Beirut — Egyptian security forces arbitrarily arrested and forcibly disappeared two women in recent days and later brought vague and apparently abusive charges against one of them, Human Rights Watch said today. The authorities should fully disclose the whereabouts of the women and release them or present evidence to judicial authorities of criminal wrongdoing.
Security forces arrested Marwa Arafa, 27, and Kholoud Said, 35, on April 20 and 21, 2020, respectively. Their families and lawyers said that they have received no response to their inquiries to authorities. Said appeared on April 28 before State Security Prosecutors in Cairo, who ordered her detained for 15 days pending investigations, without judicial review, under charges that included joining a terrorist group and spreading false news. Her charges appear to violate human rights including freedom of expression. Prosecutors did not inform lawyers of her whereabouts.
"Marwa Arafa and Kholoud Said were taken from their homes and forcibly disappeared as their families stood by helpless," said Amr Magdi, a Middle East and North Africa researcher at Human Rights Watch. "No warrants, no explanations - this is the behavior of a security establishment run amok."
An acquaintance of Arafa's with direct knowledge of her arrest told Human Rights Watch that two plain-clothes officers accompanied by four armed masked men in police uniforms went to her apartment in Nasr City, east of Cairo, around 11:30 p.m. on April 20. One of the men in civilian clothes said he was a National Security Agency officer but presented no arrest or search warrant. They searched the apartment and confined Arafa's 21-month-old child, her 19-year-old sister, and a nanny to one room, while the lead officer interrogated Arafa in another room.
Eventually the security forces left, taking Arafa with them, after confiscating her phone and a large sum of cash. The acquaintance said that Arafa's father and mother, who managed to reach her apartment before the security forces left, tried but were unable to follow the security car that carried her to an undisclosed location.
On April 21, lawyers for her family filed appeals with the Interior Ministry and the Prosecutor General's Office inquiring about Arafa's whereabouts but have received no response. Lawyers and family members tried to locate her at various police stations, but the police there denied holding her.
Arafa, a translator and management consultant, had no known political affiliation and had not been politically active for the past four or five years, the acquaintance said. "She was only involved in some charity work such as children with disabilities," the person said.
Security forces arrested Said at her family's home in Alexandria shortly before midnight on April 21, according to a Facebook statement by her friends. A family friend told Human Rights Watch that security forces, including some in civilian clothes as well as uniformed armed men, did not show an arrest warrant when they arrested her. After Said's mother opened the door for them, they told Said to "get dressed and accompany them," the friend said. They searched Said's room and confiscated her phone, laptop, and some documents. They said they were taking her to al-Montazah First police station, but officers there denied holding her when the family inquired.
On April 22, Said's brother received a phone call from an unidentified number asking him to bring her laptop charger to the National Security Agency's headquarters in Alexandria, which he did. But officers there gave him no more information about her. The authorities did not respond to the family's inquiries about her whereabouts.
On April 28, lawyers spotted Said at the State Security Prosecution building in an east Cairo suburb where lawyers routinely wait for disappeared detainees to surface.
Prosecutors interrogated her over charges of "joining a terrorist group," and "spreading false news" in the apparently abusive Case No. 558 of 2020, known as the "Coronavirus Case," brought against an undisclosed number of activists, lawyers told Human Rights Watch.
Political activists including Aya Kamal and Noha Kamal Ahmed (both from Alexandria), lawyers such as Mohsen Bahnasy, and social media users have been recently arrested and charged in this case, mostly for criticizing the government's response to the coronavirus outbreak. The case includes seven children who were later conditionally released.
Said's friend said that a lawyer was allowed to attend Said's interrogation and that prosecutors focused their questions on Facebook posts in which Said shared news articles criticizing the government. Prosecutors did not inform the lawyers of where Said was being held.
Said, a senior translator and editor at the Alexandria Library, was active in cultural and anthropological activities in her city but had no political affiliations, the friend said.
Authorities should immediately present her to a judge to review her detention and present evidence of criminal wrongdoing or release her, Human Rights Watch said.
Enforced disappearance is defined in international law as "the arrest, detention, abduction or any other form of deprivation of liberty by agents of the State or by persons or groups of persons acting with the authorization, support or acquiescence of the State, followed by a refusal to acknowledge the deprivation of liberty or by concealment of the fate or whereabouts of the disappeared person."
Egyptian law does not explicitly prohibit enforced disappearance, but it requires that authorities inform detainees about the reason for their arrest, bring them before a prosecutor within 24 hours, and allow them to communicate with a lawyer and their family. Egypt's prosecutors in most political cases have the power to order the detainees' pretrial detention for up to five months while international law requires that a judge quickly (within 48 hours) review any detention.
Egyptian officials, including President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, have routinely denied that security forces disappear detainees. But under his rule, security forces, particularly the National Security Agency, have disappeared hundreds of people in recent years, many of whom only appear after weeks or months, or in some cases years, before prosecutors charge them with criminal offenses, often based on security allegations that provide no material evidence.
"Enforced disappearance is an ongoing crime," Magdi said. "It leaves loved ones living in agony not knowing if they are alive."