Beirut — Egyptian police have forcibly disappeared a prominent human rights defender and lawyer, Ezzat Ghoneim, Human Rights Watch said today. Ghoneim has been in custody since March 2018, and his release was ordered by a court on September 4.
His wife, Rasha, was the last among his family, friends, and lawyers to see Ghoneim, the head of the Egyptian Coordination for Rights and Freedoms, an independent rights group. She saw Ghoneim in custody at al-Haram police station, south of Cairo, on September 13. Since then, his family and friends have been unable to contact him, and the authorities have refused to provide any information on his status or whereabouts
"Forcibly disappearing a lawyer in the face of a judge's order explicitly authorizing his release reflects Egyptian security forces' contempt for the rule of law," said Michael Page, deputy Middle East and North Africa director at Human Rights Watch. "Egyptian authorities should immediately reveal Ghoneim's whereabouts, set him free, and investigate and punish those who disappeared him."
The Interior Ministry's National Security Agency officers had arrested Ghoneim as he was returning home from work on March 1 and initially also disappeared him for three days, refusing to disclose information on his whereabouts, until lawyers by chance saw him in the Supreme State Security Prosecutionoffice in Cairo. They learned that law enforcement officers had questioned him without a lawyer. Ghoneim was then sent for pretrial detention.
State security prosecutors questioned Ghoneim as a defendant in state security case 441 of 2018 in which a blogger, three journalists, and a doctoral student, together with Ghoneim, are accused of spreading false news and of "supporting a terrorist group." Human Rights Watch has documented that this case is one of many cases in which authorities have wrongfully used emergency and terrorism laws to bring terrorism charges against peaceful activists.
A judge reviewing Ghoneim's detention on September 4 ordered his release subject to a requirement for him to report to the police station twice a week. His wife told Human Rights Watch, however, that officers at al-Haram police station refused to release him and kept him in custody there, where she was able to visit and deliver food and clothes to him until September 13. The officers told her they were not going to release him until they received "instructions from the National Security Agency."
When she went to see him on September 14, officers at the station told her he had been released, but neither she nor any of his acquaintances has seen him since. The next day, his lawyers filed complaints with the prosecutors inquiring about his whereabouts. His wife said that she had heard through "connections" that he is in National Security Agency custody.
Human Rights Watch contacted the authorities several times since September 24 to inquire about the disappeared lawyer. The State Information Service, a government agency dealing with foreign correspondents, said it was going to send a written response but Human Rights Watch received no responses.
During his initial detention, Ghoneim appeared in an Interior Ministry propaganda video released on March 15 called "the Spider Web." Footage of Ghoneim, looking pale and exhausted, appeared in a section of the video that claimed that human rights organizations and activists contribute to terrorism.
Pro-government media have carried out a smear campaign against Ghoneim and his group for documenting and defending victims of torture and enforced disappearance.
An enforced disappearance occurs when someone is deprived of their liberty by agents of the state or people acting with the state's authorization, support or acquiescence, followed by a refusal to acknowledge the deprivation of liberty or by concealment of the fate or whereabouts of the disappeared person.
According to the Egyptian "Stop Enforced Disappearance" independent campaign, authorities disappeared at least 230 people from August 2017 to August 2018, and the practice increasingly targeted journalists and rights activists in recent months.
Human Rights Watch has documented a pattern of systematic torture of detainees in secret National Security Agency detention centers and police stations.
Egypt has not ratified the United Nations Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearance and its local laws do not properly define or criminalize enforced disappearance as a discrete offense. However, enforced disappearances are absolutely prohibited under international law in all circumstances, violate a range of existing human rights obligations, and can in certain circumstances be prosecuted as a crime against humanity.
Egypt is bound by its obligations under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the Convention against Torture, which it has ratified, to investigate, prosecute, punish,provide remedies and reparation for the crimes of torture, ill-treatment, and enforced disappearances. Egyptian laws criminalize arbitrary arrests.
"When authorities view human rights lawyers as a threat rather than an asset to the rule of law and democracy, the government's claims that they are improving rights are hollow and not worth the paper they're printed on," Page said.