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Disappearing Prisoners: Egypt's Arbitrary Injustice System

Omar Abdel Maqsoud and his brothers were arrested for no apparent reason five months ago. Though a court ordered their release, they've simply vanished. Their case is hardly unique.

The city of Meit Ghamr, Egypt
The city of Meit Ghamr, Egypt
Sharif Abdel Kouddous

CAIRO — Omar Abdel Maqsoud and his brothers have been locked up for five months. They were arrested in April and imprisoned in the Meit Ghamr police station before a court recently ordered their release. Bail was paid and the required paperwork was completed, but instead of being freed, they disappeared.

The police claimed they had let them go, but instead they were kept shackled and hidden inside Egypt's detention labyrinth without even the pretense of legal justification. They finally turned up over a week later in a police station in another town, facing new charges for acts they supposedly committed during their fictitious few days of freedom.

Even by the ruthless standards of Egypt's penal system, this Abdel Maqsoud case stands out.

A 27-year-old photojournalist with online news outlet Masr al-Arabiya, Omar Abdel Maqsoud was first arrested in February while covering the sobou (the Egyptian equivalent of a baby shower) of a baby girl named Horreya. The baby's mother, Dahab Hamdy, gave birth in police custody and made headlines when photographs of her handcuffed to her hospital bed went viral, leading to public outcry and her eventual release.

Omar was photographing the event when police stormed in and arrested most of those gathered. He was accused of working for Al Jazeera — the news outlet vilified by the ruling regime — and was held for 19 days before being released without charge on March 11.

Just over a month later, on April 14, security forces — many of them dressed in civilian clothes — stormed into the Abdel Maqsoud family home in Meit Ghamr. They arrested Omar and his younger brother, 21-year-old Ibrahim. Police did not tell the family where they were being taken. The next day, police again stormed into the Abdel Maqsoud family home, this time to arrest Anas, who at 16 is the youngest of the three brothers. Police also arrested Anas' friend, 17-year-old Abdel Moneim Metwally, off the street.

The four were taken to the Meit Ghamr police station and accused of torching cars and belonging to an outlawed group.

During the first three days of their imprisonment, they each underwent brutal interrogation and torture in a room known as "The Fridge." According to Omar's wife Omneya Magdy, all four were beaten and repeatedly electrocuted. Guards smashed Omar's hand and wrist until his watch broke. Five months later, he still cannot grasp objects properly, Omneya says, and his hand appears to be permanently damaged. Officers also stomped on his bare feet and ground their heels into his toes.

"Omar said it wasn't questioning," Omneya says. "It was more like, "You will say this.""

Anas was electrocuted near his eye and other sensitive body parts. Ibrahim was hung from the ceiling by his hands and feet and beaten with something he likened to a whip. With Abdel Moneim, police threatened to imprison his mother and 15-year-old brother if he didn't confess.

Prosecutors ordered the four be held for 15 days on the pretext of a pending investigation, an order that was repeated every two weeks for months. Defense lawyers submitted evidence proving their innocence to no avail.

Corrupting power

As with thousands of other detainees, the four were being held in preventative detention — the legal mechanism of choice of Egyptian authorities to imprison whomever they please for extended periods without having to bother with a trial.

On Aug. 12, a criminal court in Mansoura granted the bail release of the Abdel Maqsoud brothers and Abdel Moneim, yet prosecutors appealed the decision. Instead of the four being set free, their detention was renewed. In the weeks that followed, the courts granted their release on bail three more times. Each time, the prosecution appealed the decision, and the young men languished in prison. On the fourth time, the court finally denied the prosecution's appeal.

The Sept. 11 ruling was final: They would be freed on bail of 5,000 Egyptian pounds.

The family went to pick them up after the ruling, but the police chief at the Meit Ghamr station told their father, Ali, that they couldn't pay bail yet and to return the next day. When Ali returned later that evening to try again to post bail, the police chief reportedly told him, "They are terrorists and won't get out," Omneya says.

The family succeeded in paying the bail on Sept. 13, thereby legally finalizing their release. The four had now technically been freed on paper, but they would nevertheless remain locked up.

When the father arrived at the station with the paperwork ready, the police chief reportedly got angry and kicked him out, telling him the necessary procedures were not finalized. Undeterred, Ali returned again later that evening and was able to meet with his sons to tell them their release was finalized. He took their prison belongings — clothes, books and money — in preparation for their expected homecoming.

During the exchange, Omar slipped his father a letter. In it, he wrote he had overheard the police and guards talking about keeping them imprisoned.

"If we disappear from the police station and you feel that something has gone wrong, it means we have gone to National Security," he wrote.

"Forced disappearance"

The Abdel Maqsoud brothers did indeed vanish.

When Ali arrived at the police station the next morning, Sept. 14, the police chief told him his sons had been released the night before. The family protested but were left with no answers.

They filed complaints against the police chief and the head of National Security, accusing them of "forced disappearance" and "unlawful detention." They sent official telegrams to the prosecutor general and the attorney general in Mansoura. No one did anything.

"We didn't know what to do," Omneya says. "Everyone — the police, the prosecution, the judiciary — told us they had been released. How?"

Omneya finally received a call from her husband, Omar, on the evening of Sept. 21, the first time the family had heard from any of them in eight days. He was at a police station in Senbellawein, a town some 30 kilometers northeast of Meit Ghamr.

Omar told her that on Sept. 13 — the day their bail was paid and their release finalized — police handcuffed and blindfolded them in the middle of the night and secretly bundled them into a police truck. They were driven to the Senbellawein police station, though they were told they were in Suez. They remained there for eight days, handcuffed to an iron bar the entire time except for a bathroom break once a day.

An officer at the station filed a report claiming he arrested the four of them on Sept. 21 on the road between Meit Ghamr to Senbellawein as they participated in an illegal protest. The flimsy, one-page report claims 100 people were protesting and that only the four of them were caught.

On Sept. 22, the prosecution ordered them detained for 15 days, pending investigation on a list of new charges, including illegally protesting and blocking roads.

"I haven't seen anything like this before," says Amral-Qady, the lawyer for the Abdel Maqsoud brothers. "The police can sometimes keep detainees for two, three days after they post bail, but they eventually release them. They don't disappear them, hold them in these conditions and then charge them again. I think National Security is calling the shots. They are the only agency that can do this."

Qady says all four of them appeared "worn out and in a very bad psychological state."

From the cusp of freedom they have been thrust back into prison and the dooming cycle of preventative detention.

The Abdel Maqsoud case is only one stark example of Egypt's sprawling injustice system. Thousands and thousands of mostly young people are locked up, held at the whim of their jailers. Authorities reduce the law to empty maneuvering and little else, an exercise in arbitrary absurdity. Detainees watch from behind bars as prison chips away at their lives.

Like so many others, Omar, Ibrahim, Anas and Abdel Moneim should be free.

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Photo of Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen

Tsai Ing-wen, the President of Taiwan

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Ma Ying-jeou, a former president of Taiwan, arrived yesterday in Shanghai: he is making a 12-day visit at the invitation of the Chinese authorities at a time of high tension between China and the United States, particularly over the fate of Taiwan.

It would be difficult to make these two trips more contrasting, as both have the merit of summarizing at a glance the decisive political battle that is coming. Presidential and legislative elections will be held in January 2024 in Taiwan, which could well determine Beijing's attitude towards the island that China claims by all means, including force.

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