Without a Trace: Extrajudicial Detention Continues in Egypt

Extrajudicial Detention Continues in Egypt

Islam Ahmad Khamis is a young man in his thirties. For seven years, his mother waited for him to return home after he was arrested one day in the winter of 2015 and was subjected to enforced disappearances (or extrajudicial detention) four times since then. After disappearing over a pending case, Islam would reappear every time. Then, he would disappear again if a court declare him innocent or if it rules that it did not have jurisdiction over his case.

In 2016, Islam appeared in “Tora Istiqbal” Prison in connection with Case No. (185) of 2016. He disappeared again after his release to go back to prison in 2019 in connection with Case No. (4584) of 2019. He again disappeared this time for Case No. (76) of 2019.

The last time Islam resurfaced was in April 2020, but at that time, his mother refrained from hiring a defence lawyer, possibly for fear that he would be disappeared again.

Islam’s case is one of fifteen similar cases documented by this investigation based on the testimonies of relatives of those who were forcibly disappeared by security services without any specific charges and without revealing their place of detention. This violates Egyptian law and international conventions and contravenes the declarations of the Egyptian authorities stating that “there are no forcibly disappeared persons.”

Some people have returned, and the fate of some remain unknown as this piece is written. This investigation respects the desire of some to conceal their identity for fear that they or their relatives may be subjected to persecution by the authorities.

The investigator used human rights data, and a detailed list of 175 cases of disappeared persons prepared by the Egyptian Commission for Human Rights.

Victims of enforced disappearances by years

Source: El Shehab Center for Human Rights

Gone missing

Mohammad Juma’a Yusuf is Islam’s maternal uncle, and he too was subjected to an enforced disappearance when Islam had disappeared the first time. Mohammad Juma’a Yusuf was less fortunate, however, as he is still missing. A human rights activist had informed Islam’s mother that Juma’a’ seven-year disappearance most probably point to the fact that he might never return, but she refuses to believe this, and continues to hope as his corps has not yet been handed over to his family.

Sayyed Hassan Ali Morsi also faces an unknown fate: He was subjected to an enforced disappearance five years ago after a verdict of acquittal on December 7, 2017 for the case known in the media as “the Soldiers of Egypt Organization.” His wife had to file for a divorce after he was arrested.

Audio recording: Sayyed Hassan Ali's sister

For Sound recording translation please Click Here.

Families of those disappeared are usually left with the option of praying for the release of their loved ones after they send a telegram to the office of the public prosecutor to report the disappearance.

Some relatives reported that the local police station and or the security directorates close to their place of residence got in touch to enquire about the disappearance incidents reported, requesting extra details and information, but that led to nowhere usually.

Enforced disappearances

“An enforced disappearance occurs when a person is arrested, kidnapped or detained against his will in a way that deprive him of his liberty by agents of the law, or by persons or groups of individuals acting with the authorization, support or acquiescence of the state. This is followed by denying any knowledge of the fate of the person, or his whereabouts which deprives him of any legal protection.

This definition forms part of the second article of the International Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearance, which entered into force in 2010. Article (26) calls for “forming a committee of ten experts known for their competence and integrity to implement the provisions of the convention, provided that the states party to the convention vow to cooperate with the committee.” Egypt, however, is among the countries that have not ratified this convention.

Egyptian law does not have a description of the term “enforced disappearance,” especially that the work of most human rights organizations focused on this matter have had to abandon their activity in Egypt. Such organisations were active during the presidency of Hosni Mubarak, but the task of reporting on disappeared persons has moved to social media pages like "Stop Enforced Disappearances", and the "Association of the Families of the Forcibly Disappeared" on Facebook where an administrator would publish a photo of the forcibly disappeared person along with some details to add to the credibility of the post.

A systematic policy

According to the Egyptian Commission for Rights and Freedoms, the last reported sighting of the disappeared in 49% of the cases was in a public place. In 21% of the cases of the arrest of the disappeared person took place at his home, 7% at security headquarters, and 6 % were taken after their arrest at security check points.

According to the Commission, the act of disappearances varied and could last between one and seven years. One such disappeared person reappeared after 2 years at the high security prison known as “Scorpion” pending the review of a legal case against him. The person is referred to by his pseudonym as “warda’s husband” by the investigator, and the disappeared was not allowed to communicate with his family or lawyer, which is a common practice in these cases.

The truth is that families never give up on waiting for the reappearance of their absent family members despite the continued increase in the number of forcibly disappeared people as confirmed by Khalaf Bayoumi, head of El Shehab Center for Human Rights. The center estimates that there were nearly 15000 disappeared persons in Egypt since 2013, 2272 of those have disappeared in 2021 alone, and the center has reported the death of 61 of those forcibly disappeared.

The disappearance’s phenomenon in Egypt witnessed a rise since the end of the Muslim Brotherhood rule in mid-2013, which followed a wave of protests that ushered in a military intervention that deposed the regime of former President Mohammad Morsi.

Though many concur that forced disappearance is part of a systematic policy in Egypt, the “Committee for Justice” disagree with the figures published by El Shehab Center, and claims that enforced disappearances form just 14% of the 13000 cases of human rights violations monitored by the committee.

Locations of arrest prior to enforced disappearances


Security ambush
Security headquarters
At the workplace
On the street
Cairo airport

Source: Egyptian Commission for Rights and Freedoms

The youngest forcibly disappeared person

An infant, Al-Baraa Omar Abdel Hamid, was forcibly disappeared before he turned one. He was with his parents when they were arrested in 2019, and all three disappeared for two years. They re-appeared at the beginning of last year, but the small family faced another breakup when Al-Baraa was handed over to his father’s family as his mother was sent to Al-“Qanatir” Prison while the father was sent to the high-security Scorpion Prison.

Amnesty International quotes Al-Baraa’s saying that “I want to go back to the room.” The child who is four years old now, reflect through his words a desire to be reunited with his mom in the only place he knew he could find her, and that is their cell where he had spent the early months of his young life next to his mother.

Al-Baraa went through all the stages of crawling, walking, weaning him off his mother’s milk, learning his early letters, numbers and short sentences within the walls of a narrow prison cell where the sun could only be seen through a small window.

His grandfather, now in charge of his grandson, tells the investigator that “Al-Baraa is fine, and we spoil him with sweets, trips and games”, but the family has not talked to Al-Baraa’s parents since their re-appearance, as visits are prohibited.

The aforementioned Egyptian Commission for Human Rights lists the disappearance of twelve children who represent 7% of the total number of forced disappeared. Disappeared in their 20s topped the list with 49%, and those in their thirties formed 24% of the number of victims.

The list also shows that the percentage of university students among those who were disappeared has increased by 35%. Those disappeared hail from Cairo at 34%, Giza 18%, and Sinai 8%.

Age groups of the forcibly disappeared

Source: Egyptian Commission for Rights and Freedoms

The search for Wisal

The crowded streets of Cairo may delay Wisal Mohammad Mahmoud’s arrival back home from work by two or three hours, but her parents started to worry when the young woman in her thirties is not home with her two young children and her husband past midnight. Should the family search for her in hospitals among reported accidents first, or should they report her as a missing person at the police station? She was never a member of any political opposition groups, yet her bad luck made her a victim of an enforced disappearance.

Audio recording: Mahmoud, Wisal Mohammad's brother

For Sound recording translation please Click Here.

Wisal's brother, Mohammad, insisted on filing a missing person’s report at “Al Azbakeya” police station in downtown Cairo. He overheard a number of officers saying that “Wisal is fine: She will be back in a little while,” others told him, “Your sister is fine, and she will be back.”

The information communicated to families of the forcibly disappeared are usually verbal and cannot be documented. Sometimes it comes through employees of the security agency itself in order to calm down the victims’ families. In other cases other detainees carry messages from those who disappeared.

This is how Moumin Abu Rawash Mohammad’s wife found out about her husband who was a teacher of Italian language and she learned that he was kept at the State Security headquarters in Sheikh Zayed area. He was arrested at “El Monieb” Bus Station and was subjected to torture for several days before being transferred to another unknown location.

Families of detainees told the investigator that detention takes place usually at the State Security headquarters, especially in “El Abbasiyyah”, Sheikh Zayed and Nasser City as well as at the Central Security units camps located in the Red Mountain area. This site is the most common location where victims of enforced disappearances were first spotted and from where messages to their families were sent.

Detention at these facilities vary between solitary, collective and over crowded confinement. The so called “Torture Parties” (as they are often referred to) or sessions often end after the interrogation period is over. such interrogation usually extend between two weeks and two months according to victims’ families.

El Azouly Military Prison in the city of Ismailia is one of the sites where the victims of enforced disappearances are often held for long periods of time. This is supported by a 2014 statement bearing the signatures of the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights, El Nadeem Center for the Rehabilitation of Victims of Violence, and in another statement by Amnesty International. The same statement reports that lawyers and activists informed Amnesty International that the number of enforced disappearances has been on the rise in Egypt since November 2013.

For Egyptians, military prison is associated usually with the phrase “You will disappear” beyond the sun.” Such sentences are used as an intimidation message to warn people against opposing the regime as this has been attributed to an old prison director from the sixties who had a reputation for his extreme cruelty deployed against detainees.

Constant denial

The following two headlines were published on more than one Egyptian media websites in the second half of 2016 when the National Council for Human Rights issued its final verdict on its investigation about enforced disappearances that had been in circulation since the end of 2013. “The National Council for Human Rights Brings Down the Curtain on the Drama of Enforced disappearances”, and “The National Council for Human Rights Acquits the Egyptian Ministry of Interior of acts of Enforced Disappearances.”

The title of the report was: “Enforced Disappearances in Egypt, the Allegations and the Truth” concluded that the Ministry of Interior has facilitated the process to look into the complaints about enforced disappearances cases which led to the release of 238 people out of the initial 266 complaints made. The report noted that “the gaps between the reports filed by the families concerned and the dates of their presence in detention centres has created a confusion to determine cases of those who exceeded the legal limit of their detention terms and the crime of enforced disappearance.”

The report issued by the government human rights body does not totally acquit the Ministry of Interior, but it does not condemn it explicitly either. This made the families of victims of enforced disappearances reluctant to file complaints with the council despite the easy procedures in place. The end of 2016 marked the end of critical national conversation on enforced disappearances in Egypt.

This is why the wife of the physician Abdel Rahman Ahmad Mahmoud who disappeared in 2018 did not file a complaint with the National Council for Human Rights, claiming that “They are all one and the same.” She also abstained from filing a report about her husband’s disappearance at her local police station and was satisfied with her mother-in-law informing the office of the Prosecutor General, the office of the Prime Minister and the president’s office through telegram about the case.

Dr Abdel Rahman’s wife remembers the anxiety she felt when her husband was late to return home after finishing work at his clinic in Ain Shams area. She claimed that his cell phone was turned off even though they were discussing issues related to their two sons throughout the day. His four-year absence made her realize that his disappearance could be connected to his political views expressed usually on his Facebook page.

Dr Abdel Rahman’s brother is also serving a sentence for attempting to bomb the Asyut court, but Abdel Rahman was not involved in political action and his wife works as a pharmacist at a government hospital.

After her husband’s disappearance, she had settled in Asyut governorate with her kids, delaying to reveal the reason behind their father’s long absence. Eventually, she had to tell them and her seven-year-old responded with, “Don't you have the number of a nice police officer we can call, so we could see my father?”

During his four years disappearance, Abdel Rahman's family received a lot of rumours related to his whereabouts. This is in addition to fraudulent offers of information about his location in return for huge sums of money.

Enforced disappearances by Egyptian governorates


Hover over the governorate to view the numbers

20% الوادي الجديد

Source: Egyptian Commission for Rights and Freedoms

The law is not applied

Egyptian law does not stipulate a specific definition of enforced disappearances. Article (54) of the 2014 constitution stresses that “anyone whose freedom is restricted shall be immediately apprised of the reasons why he was detained and should be informed in writing about of his rights. He should have the ability to contact his family and his lawyer promptly and shall be handed over to the investigating authorities within twenty-four hours of his detention.”

Articles (40) and (41) of the Criminal Procedure Law No. (150) of 1950, which was amended on September 5, 2020 states that the accused may only be detained in places that are designated for that purpose. Articles (42) and (43) allow members of the Public Prosecution and the heads and representatives of the courts of First Instance and courts of Appeal to visit prisons to ensure that there are no illegal detainees.

When the victims of enforced disappearances reappear, they have the right to file a lawsuit against the security agency that had detained them. Human rights lawyer Mutaz Al- Fujairi believes that the effectiveness of this procedure depends on the Public Prosecution’s desire to monitor the performance of the security services, and this is “not likely to happen, given the absence of oversight in many cases.”

Al-Fujairi adds that at the international level, litigation in cases of enforced disappearances can be carried out in countries that recognize universal jurisdiction in countries that are signatories to the International Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearance. However, there are no cases filed on this matter at the local or international level.

Abdel Azim Yusra
Disappeared on March 1, 2018


Abdel Rahman Ahmad
17 years old, Disappeared on April 21, 2018


Audio recording: Abdel Rahman’s brother

For Sound recording translation please Click Here.

The National Council for Human Rights was asked to give its reaction to the findings of this investigation, but up to the date of its publication we did not receive any responses.

Enforced disappearances that go without a trace in Egypt continue without accountability. The fate of ten out of fifteen cases covered by this investigation remain unknown. The Egyptian government and its relevant agencies continue to ignore this human rights file even as the presidential pardon and political reconciliation committees continue to operate.