had seen him. After two days, they reported him missing. The authorities either told them they did not know anything or they declined to receive them.
It was not until November that the family learned of Yehia's whereabouts. That month, the police raided the house of the young man's father, who was transferred to an unofficial detention center in Cairo where he was detained for 11 days, according to his surroundings. As chance would have it, his son was right in the same place. During that brief parenthesis, Yehia was able to explain to him that that day in mid-April he had been arrested in the middle of the street and vanished in the police station.
In the Egypt of Abdelfatá Al Sisi, cases like Yehia's have become routine. In the last five years, the Egyptian Commission for Rights and Freedoms has been able to register up to 2,723 enforced disappearances in the country, according to a report published in August that is part of a campaign launched in 2015 by this prestigious local human rights organization with the in order to document this phenomenon and assist the victims. The dizzying figure is equivalent to about 10 missing each week for a full five years. Around September 20, on the first anniversary of the unusual anti-government protests that took place in various Egyptian cities in 2019, human rights groups have documented a new upsurge in this practice.
In the end it was in March of last year, almost a year after being forcibly disappeared by the police, that the young man officially reappeared in the Tora maximum security prison in Cairo, after being included in a judicial process. Yehia has not yet been able to communicate with her family and has not seen sunlight for more than 500 days, her sister laments. "People become numbers and (the security forces) can treat them as they please because if you go to a place to ask if someone is there they will say no and it is over," complains the relative, who is a United States citizen.
“In the time (of the deposed dictator Hosni) Mubarak there were enforced disappearances, but less than now. Most of the time, the families of the detainees received official confirmation of where the detainee was, while now the default response of the authorities is to deny knowing their whereabouts, ”explains Mohamed Lotfi, director of the Egyptian Commission, which is based on the UN criteria for preparing its reports on enforced disappearances. The increase in this practice in recent years goes hand in hand with the progressive erosion of human rights in Egypt since Al Sisi's seizure of power in 2013, as well as the relentless persecution of anyone who is perceived as an opponent.
These illegal detentions usually happen at dawn. In the majority of documented cases, it is when police officers, accompanied by an officer from the dreaded National Security Agency, assault the suspect's home to arrest him without presenting authorization. From that moment on, the trail of the detainee is lost, and he is transferred to a detention center, sometimes unofficially, where he is usually tortured until a confession is extracted. Then, their fate will be in the hands of the commanding officer of National Security, whose barracks are a very frequent destination in this type of arrest. "Being forcibly disappeared ultimately eliminates a person's existence and complicates their legal situation," notes Yasmin Omar, a legal expert at the Washington-based Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy (Timep).
In general, disappearances last between two days and a month, but there are cases in which they last for years. The Egyptian Commission has evidence of 18 people who remain missing since the 2013 Rabaa massacre. In the case of reappearing before a prosecutor, it is common for charges based on the National Security investigation to be used against them, including possible confessions that I've done. "The judicial authorities, especially the Prosecutor's Office, are accomplices in these crimes, since they do not investigate and also refuse to take the testimony of the disappeared person about the torture they have suffered just because there are no visible marks on the body," charges Omar, from the Timep Legal Institute.
The suffering and uncertainty involved in the search for the missing person is often accompanied by financial difficulties for the family. In some cases, their lawyers or other family members also disappear.
The silence of the Government
The Egyptian authorities have consistently denied that these types of practices are carried out in the country, and have labeled the various reports prepared by human rights organizations as false. his modus operandi it is to attribute specific cases of disappearances to absences from which they disassociate themselves or to the adherence of the victim to an armed group. EL PAÍS has contacted the Interior Ministry three times, but no official was immediately available to speak.
"The State insists on denying that it perpetrates disappearances and alleges that the disappeared are 'terrorists' who have fled Egypt, (but later) it does not respond to the fact that they reappear detained in Egyptian prisons or before the Egyptian Prosecutor's Office," says Lotfi , of the Egyptian Commission. "If the Interior Ministry officials know where a detainee is and his family does not, then he has not disappeared because they know where he is," he says. "And this is exactly what an enforced disappearance means."