Tim Flach
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Unfair game: why are Britain’s birds of prey being killed?

Are gamekeepers killing off Britain's raptors? It's a question that gets to the heart of our right to privacy – and to roam.

It was a cold morning in rural east Norfolk, two weeks before Christmas. A cordon of beaters – men wearing country clothing and waving red flags – thrashed the undergrowth. A bird soared into the sky and even I felt an adrenalin surge. I have studied and written about wildlife for more than 40 years but this was the first shoot I’d attended. By the close of the morning, I understood better some of the motivations – the unpredictability, the anticipation – that have made the pursuit of game birds one of the most enduring and important factors in the shaping of the British countryside. Who knew what would burst from that final patch of cover? Sometimes only a scattering of hysterical blackbirds or pigeons clattering out the tops; once a Chinese water deer in an enormous headlong drive; occasionally woodcocks, ghosting through like liquid shadows; finally and tantalisingly high came the pheasants.

On the 5,000-acre Raveningham ­Estate, family seat of the Bacon family, the “guns” told me that this was not your average shoot. One notable feature was their casual approach to the size of the bag. Another was the self-imposed policy of not shooting breeding hens. By lunchtime we had downed barely more than a dozen cock pheasants. Yet elsewhere in Britain an obsession with numbers has become indivisible from field sports.

Game managers rear and release as many as 40 million pheasants and six million red-legged partridges every year. Both of these birds are non-native species. Opening the cage door on all those free-range fowl is the equivalent in weight of releasing 160,000 wildebeest and 58,000 impalas into Britain. On some pheasant estates, in a day, it is routine to shoot 100 to 200 pairs – or “brace”, as they are known – and closer to 500 brace is not exceptional. Since 1900 the average pheasant bag proportionate to land area has increased sixfold in Britain.

There is a much darker side to shooting pheasants. Only a month before my visit to Raveningham and just 12 miles from the estate, a gamekeeper called Allen Lambert was sentenced for killing ten buzzards and a sparrowhawk. The 65-year-old had a lifetime in the profession. At his workplace on the Stody Estate in Norfolk he was caught with a bagful of dead birds of prey, along with a “classic poisoner’s kit”, including syringes and the banned pesticides aldicarb and mevinphos. It was the worst incident of illegal raptor poisoning recorded in England.

In his defence at Norwich Magistrates’ Court, Lambert claimed that he was protecting the partridges and pheasants bred for his employers, the Knight family, to shoot on their Stody property. He was found guilty, ordered to pay prosecution costs of £930 and given a ten-week jail term, suspended for a year. The perceived leniency of the sentence angered environmentalists.

“How bad do things have to get before the government will actually start standing up for nature?” asked Guy Shorrock, an investigations officer at the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB). “When will they start to create a climate, using suitable legislative and financial pressure, to make errant sporting estates [get] into line and [make]
raptor persecution a thing of the past?”

Within the sport, people were also unhappy. “I was disappointed in the decision of the judge,” said Jake Fiennes, the estate manager at Raveningham. “A custodial sentence would have sent a clear message to all those who choose to act outside the law.”


What does the Stody case tell us about British field sports today? That depends on whom you ask. To those I spoke to at Raveningham, Stody’s ex-keeper was a “bad apple”, an exception that proved the general rule of good behaviour among the shooting fraternity. The National Gamekeepers’ Organisation similarly argued that “the selfish, stupid actions of one man . . . must not be used to tarnish the good name of gamekeeping”.

To underpin their claim of good behaviour, gamekeepers can point to the astonishing rise in the fortunes of some British raptors over the past half-century. Birds of prey were among the last of Britain’s avifauna to receive legal protection, not least because they were so detested by game interests. It wasn’t until 1962 that the law was amended to extend protection to the sparrowhawk.

Yet since then, raptors have shown remarkable powers of recuperation. Despite Allen Lambert’s worst efforts on the Stody Estate, his two victim species – sparrowhawk and buzzard – have strongly recovered from historical lows. Sparrowhawks have tripled in number, while the buzzard population has increased at least sixfold and is now Britain’s most abundant bird of prey.

Over the same period six other predatory species – the red kite, goshawk, osprey, marsh harrier, honey buzzard and hobby – have enjoyed range expansions of between 300 and 1,900 per cent. In 1971 there was a single pair of marsh harriers. Today there are more than 380 pairs.

Joe Cullum, another Norfolk gamekeeper, has more than 50 years’ experience of pheasant shoots in the Yare Valley, a few miles upstream from the Raveningham Estate. “When I started,” he says, “the old hands told me to kill sparrowhawks and others and that’s what I did, in an unquestioning way. But after a while I came to think it was wrong and I just stopped.”

Now the woods he manages have some of the highest densities of raptors in the region – sparrowhawks, buzzards and marsh harriers – yet Cullum doesn’t believe these have any impact on his pheasants.

His change in attitude has coincided with significant innovations in the way keepers rear young game birds. In spring, the growing poults are held and fed in large release pens, fenced from threat until they are nearly fully grown. According to research, only about 2 per cent of them fall victim to raptors, and rather than waste efforts on time-consuming illegal persecution, the keepers can make good any losses at small cost by adding a few more birds to the pens.

For many in environmental circles, however, Lambert was not a rogue gamekeeper in an otherwise clean sport. To them, he was exceptional only in having been caught and convicted: his behaviour is presumed to reflect a much wider pattern of raptor persecution on shooting estates. Gamekeepers operate in the depths of the countryside, invariably on private land, far from prying eyes. Anyone tempted to stray would face minimal risk of detection. The likelihood of the police or any other agency securing evidence of illegality to stand up in a court would be small.

The author and journalist Simon Barnes, a long-time commentator on the targeting of raptors, thinks the idea that these reported incidents are “the tip of the iceberg doesn’t do the problem any justice”. “The stuff that’s discovered – never mind actually taken to court and convicted – is the tiniest fraction of a percentage of a quantum of a scruple of the amount that goes on. After all, you can’t place coppers all across the whole of our countryside,” Barnes says.

Are the same people killing pheasants also behind the deaths of sparrowhawks and other birds? Photo: Mark Cocker

Guy Shorrock of the RSPB recognised a steady improvement in affairs concerning raptors on English lowland estates, especially where pheasants are the main quarry. But he added, “I can also point to a case in which a pair of keepers kept a coded diary of their misdemeanours in connection with management of a Shropshire shoot. Over a single year these two men slaughtered 102 buzzards as well as 37 badgers and 40 ravens, all of which are legally protected.”

The RSPB’s investigations department publishes an annual report on all wildlife crime. The most recent edition, for 2013, documents 164 cases of shooting or destruction of birds of prey in which the evidence points strongly towards the actions of gamekeepers.

Since the society’s audits began in 1990, its records have listed 166 individuals convicted of crimes against raptors. More than two-thirds of them were gamekeepers. If malpractice involves only a few rogue elements, as the shooting fraternity contends, then it is a remarkably persistent element in their midst.

For some environmentalists, these statistics are not the most significant proof of malpractice on game estates. Instead, they point to a population analysis for one of Britain’s most beautiful and vulnerable raptors, the hen harrier. The species is largely confined to a western Celtic fringe and to the more rugged northern uplands, with a breeding heartland on the moors of Scotland. In all, there are between 600 and 850 pairs of hen harrier in Britain. Yet modelling by government scientists, based on the bird’s habitat preferences and on breeding densities studied elsewhere, indicate that there should be closer to 2,600 pairs. That implies that approximately 2,000 pairs of hen harrier are simply missing from our countryside. On the English uplands the population should be 330 pairs, yet in 2014 there were just three. An almost complete absence of the bird from its English range suggests levels of persecution that are long established and systemic.

The fate of England’s hen harriers has bedevilled relations between sporting and environmental groups for decades. A major attempt to resolve the problems was launched in 1992 with a five-year project that involved both the RSPB and the Game and Wildlife Conservation Trust (GWCT), which researches and encourages environmental best practice among shoot owners. Officially the project was known as the Joint Raptor Study, although it has long since been identified by the name of the moor on which much of the work took place, Langholm, a southern Scottish moorland and part of the 250,000-acre landholding of the Duke of Buccleuch.

The scheme’s official purpose was to examine the impact of breeding hen harriers and peregrines on moorland with driven-grouse shoots, and to find a way forward for both sides. But Langholm resolved little and, by 1996, each side had generally taken away different conclusions from the work. This much was indisputable: Langholm showed that hen harriers consume grouse in large numbers. By 1996 their predation had reduced game stocks on the moor by at least 50 per cent, and the shoot had to be abandoned.

Andrew Gilruth, director of communications and marketing at the GWCT, said: “The tragedy of Langholm is that we sat down at the end and felt that in many ways it proved that those gamekeepers who killed raptors illegally had in some way been right to do so.”

By bringing a de facto end to the shoot at Langholm, the harriers were harming the gamekeepers’ livelihoods. Yet Langholm also demonstrated the effectiveness of an innovative practice, whereby breeding hen harriers could be supplied with alternative prey (domesticated mice or day-old chicks). “Diversionary feeding” was proved to reduce harrier predation of grouse by more than 87 per cent, and is now practised on some progressive estates. It has done little, however, to undermine a widespread perception among shooting estates that hen harriers are just plain bad for business.


Economics is at the heart of the hen harrier debate. On the one hand, shooting estates have made a strong case for their financial and social benefits for decades, pointing to the £65.7m grouse shoots alone generate annually in England and Wales, as well as the 1,520 full-time jobs in rural areas otherwise short of employment opportunities.

Game interests are also an important factor in upland land values, because an estate is costed according to the sum of its wildlife take. A brace of grouse – that is to say, each pair of birds that is expected to be shot on that land in future seasons – is judged to add between £3,750 and £5,000 to the property’s market price. The actual number of grouse also determines what clients pay as a daily rate for shoots. Today, the average charge for a brace of grouse stands at £200 plus VAT (for pheasants, it is £30). It means that on a moor where 100 brace are shot, the price for that day is £24,000. There are, however, routine claims that clients, many of whom are wealthy foreigners, are paying anything up to £100,000 for a single day’s sport on our upland moors.

These prices illustrate the extent to which grouse shooting is the preserve of a tiny elite of the super-rich. It seems more than a coincidence that hen harriers have become the environmental symbol of the day when the gap between rich and poor has such wide political currency.

The financial “logic” of grouse shooting is pushing some English and Scottish estates to pursue ever-larger bag sizes, regardless of methods or the ecological consequences for these upland habitats. A secondary issue that is proving controversial is a huge increase in the slaughter of mountain hares on some Scottish estates. These native animals are thought to play a role in spreading a tick-borne disease known as louping ill virus. The illness can gravely affect annual grouse stocks and, rather than risk potential losses to their bag size and their profits, many landowners are killing hares as a pre-emptive “health” measure.

According to the ecologist and wildlife blogger Mark Avery, there is a fundamental contradiction in the attitudes and methods of some grouse-moor owners and the wild ecosystems they seek to control. “You cannot just privilege one species,” he said, “and manage an entire habitat just to deliver a massive surplus of your cash crop – grouse – however profitable. These owners are essentially applying industrial production methods and attitudes to what is a natural system.” According to Avery, efforts to maximise the financial returns through raised grouse bags explain the systematic killing of hen harriers on northern English moors. Anything that is seen to interfere with profit is eliminated.

One consequence of these heightened tensions in northern England has been an event called Hen Harrier Day, timed to coincide with the start of Britain’s grouse season in August. Last year’s Hen Harrier Day in the Derwent Valley in Derbyshire, which attracted a network of raptor-study and conservation groups, was an opportunity for people to “express their outrage at the illegal killing . . . by grouse moor interests”, said Avery, one of the organisers.

What gave the gathering significance, beyond the 570 protesters assembled, was Avery’s simultaneous launch of an online petition seeking a legal ban on driven-grouse shooting, in which birds are “driven” by beaters – teams of keepers who flush the game out of the cover with a stick – towards the guns, who assemble in hides. (This article deals with that form of the sport; “walked-up” shooting, where the guns aim at what they flush out while on the move, is less popular and results in smaller bags.)

In six months the petition has attracted 20,000 signatures. Though this is far short of the 100,000 signatures required to trigger a debate in parliament, its threat to game interests should not be underestimated. The present owner of Raveningham, Sir Nicholas Bacon, considers the petition to be a form of class warfare. What is indisputable is its radicalism. In the 125 years of environmental activism in the UK, the rights of field sportsmen have never faced so direct a legal challenge.

On his blog, Standing Up for Nature, even Avery has previously described an outright ban on driven-grouse shooting as “the nuclear option”. Explaining his change of heart, he said: “We’ve tried the voluntary and collaborative option for decades and it’s got us nowhere. And, remember, it’s not just hen harriers. Some estates are killing everything: red kites, buzzards, golden eagles, peregrines, wild cats, pine martens – anything that affects their sport.

“It has to end. We all know it’s not all driven-grouse moors, but illegal behaviour is indivisible from the whole enterprise and enough is enough.”


What may ultimately have a deeper impact on shooting estates is the principle of “vicarious liability”. This was introduced into Scottish law with the Wildlife and Natural Environment Act 2011. Under its provisions, Scottish estate owners can be held responsible for the actions of employees.

The first conviction of a Scottish landowner for wildlife crime perpetrated by another person occurred in December 2014. A Dumfriesshire landowner, Ninian Stewart, was found guilty for the poisoning of a buzzard by his former employee Peter Bell; Stewart was fined £675.

The RSPB’s Shorrock believes that the Scottish law should be adopted across Britain. “It would close a major loophole in legal proceedings, whereby errant owners simply pass blame and responsibility down the line to the keepers and pretend they know nothing about what’s happening on the ground,” he said.

When I raised the subject of vicarious liability among the beat keepers at Raveningham in Norfolk, it was the day’s single source of tension. No one wanted to discuss it, even though it is something that should bring clarity and security to all parties involved in field sports, especially employees. Gamekeepers such as Joe Cullum in the Yare Valley welcome it as a way to ensure that employees like him could not be made scapegoats in cases of wildlife crime.

Some landowners have also embraced it. Sigrid Rausing, the publisher and landowner, who has a shooting estate in the Monadhliath Mountains, south of Inverness, said: “Vicarious liability was long overdue and a good development. It was all too easy for landowners to hand down vague and euphemistic instructions about ‘doing what it takes’ or some such. But the landowners I know and like are passionate about wildlife and conservation: it’s not the case that all landowners are villains.”

Another important initiative from the Scottish Parliament involves what is known as the “General Licence”. For gamekeepers and landowners this is a vital piece of documentation, enabling them to carry out measures such as control of “vermin” – for instance, crows and magpies – which have an impact on game-bird populations. Without the permit, estates find it almost impossible to function. Yet in areas where there is evidence of illegal persecution which is sufficiently strong to meet a civil standard of proof, Scottish Natural Heritage can withhold the permit.

“This new measure is designed to be a further tool in the box to tackle the illegal killing of wild birds,” said Scotland’s environment minister, Aileen McLeod. “It’s a very light-touch form of regulation. The Scottish government is committed to bringing an end to the illegal killing of birds of prey. My predecessor Paul Wheelhouse was clear that if the current measures do not put a stop to this form of wildlife crime, we will not hesitate to bring forward further proposals.”

There is as yet no appetite in Westminster for similar measures: in fact, the reverse. In 2012 the then wildlife minister, the Conservative Richard Benyon, refused to outlaw carbofuran, a known poison of choice in many incidents of raptor persecution. Another of Benyon’s proposed measures was intended to make it easier to remove or disturb breeding buzzards under licence if they were perceived to interfere with game interests. Eventually Benyon, a millionaire landowner in his own right, with an 8,000-acre grouse moor in Scotland and a pheasant shoot in Berkshire, gave way on the matter after strong criticism, but his actions were seen to reflect wider sympathies among members of government.


At root, the campaign to halt the killing of wild birds of prey touches on issues that are historically embedded in English society. Resistance to what is viewed as wider social interference in their private liberties is a long and impassioned cause for the landed interest in Britain. Modern conservationists seeking a quick fix in matters of raptor politics would do well to reflect on the campaign for a general right to roam in our countryside.


The first bill to grant public access to ­uncultivated ground was submitted by the Liberal politician and pioneer rambler James Bryce in 1884. Proposed legislation was laid before parliament and defeated by landed interests 17 times between then and 1939. Bryce’s vision did eventually come to pass with the Countryside and Rights of Way Act 2000 (or “right to roam”) – 116 years ­after his first attempt.

Birds of prey are controversial precisely because it is in their nature to kill other animals. They are climax predators, sometimes competing with us at the top of the food chain for prey such as grouse or pheasant. Yet they also possess beauty, drama, majesty, charisma; and more than almost any other wild creatures they symbolise our wider relationship with place. Their free-flying presence among us, circling over moor or mountain or woodland copse, expresses a kind of hope that modern Britain can be something more than a functional estate, managed to suit ourselves. The killing of raptors is a crime, but it is also a failure to imagine a landscape as being about anything other than property or money.

Taking a lead: Raveningham in Norfolk has shown how raptors and game birds can live side by side. Photo: Mark Cocker

Mark Cocker’s latest book is “Claxton: Field Notes from a Small Planet” (published by Jonathan Cape)

This article first appeared in the 01 July 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Crisis Europe

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Bohemian rhapsody: Jeanette Winterson’s “cover version” of The Winter’s Tale

 Jeanette Winterson's The Gap of Time is full of metaphorical riches.

Shakespeare – that magpie plunderer of other people’s plots and characters – would undoubtedly have approved. The Hogarth Shakespeare project invites prominent contemporary writers to rework his plays in novelistic form and this is Jeanette Winterson’s reimagining of The Winter’s Tale. Like the original, it shuttles disturbingly between worlds, cultures and emotional registers. It has never been an easy play, for all its apparent focus on reconciliation, and Winterson handles the gear-changes with skill, moving between the offices of Sicilia, a London-based asset-stripping company, and New Bohemia, a New Orleans-like American urban landscape (with interludes in both a virtual and a real Paris).

Her Leontes is a hedge-fund speculator, Polixenes a visionary designer of screen games (the presence of this world echoes the unsettling semi-magic of Shakespeare’s plot). They have a brief and uncomfortable history as teenage lovers at school and Polixenes – Xeno – has also slept with MiMi (Hermione), the French-American singer who eventually marries Leo.

The story unfolds very much as in the play (though Winterson cannot quite reproduce the effect of Shakespeare’s best-known deadpan stage direction), with Leo using advanced surveillance technology to spy on Xeno and MiMi, and Perdita being spirited away across the Atlantic to the US, where her guardian, Tony, is mugged and killed and she is left in the “baby hatch” of a local hospital – to be found by Shep and his son and brought up in their affectionate, chaotic African-American household. Perdita falls in love with Zel, the estranged son of Xeno, discovers her parentage, returns to London and meets Leo; Leo’s PA, Pauline, has kept in contact across the years with MiMi, a recluse in Paris, and persuades her to return secretly to give a surprise performance at the Roundhouse, when Leo is in the audience, and – well, as in the play, the ending is both definitive and enormously unsettling. “So we leave them now, in the theatre, with the music. I was sitting at the back, waiting to see what would happen.”

That last touch, bringing the author into the narrative in the same apparently arbitrary way we find in a text such as Dostoevsky’s Demons – as a “real” but imperfect witness – gently underlines the personal importance of the play to this particular author. Winterson is explicit about the resonance of this drama for an adopted child and one of the finest passages in the book is a two-page meditation on losing and finding: a process she speculates began with the primordial moment of the moon’s separation from the earth, a lost partner, “pale, lonely, watchful, present, unsocial, inspired. Earth’s autistic twin.”

It is the deep foundation of all the stories of lost paradises and voyages away from home. As the moon controls the tides, balances the earth’s motion by its gravitational pull, so the sense of what is lost pervades every serious, every heart-involving moment of our lives. It is a beautifully worked conceit, a fertile metaphor. The story of a child lost and found is a way of sounding the depths of human imagination, as if all our longing and emotional pain were a consequence of some buried sense of being separated from a home that we can’t ever ­remember. If tragedy is the attempt to tell the story of loss without collapse, all story­telling has some dimension of the tragic, reaching for what is for ever separated by the “gap of time”.

Winterson’s text is full of metaphorical riches. She writes with acute visual sensibility (from the first pages, with their description of a hailstorm in a city street) and this is one of the book’s best things. There are also plenty of incidental felicities: Xeno is designing a game in which time can be arrested, put on hold, accelerated, and so on, and the narrative exhibits something of this shuttling and mixing – most effectively in the 130-page pause between the moment when Milo (Shakespeare’s Mamilius, Leo’s and MiMi’s son) slips away from his father at an airport and the fatal accident that follows. In the play, Mamilius’s death is a disturbing silence behind the rest of the drama, never alluded to, never healed or reconciled; here, Milo’s absence in this long “gap of time” sustains a pedal of unease that has rather the same effect and the revelation of his death, picking up the narrative exactly where it had broken off, is both unsurprising and shocking.

Recurrent motifs are handled with subtlety, especially the theme of “falling”; a song of MiMi’s alludes to Gérard de Nerval’s image of an angel falling into the gap between houses in Paris, not being able to fly away without destroying the street and withering into death. The convergence and crucial difference between falling and failing, falling in love and the “fall” of the human race – all these are woven together hauntingly, reflecting, perhaps, Shakespeare’s exploration in the play of Leontes’s terror of the physical, of the final fall into time and flesh that unreserved love represents.

A book of considerable beauty, then, if not without its problems. MiMi somehow lacks the full angry dignity of Hermione and Leo is a bit too much of a caricature of the heartless, hyper-masculine City trader. His psychoanalyst is a cartoon figure and Pauline’s Yiddish folksiness – although flagged in the text as consciously exaggerated – is a bit overdone.

How a contemporary version can fully handle the pitch of the uncanny in Shakespeare’s final scene, with the “reanimation” of Hermione, is anyone’s guess (the Bible is not wrong to associate the earliest story of the resurrection with terror as much as joy). Winterson does a valiant job and passes seamlessly into a moving and intensely suggestive ending but I was not quite convinced on first reading that her reanimation had done justice to the original.

However, weigh against this the real success of the New Bohemia scenes as a thoroughly convincing modern “pastoral” and the equally successful use of Xeno’s creation of virtual worlds in his games as a way of underlining Shakespeare’s strong hints in the play that art, with its aura of transgression, excess, forbidden magic, and so on, may be our only route to nature. Dream, surprise and new creation are what tell us what is actually there, if only we could see. Winterson’s fiction is a fine invitation into this deeply Shakespearean vision of imagination as the best kind of truth-telling.

Rowan Williams is a New Statesman contributing writer. His most recent book is “The Edge of Words: God and the Habits of Language” (Bloomsbury). The Gap of Time by Jeanette Winterson is published by Vintage (320pp, £16.99)

Rowan Williams is an Anglican prelate, theologian and poet, who was Archbishop of Canterbury from 2002 to 2012. He writes on books for the New Statesman

This article first appeared in the 01 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Tory tide

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Where are all the people going?

In a new wave of repression under the Sisi regime, Egyptians are being forcibly disappeared.

On Monday 1 June, Esraa el-Taweel, a 23-year-old sociology student, went out for dinner with two of her friends to Chili’s, a branch of a Tex-Mex chain that is popular among middle-class Egyptians. The restaurant is on a large ship permanently moored on the Nile in the Zamalek district, one of the wealthiest neighbourhoods in central Cairo. Esraa often hung out with Souhaib Sa’ad, an economics and politics undergraduate, and Omar Ali, who, when he wasn’t lounging around the city’s many cafés, could be found at an architecture college. Both men are slim with curly hair and Esraa is short, wears colourful hijabs and sometimes uses a cane to walk. Less than 18 months earlier, she had been shot in the spine by security forces at a demonstration. Despite months of physiotherapy, the feeling had not fully returned to her legs.

Earlier that afternoon, Omar had picked Esraa up from her home, as he had often done since her injury, and they went horse riding near the Pyramids. Souhaib joined them later at Chili’s. They liked to try a new restaurant every week and Omar, who initiated the tradition, had never been there before. When they finished their meal, they goofed around taking selfies. At about 8.30pm, after Souhaib had completed his evening prayers, they stepped out on to the corniche, the uneven, tree-lined pavement that runs between the river and a quiet, two-lane road. Shortly afterwards, the three friends disappeared.

By 11pm, Esraa’s younger sister Duaa, with whom she shares an apartment in Cairo, started to worry. Duaa tried calling several times but Esraa’s mobile was switched off, as were Souhaib’s and Omar’s. She tried to reassure herself that Esraa might be staying with a friend, but the next morning she learned that Souhaib and Omar were also missing. The families of the three students decided to wait until 3pm, when Souhaib was due to report to a police station as part of his bail conditions. He had been detained in January 2014 after police found footage of anti-government protests on his phone and he was one of the less-publicised defendants in the trial against the al-Jazeera journalists accused of spreading false news and supporting the recently banned Muslim Brotherhood. After more than 400 days in jail, Souhaib was freed in February pending a retrial, but had to report to the
police daily. If he didn’t show up, the families would know for certain that something was seriously wrong.

Souhaib missed the bail appointment. Relatives of the trio began to look for them frantically in hospitals and police stations across the city but found nothing. Esraa’s parents and three of her younger siblings live in Saudi Arabia, where her father works as a translator, and though her mother boarded the first available flight to Cairo, Duaa, who is 22, and her younger sister Alaa had to manage alone for the three days.

On Wednesday 3 June, 48 hours after Esraa was last seen, Duaa filed a missing person report with the prosecutor general, the standard first step when anyone goes missing in Egypt. She and a few friends set up a Facebook page and launched a Twitter campaign with the hashtag #Where_is_Esraa. They produced a video of her and posted it online. The film opens with footage of Esraa on her bicycle: she waves at the photographer and cycles into the distance. It shows a series of still photos of her with her arms wide open, a camera flung around her neck and a floppy sun hat over her headscarf, and she grins, wearing pink Mickey Mouse ears. Even in the final shot, taken while she was in a wheelchair, with a blanket over her legs and a laptop on her knees, she is smiling.

The video doesn’t show how Esraa struggled with her six-month confinement in a wheelchair – the countless times she tried to lift herself out of it, only to fall on the floor and cry with frustration – but Duaa thinks that it captures her elder sister’s personality. “She’s childlike. She just loves going out and playing and hanging out with her friends,” she said, when we first met at a Zamalek café in mid-July.

Duaa, an art student, is tiny and dresses trendily, her wavy hair piled high on her head, her iPod headphones dangling out of her handbag. She answered my questions carefully, almost robotically, and each time she finished speaking she slumped into her  chair as though she had been pushed. Esraa disappeared during Duaa’s end-of-year exams and, although some friends rallied around her, helping her to submit her coursework so that she wouldn’t fail, others were told by their parents to stay away from the el-Taweel family to avoid getting caught up in the case.

The two sisters are very close. Duaa moved to Cairo from Saudi Arabia for her studies in July 2011, a year after Esraa, and her elder sister seemed to have grown streetwise in the time they had spent apart. Two days after Duaa arrived in the city, Esraa took her to her first demonstration. When the crowd was attacked by beltagiya (“thugs”), the sisters were so scared for one another that they decided they would never protest together again, though they often went separately. I once suggested to Duaa that the way she handled her sister’s disappearance was brave but she just shrugged. She told me that she often wished that their roles were reversed: Esraa would have known what to do.

In the weeks after the disappearances, the photographs of the missing trio circulated online and the questions of their friends, relatives and young people – “Where is Esraa?” “Where is Souhaib?” “Where is Omar?” – echoed unanswered on Twitter and Facebook. Yet the families were starting to build up a picture of what had happened. They approached contacts in the security forces, who reported that all three had been arrested and were being detained. Former inmates at Egypt’s national security headquarters also reported seeing the trio there. Yet, without official acknowledgement, there was little that anyone could do. Esraa’s lawyer, Halim Hanish, told me that he had presented the families’ evidence to the prosecutor general’s office but received no response.

The three students had joined the swelling ranks of Egypt’s forcibly disappeared. The Freedom for the Brave group, a loose network of activists, lawyers and detainees’ families that monitors such cases, recorded that 163 people had been secretly detained by Egyptian security forces between April and June this year. Hanish, a member of the group, said that the figure could be higher, as some families are too afraid to speak out. Another local NGO, the Egyptian Commission for Rights and Freedoms, announced in August that it had recorded 1,250 cases since January. Sometimes, the disappeared are eventually located in a jail or at a police station. Often, new arrivals at a prison will find an inmate who is expecting a visit and ask them to pass on their name, family contact details and a short message. Families can be left waiting for days, weeks or months for news of missing relatives. Discovering that they are in prison is one of the better possible outcomes: occasionally, the disappeared resurface dead.


In 2011, many Egyptians believed that revolution was a way to end such police abuses. One of those who inspired the uprising did not live to see tens of thousands of people across the country take to the streets to chant their demands for “bread, freedom and social justice”. Khaled Said was a 28-year-old man who was beaten to death by security forces after being arrested at an internet café in 2010. A Facebook group created in his honour declared “We are all Khaled Said” and gathered hundreds of thousands of online supporters in the months leading up to the 2011 protests.

Wandering around Cairo today, you might still catch a glimpse of Said’s youthful likeness memorialised in graffiti: a clean-cut, wide-eyed kid in a hoodie. It is a symbol of defiance or, perhaps, of disappointment. In February 2011, when Egypt’s then president, Hosni Mubarak, was overthrown after almost 30 years in power, the interim authorities were quick to abolish the much feared State Security Investigations Service, which was responsible for crushing dissent, replacing it with the Homeland Security agency. But in the past two years, following the popularly backed military overthrow in 2013 of Mohammed Morsi, Egypt’s elected president and a member of the Muslim Brotherhood, Homeland Security has become ever more powerful.

Following years of unrest, Egypt’s military leadership promised peace and stability – after the bloodshed. In its first few months in power, it sought to regain control over the country’s streets by launching a brutal crackdown on Muslim Brotherhood supporters, killing more than 1,000 protesters and arresting many more. In July 2014, an official from the interior ministry told the Associated Press that 22,000 people had been detained in the year since Morsi was ousted, most of them supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood or Islamists. The Egyptian Centre for Economic and Social Rights, a local group monitoring political arrests, believes that the figure is closer to 41,000. Several prominent secular activists have also been arrested.

An armed insurgency in Sinai, where jihadists have declared loyalty to the so-called Islamic State, and a steady series of terrorist attacks in the rest of the country have convinced many Egyptians that their country needs the new marque of authoritarianism offered by President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, Egypt’s imperious leader. Al-Sisi, who led the 2013 takeover and was elected the following year with an eyebrow-raising 96 per cent of the vote, had served as head of military intelligence under Mubarak. His new interior minister, appointed in March, shares a similar pedigree: Magdy Abdel Ghaffar is a former chief of Homeland Security. “It’s like the security services are controlling everything in Egypt now,” Nada Saad, a human rights lawyer, told me.

It might seem that Egypt’s security state is simply returning to its old ways but that is not quite accurate. The feeling, often expressed by activists and lawyers here, is that this new wave of repression seems to sweep up citizens indiscriminately. Mohamed Elmessiry, an Egypt researcher at Amnesty International, told me that he had spoken to someone who had spent 11 years in detention under Mubarak and then been detained by Homeland Security. “[He] said at least under the Mubarak government, national security knew what they were doing and who they wanted. National security [operatives] now are completely random: they arrest people randomly; they charge and investigate and torture people randomly.”


On 17 June, the first day of Ramadan and 16 days after Esraa went missing, Duaa finally saw her sister. A stranger had called Duaa to say that she had spotted Esraa in al-Qanater women’s prison in Cairo. When Duaa arrived at the gate of al-Qanater, the guard on duty remembered the young woman who had arrived alone and been unable to walk, and advised Duaa to wait with him rather than go inside the prison. Though neither the family nor her lawyers had been informed, Esraa was due to be transferred to court for a hearing. A few minutes later, Duaa saw her sister being escorted into a police van. She called out her name and Esraa, fearing for Duaa’s safety, burst into tears and asked her to leave. Duaa called Halim Hanish, the lawyer acting for her sister.

Hanish and Esraa are good friends. They met during the 2011 street protests and when, on 25 January 2014, Esraa was shot at a peaceful demonstration outside the Mustafa Mahmoud Mosque, he carried her to hospital. He says that they were protesting in favour of a “third way” that rejects both the Muslim Brotherhood and the military. It’s not uncommon now for Hanish to represent old friends. “You have to comfort them, even while you know for sure that nothing good is happening any time soon,” he said. “You have to comfort the families, as well. You have to lie to their faces, look them in the eye and tell them how it seems bright, insha’Allah they will be fine, even though you know [they won’t be]. It gets to you eventually.”

After the call from Duaa on 17 June, Hanish rushed to the prosecution office but was repeatedly told that Esraa was not there. Then he saw her from a distance. He shouted out to Esraa, to tell her that she was no longer alone and he was here for her now. As a result, he says, her hearing was cancelled because the prosecution lawyer wanted to speak to her privately. According to Amnesty International’s Elmessiry, this fits a common pattern for forced disappearances: often the first, second and sometimes third court investigations are conducted while the families are still unaware of their missing relative’s location and while the defendant does not have legal representation. This allows Homeland Security more freedom to conduct the initial investigation and usually extract a confession, which will form the basis of the case against the detainee.

It was not until 27 June that Hanish was able to attend a hearing. The judge said that he needed more time to consider the case against her and postponed her session until 29 June, but that day the prosecutor general, Hisham Barakat, was killed in Cairo in a bomb attack. Esraa did not appear in court until 11 July and since then her pre-trial detention has been renewed every 15 days.

Hanish understands that Esraa has been charged with belonging to the Muslim Brotherhood, spreading false news and disturbing the public by showing footage of police brutality but he knows this only informally: his requests to see the report against her, which details the reasons for her arrest, have been refused. So, too, was a request for her to be moved closer to hospital so that she can receive treatment for her back problems. The ministry of interior did not respond to my requests for an interview, though previously officials have insisted that her detention was legal and have issued denials that forced disappearances take place. Esraa’s family and friends deny all charges against her.

The only available account of Esraa’s ­two-week disappearance is an open letter that her family smuggled out of prison, which was published on local news websites. She wrote that shortly after she and her friends left Chili’s, three men stopped them to ask for their ID cards and mobiles and then forced them into a minibus similar to those that operate as shared taxis in Cairo. Souhaib and Omar were blindfolded and one of the men – who identified himself as an “officer” – asked Esraa to use her hijab to cover her eyes. When her headscarf proved too short, Souhaib took off his T-shirt and she used that instead.

They were driven to Homeland Security headquarters, where she stayed for 15 days. Her blindfold was removed only at night, when often Esraa would ask for one light to be kept on so at least she would see something. “Day-long investigations, hearing voices and screams of tortured victims, men crying out loudly. Souhaib and Omar were taken away and I was alone. I was the only girl
there,” she wrote. On her final day at Homeland Security, before she was moved to al-Qanater, she was interrogated for 18 hours.

Esraa wrote another letter on 28 July. At times, it makes her she come across like a giddy teenager, joking that it is terrible to be stuck in an all-women’s prison as: “Everyone who knows me well knows that most of my close friends are guys. Do you know how tragic this is? J” She describes a cosy companionship with her cell mates (they eat crisps and drink chocolate milk together) but also the hardships: the cockroaches, the heat, the rationed bottled water and the tap water that smells like sewage and gives her skin infections, her worsening mobility, the boredom, the harassment from the “criminal” inmates. She seems to oscillate between dejection (“Sometimes I think, ‘Why do I eat? Why should I still survive?’”) and defiance, quoting the Egyptian activist Mahinour El-Masry: “We don’t like prisons but we’re not afraid of them.”


On 16 June – the day before Duaa caught sight of Esraa – Omar and Souhaib were spotted in Tora, a sprawling prison complex on the outskirts of Cairo. It wasn’t until 10 July, however, that their lawyer, Mohamed Elbaker, learned of the charges against them in a ministry of defence video that named Souhaib and Omar as part of “one of the most dangerous terrorist cells” of the Muslim Brotherhood and alleged that they had been arrested at their organisation’s headquarters.

Souhaib is shown confessing to purchasing a pistol later used to kill a police officer, and to giving protesters fireworks to throw at security forces. You could easily fail to recognise him. His nose and lips are swollen, he is pale and he seems confused. Elbaker says that his client was tortured for ten days before filming.

I met Elbaker in the discreet, unmarked office of Adalah, an organisation he helped set up to represent victims of torture and students in detention. It moves every few months to avoid police raids. Elbaker wore a striped polo shirt and had a long, square beard; at the top of his forehead he had a zabeeba, or “raisin”, a patch of darkened skin that is worn down by Islamic prayer. He reeled off a list of his affiliations – a group called the Costa Salafis, which holds interfaith discussions at branches of Costa Coffee, and the Strong Egypt political party, which was founded by a reformist former leader of the Brotherhood – but said that his greatest political commitment was to human rights. It was 1 August and Elbaker told me that he was trying to record officially the torture used against Souhaib and Omar. Souhaib still had marks on his body but Omar, who did not appear in the ministry of defence film, was in a worse condition. He still could not lift up one of his arms and he was suffering from urinary problems as a result of being repeatedly electrocuted.

The use of torture by national security forces in Egypt has been documented by Amnesty, Human Rights Watch and local rights groups (the Egyptian government periodically refutes their findings). New arrivals at a prison or police centre can expect what is commonly referred to as a haflat al-tashreefa (“welcoming party”), in which guards beat them up. My discussions with lawyers and rights groups suggest that the torture taking place in state security or military intelligence buildings is more systematic: detainees are often blindfolded and may be beaten, suspended from the ceiling, electrocuted, burned with cigarettes or raped to extract a recorded confession.

To be transferred from national security detention to prison is like “going to heaven”, Elbaker says, because it brings with it an end to this torture. Still, Omar’s and Souhaib’s struggle is not over. Unlike Esraa, they are facing a military trial. Their case now falls under the jurisdiction of the ministry of defence, not the justice ministry, and their judge (though fully trained) will be a military official.

A presidential decree of late 2014 has facilitated an increase in the use of military courts against civilians in Egypt. Halim Hanish, who is also representing Omar, described working on a military case as “a hundred times more difficult” than working on a national security case. Lawyers can’t bring their phones into court, so they can spend hours waiting around, unable to contact their colleagues or other clients, and are searched on their way in. Sometimes, they can’t take pens or papers inside. He ­remembers that once a lawyer was forced to take off his shoes and socks in case he was hiding paper in them.

Other than Souhaib’s filmed confession, the Egyptian ministry of defence has not made public any evidence in support of its accusations. The men’s lawyers say that they have not been allowed to see the prosecution reports. Both Souhaib’s and Omar’s fathers had affiliations with the Muslim Brotherhood – Omar’s was killed by security forces at a Brotherhood protest in August 2013 – but their lawyers and families insist that they do not share their fathers’ views and are not members of the group. Everyone I spoke to about Omar described him as fundamentally uninterested in politics – as Hanish, who knows him well, put it: “If you meet Omar for an hour, he will spend 45 minutes talking about food.”

Souhaib was different; he took to the streets to protest in 2011 and frequently after that. But his brother, Osama, told me that Souhaib worked on the presidential campaign of Strong Egypt’s leader, Abdel Moneim Abul-Fotouh. This suggests that Souhaib is critical of al-Sisi’s government but unlikely to be a member of the Brotherhood. The problem that Omar and Souhaib now face, however, is that the military video will now form the basis of the case against them. They are, in effect, guilty unless proven innocent.

When those who were forcibly disappeared emerge again, they must navigate a legal system that is already mobilised against them. The terms of their detention violate international as well as Egypt’s domestic laws. Egyptian law contains specific provisions banning the use of torture, requiring that detainees receive adequate medical attention and specifying that individuals may not be held in police custody for longer than 24 hours without charge.

Souhaib’s detention has caused him the additional complication that he ended up missing sessions of the Jazeera trial. When he finally did appear in court on 29 June, he tried to tell the judge why he had been absent, explaining that he had been held in secret detention for 15 days and tortured. The judge cut Souhaib off, saying that he could register a separate complaint if he wished but the information was irrelevant. On 29 August, Souhaib was sentenced to three years in jail in the Jazeera case – but the other charges against him are so serious that this news barely mattered to him.

Ezzat Ghoneim and Mohamed Sadek, lawyers with the Egyptian Co-ordination for Rights and Freedoms, told me that they tried to file a case at Egypt’s highest court, the court of cassation, to force the prosecutor general to investigate the disappearances. Their case has been rejected several times and they are currently appealing the decision. Neither is feeling optimistic. Those who defend the disappeared do so at great personal risk. In February, a lawyer died at a police station after being tortured. “We face harassment all the time. We always work in fear,” Halim Hanish told me. But last year, Souhaib’s bewildered and devastated father, Sa’ad, who had worked for many years as a metalworker, decided to enrol in law school. He has completed his first year of studies now and spends his evenings hunched over his books. If it’s too late to help his son, he reasons, he might yet be able to offer counsel to others.


The last time that I met Duaa el-Taweel was on 1 September, three months after Esraa’s disappearance. We chatted in Esraa’s bedroom, sitting on her floral bedspread, surrounded by her bright-coloured cuddly toys. A month earlier, Esraa’s beloved cat, Woody, had three kittens and Duaa had named them Esraa, Souhaib and Omar.

Duaa’s and her mother’s routine now revolves around their weekly visits to al-Qanater prison. They always bring her favourite foods, such as kofte and pizza – and deliver messages from Omar and Souhaib. It can take two weeks for the notes to arrive but they have helped the three friends keep up their old banter. Esraa jokes about how she, unlike the boys, has a bed. Omar writes that he can’t imagine Esraa in jail as she’s so pernickety about food and she replies that he’s not exactly tough, either.

Every week, Esraa tells her sister that this might be her last visit: perhaps next week she’ll be free. Then another seven days pass and Duaa makes the trip again.

Sophie McBain is a New Statesman contributing writer

Sophie McBain is a freelance writer based in Cairo. She was previously an assistant editor at the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 24 September 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Revenge of the Left