"Just Numbers And Corpses" — An Egyptian Prisoner’s Plea

Islam Khalil was abducted by security forces and tortured for months. More than 200 days later, he is still behind bars pending trial for a crime without a trace. This is his story.

An Egyptian guard at a recent trial in Cairo.
An Egyptian guard at a recent trial in Cairo.
Islam Khalil

CAIRO â€" Seven months ago, security forces stormed a house in Santa (a district in Gharbiya Governorate) after midnight on May 24. They arrested a young man named Nour Khalil, a college student. He was led out of the house before security returned to arrest his father and his brother Islam, a sales representative.

They were taken to a place Nour didn’t recognize. Then security forces separated the three men â€" that was the moment when their fates diverged, according to an Egyptian Commission for Rights and Freedoms statement and Nour’s own testimony.

Nour was accused of taking part in illegal protests and released after four days. His father followed after eight days. During that time, their family filed reports with different authorities to find out where they were. They got no response.

Islam Khalil’s fate remains unknown, and until 80 days ago, so was his place of detention. That means he was forcibly disappeared for 122 days. His family was certain that he was detained by security forces, but no official entity would confirm this.

Islam first reappeared Sept. 24 at the East Alexandria Prosecution. He was remanded in custody pending investigations into charges of belonging to an outlawed group. His pretrial detention was renewed most recently on Nov. 26. He says he has been repeatedly tortured and his health is declining, claims corroborated by his brother.

Today, we publish a letter sent by Islam Khalil from his jail after 200 days of detention.

Islam's letter

We go through different experiences in our lives. Sometimes we have no hand in what happens. It’s the place, time and circumstances that force us into these experiences. As we go on with our lives, they fade, leaving only memories that parade before our mind’s eye every now and then. But some experiences are difficult to forget. Some of them become infinite temporal holes where we fall, never to emerge except when we exit life.

For the 200 days leading up to writing this letter, I have lived and continue to live the worst experience of my life, the worst experience for any person who must endure this. I want to share with you the main chapters of my story. Perhaps there is an ear that can listen, or a sane voice that can speak. Or maybe it will be an outlet, allowing me to retain what is left of a humanity wasted by this experience, uncontainable in hundreds of pages or thousands of words.

My experience began on May 24, 2015 when my family and I were surprised by masked security forces from the Interior Ministry storming our house. They arrested me, my father â€" an aging man who gave the best part of his life and health to serve this nation in the military â€" and my brother Nour, a college student who spends his time between university and human rights work.

We were led blindfolded to the National Security Agency offices. It was my first "visit" to this place, the start of a new chapter of my life. It was also my introduction to torture â€" being electrocuted, hung from my hands and feet and blindfolded all the time.

My brother was released, then my father. I was certain that outside, my family was looking for me using all the methods at their disposal. I had hope that I would get out of this darkness, both literal and metaphorical. This hope started to fade when I was moved from the National Security building in Tanta to the Central Security Forces Camp.

The methods of torture were the same. The threats were the same. It was as if all the torturers had been raised in the same house. Days and weeks passed.

On July 9, 2015, I was moved from the camp to a new hell, a hell greater than the one I endured before. It’s called Lazoghly a square in Cairo where the National Security Agency is headquartered. Since the moment I entered, I witnessed nothing but the violation of my humanity. They used the same torture techniques I had gone through before, with the difference that until then, those who tortured me had worried about killing me. But in Lazoghly, the moment you enter you have to forget your own name and remember only the number assigned to you. If you forget it, you will go through an additional torture session.

During that time, I became unable to distinguish night from day. Everything beyond the blindfold, placed on my face since the moment of my arrest, was the same to me. I wasn’t alone there. There were hundreds of us, distributed between offices and corridors. All of us blindfolded with our hands tied. The officer in charge comes every now and then to point at some of us. He calls to the guards, "This corpse here and that corpse there will leave tomorrow."

Yes, in Lazoghly we are just numbers and corpses. What you encounter in this hell is nothing but torture. They might take me one night to hang me from my hands and feet, naked. Or I might spend a long time with my hands tied to a post. Or maybe they take me for an electrocution session. I can’t hear anything but threats: threats of rape and threats of being killed in the worst ways possible. All against a background of continuous insults. Your dream is to survive this place, to make it to prison or to the grave.

After 122 days of this never-ending hell, they "sympathized" with me, meaning they framed me, along with a number of people who were also randomly arrested, in a case in Alexandria. When we were deported to Alexandria, I saw light for the first time after 122 days of unending hell. Then I started living a new kind of suffering â€" the prosecution continues to renew my pretrial detention even though I presented all the legal papers that prove my innocence, proving that I am in fact a victim and not a suspect. And here I am, writing these words as I near 200 days in jail in my own country, not the enemy’s.

This experience placed me squarely before two questions. I can think of nothing else. The first is why. Yes, why was I arrested this way? Why was I forcibly disappeared? Why was I tortured? Why was I framed in a case despite their knowledge of my innocence? Why don’t judicial bodies serve justice? Why does the Ministry of Interior deny that I was forcibly disappeared by its forces for 122 days, suffering torture? In each chapter of my story, there are hundreds of whys. But there is no answer to these questions, except what one of my cellmates told me one day: "Because you’re Egyptian and you live in Egypt."

The second question is how. I used to wonder after every torture session, how do these people live? How do they kiss their children every morning? How do they sleep at night? How do they forget all these scenes of torture? How do they live with being criminals in their own eyes and in those of others? How do they pretend that they are the protectors of this country? And who are we? Aren’t we the sons of this country? Why do they do this to us? More importantly, what amount of money could turn a human being into a monster?

Many questions swirl in my head as I near 200 days behind bars. Torture has marked my body with scars that have not healed. Their psychological effects increase by the day. I am still imprisoned. There are thousands like me. Hundreds still disappeared who face what I faced. What now? What comes after the murder, torture and unfair imprisonment? What comes after the theft of our humanity and our lives?

I am not talking about me or about what happened to me, or about my time in prison tortured and without medical attention. I am not talking about the thousands who suffered what I have suffered. I am talking about all of us.

The story is not over yet. I just hope that this time we can write it ourselves rather than have it imposed on us. Last but not least, don’t get used to the many stories of murder and torture, those that we now hear about day and night. Reject them. Make them something despicable and strange so you don’t lose what remains of your humanity.

Don’t forget those who died, those never mentioned by the media. Don’t forget the forcibly disappeared, for you are their only hope. Don’t forget the thousands like me, who are paying the price of freedom with their own young lives. Attach value to these sacrifices so that our wounds can heal, and so we might all sit together and laugh one day. So long as we continue to talk and refuse, there is hope.

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Preparing a COVID-19 vaccine booster in Huzhou, China.

Hannah Steinkopf-Frank, Anne-Sophie Goninet, Jane Herbelin and Bertrand Hauger

👋 Ciao!*

Welcome to Wednesday, where Brazil's senate backs "crimes against humanity" charges against Jair Bolsonaro, the UN has a grim new climate report and Dune gets a sequel. Meanwhile, German daily Die Welt explores "Xi Jinping Thought," which is now being made part of Chinese schools' curriculum.



• Senators back Bolsonaro criminal charges: A Brazilian Senate panel has backed a report that supports charging President Jair Bolsonaro with crimes against humanity, for his alleged responsibility in the country's 600,000-plus COVID-19 deaths.

• Gas crisis in Moldova following Russian retaliation: Moldova, one of Europe's poorest countries, has for the first time challenged Russia's Gazprom following a price increase and failed contract negotiations, purchasing instead from Poland. In response, Russia has threatened to halt sales to the Eastern European country, which has previously acquired all of its gas from Gazprom.

• New UN climate report finds planned emission cuts fall short: The Emissions Gap Report 2021 concludes that country pledges to reduce greenhouse gas emissions aren't large enough to keep the global temperature rise below 1.5 °C degrees this century. The UN Environment Program predicts a 2.7 °C increase, with significant environmental impacts, but there is still hope that longer term net-zero goals will curtail some temperature rise.

• COVID update: As part of its long-awaited reopening, Australia will officially allow its citizens to travel abroad without a government waiver for the first time in more than 18 months. Bulgaria, meanwhile, hits record daily high COVID-19 cases as the Eastern European's hotel and restaurant association is planning protests over the implementation of the vaccination "green pass." In the U.S., a panel of government medical advisors backed the use of Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine for five to 11-year-olds.

• U.S. appeals decision to block Julian Assange extradition: The United States said it was "extremely disappointed" in a UK judge's ruling that Assange, the founder of Wikileaks, would be a suicide risk of he traveled across the Atlantic. In the U.S., he faces 18 charges related to the 2010 release of 500,000 secret files related to U.S. military activity.

• Deposed Sudan prime minister released: Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok has been released from custody, though remains under heavy guard after Sudan's military coup. Protests against the coup have continued in the capital Khartoum, as Hamdok has called for the release of other detained governmental officials.

Dune Part 2 confirmed: The world will get to see Timothée Chalamet ride a sandworm: The second installment of the sci-fi epic and global box office hit has officially been greenlit, set to hit the screens in 2023.


Front page of the National Post's October 27 front page

Canadian daily National Post reports on the nomination of Steven Guilbeault, a former Greenpeace activist, as the country's new Environment minister. He had been arrested in 2001 for scaling Toronto's CN Tower to unfurl a banner for Greenpeace, which he left in 2008.


Chinese students now required to learn to think like Xi Jinping

"Xi Jinping Thought" ideas on socialism have been spreading across the country since 2017. But now, Beijing is going one step further by making them part of the curriculum, from the elementary level all the way up to university, reports Maximilian Kalkhof in German daily Die Welt.

🇨🇳 It's important to strengthen the "determination to listen to and follow the party." Also, teaching materials should "cultivate patriotic feelings." So say the new guidelines issued by the Chinese Ministry of Education. The goal is to help Chinese students develop more "Marxist beliefs," and for that, the government wants its national curriculum to include "Xi Jinping Thought," the ideas, namely, of China's current leader. Behind this word jam is a plan to consolidate the power of the nation, the party and Xi himself.

📚 Starting in September, the country's 300 million students have had to study the doctrine, from elementary school into university. And in some cities, even that doesn't seem to be enough. Shanghai announced that its students from third to fifth grade would only take final exams in mathematics and Chinese, de facto deleting English as an examination subject. Beijing, in the meantime, announced that it would ban the use of unauthorized foreign textbooks in elementary and middle schools.

⚠️ But how does a country that enchants its youth with socialist ideology and personality cults rise to become a world power? Isn't giving up English as a global language the quickest way into isolation? The educational reform comes at a time when Beijing is brutally disciplining many areas of public life, from tech giants to the entertainment industry. It has made it difficult for Chinese technology companies to go public abroad, and some media have reported that a blanket ban on IPOs in the United States is on the cards in the next few years.

➡️


"I'm a footballer and I'm gay."

— Australian soccer player Josh Cavallo said in a video accompanying a tweet in which he revealed his homosexuality, becoming the first top-flight male professional player in the world to do so. The 21-year-old said he was tired of living "this double life" and hoped his decision to come out would help other "players living in silence."


Why this Sudan coup d'état is different

Three days since the military coup was set in motion in Sudan, the situation on the ground continues to be fluid. Reuters reports this morning that workers at the state petroleum company Sudapet are joining a nationwide civil disobedience movement called by trade unions in response to the generals' overthrow of the government. Doctors have also announced a strike.

Generals in suits At the same time, the military appears firmly in control, with deposed Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok allowed to return home today after being held by the coup leaders. How did we get here? That's the question that David E. Kiwuwa, a professor of international relations at the University of Nottingham, takes on in The Conversation:

"Since the revolution that deposed Omar el-Bashir in 2019, the military have fancied themselves as generals in suits. They have continued to wield enough power to almost run a parallel government in tension with the prime minister. This was evident when the military continued to have the say on security and foreign affairs.

Economy as alibi For their part, civilian officials concentrated on rejuvenating the economy and mobilizing international support for the transitional council. This didn't stop the military from accusing the civilian leadership of failing to resuscitate the country's ailing economy.

True, the economy has continued to struggle from high inflation, low industrial output and dwindling foreign direct investment. As in all economies, conditions have been exacerbated by the effects of COVID-19. Sudan's weakened economy is, however, not sufficient reason for the military intervention. Clearly this is merely an excuse."

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471 million euros

Rome's Casino di Villa Boncompagni Ludovisi, better known as Villa Aurora, will be put up for auction in January for 471 million euros ($547 million). The over-the-top price tag is thanks to the villa having the only known ceiling painting by Renaissance master Caravaggio.

✍️ Newsletter by Hannah Steinkopf-Frank, Anne-Sophie Goninet, Jane Herbelin and Bertrand Hauger

Who wants to start the bidding on the Caravaggio villa? Otherwise, let us know what the news looks like from your corner of the world!!

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Sign up to our expressly international daily newsletter!