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Special investigation: a charter for torture

In Afghanistan, British forces hand over prisoners with only flimsy guarantees they will not be abus

What is striking about the history of torture in Afghanistan is that no matter which regime is in power - the communists, the mujahedin, the Taliban and now Hamid Karzai's western-supported government - the methods remain the same. From the 1980s to the present day, electrocution and beating have been the principal weapons used against those the state deems dangerous or undesirable.

A former jihadi recently told the London-based Bureau of Investigative Journalism about the similarity in treatment between his arrests in the 1980s and in late January 2009. "In Afghan­istan, some types of torture are common and these are beating and electric shocks, given twice a day," he said. "I was tortured at nine in the morning and again from two to three o'clock in the afternoon.

“They kept me in a toilet, kept me thirsty and hungry, and used to hang me upside down for 20 to 30 minutes at a time. I was frequently threatened with death. I was not allowed to meet my family during either imprisonment."

He was released after 25 days, once the elders of his tribe had paid the equivalent of £2,000 in Pakistani rupees.

In another case we investigated, a father was forced to listen to the torture of his 20-year-old son and 16-year-old nephew. The family's ordeal began at 3am one day in early March this year, after a team of Afghan and foreign intelligence operatives broke down the door to his home in a village in eastern Afghanistan, near the border with Pakistan. They took Shamsuddin (not his real name) and his son and nephew, put black hoods on their heads and accused them of being insurgents. Shamsuddin told us that his brother, the father of his nephew, had been killed by a Taliban bomb just eight months earlier. He said it was "impossible" to have the idea that they could be Taliban fighters.

The three men were taken to the area of Kabul where most foreign agencies and missions are sited, including the US embassy, the centre for Nato forces and CIA headquarters.

He described being handcuffed, hooded and beaten over several days, but said that for him this was not really torture. The unbearable thing was to hear the agony of his son.

“There was a window like a hole in the door. I was trying to see what was happening to my son. You know a parent always longs to know what is happening to his child. I could hear the sound of the instrument beating my son. I felt his pain as if it was my own, and I heard my own son shouting and screaming.

“I wasn't normal. Hearing your son shout and scream and call on God. From the sound of the instrument they used to beat him, it wasn't wood or a fist, but sounded like a length of rubber or electric cable. It lasted for an hour each time. They were asking questions, but I couldn't hear what they were asking. I could just hear the sound of him screaming and the sound of rubber or a cable whipping him."

Shamsuddin has since been released, but his son has not. His fate is unknown.

What makes many of the reported cases of torture in Afghanistan so disturbing is not just that the western invasion was supposed to end such practices, but that the Allied forces have, in effect, been colluding in such treatment.

Last year, the high court in London heard testimony from ten men accused of insurgency, all of whom had been beaten by members of the Afghan authorities after being surrendered to them by British or American forces between 2007 and 2010. Their stories make grim reading: "Prisoner X said that metal clamps had been attached to parts of his body. He gestured to his forearms, upper body and chest . . . he had been electrocuted six times. He said that he had been beaten with an electric cable, about a metre long and one inch thick. He was beaten by the commander, a small fat man. He still had marks on his back."

It is also alleged that Prisoner X was raped by a senior Afghan officer at the detention facility in Lashkar Gah. Other stories heard in court included those of Prisoner A, who spoke of being hung from the ceiling and beaten, and Prisoner D, who was electrocuted while blindfolded. Prisoner E told the court that "every night of the 20 days of investigation at Lashkar Gah he had been beaten".

Counsel for the UK Ministry of Defence (the period of investigation covers the tenures of John Hutton, Bob Ainsworth and Liam Fox) has admitted that some of these allegations are "credible" - and even the high court judgment warned that they should not be dismissed.

And yet, a joint investigation by the New Statesman and the Bureau of Investigative Journalism shows that the world's most powerful military nations have responded not by trying to right these wrongs, but by attempting to sweep away the fundamental provisions of the Geneva Conventions.

The problem is simple, yet horrifying. British troops regularly hand over suspected insurgents to the Afghan authorities, even though torture and abuse are rife in Afghanistan's detention facilities. They do this, too, knowing that it is a breach of international law to transfer detainees to the custody of another state where they may face a risk of torture. This is enshrined in the Geneva Conventions of 1949, the Convention Against Torture of 1984, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights of 1966, and the European Convention on Human Rights (1950).

“The prohibition to transfer a person to a jurisdiction where he or she may be tortured is absolute in international law," says Dr Juan Méndez, United Nations special rapporteur on torture. "The operative part of this prohibition is not the torture itself, but the very risk of torture." And although there has been an official response to allegations of this sort, you could be forgiven for not having heard of it. Called the Copenhagen Process, it has received little publicity. Its meetings are closed. Its full membership is secret. Human rights groups such as Amnesty and other interested non-governmental organisations have been excluded.

What we do know is that it is led by the Danish government and it involves 25 nations (including the US and UK), as well as Nato, the EU, the African Union and the UN. Since 2007, these players have been pushing to establish a common framework for detainee transfers in Iraq and Afghanistan. In grim committee-speak, it aims to produce an "outcome document", which it hopes will receive approval from the UN and individual countries.

The starting point for those around the Copenhagen table is that, while the principles of humanitarian and human rights conventions may be set in stone, 20th-century law is out of kilter with 21st-century conflict. Military nations need a get-out clause from the Geneva Conventions.

Thomas Winkler of Denmark's ministry of foreign affairs is leading the charge. "The dil­emma is . . . [you] have a huge body of law but, when you have to apply the law in these types of conflict or operations, we have met a number of challenges . . . that you detain somebody and that you believe that the individual either is a security threat or a criminal, how do you then deal with it?" he told the Bureau.

Winkler maintains that the Copenhagen Process meetings have been "closed" to encourage openness by the states and organisations involved. He says that the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) is now attending meetings, and NGOs will be invited to contribute later this year, once the final draft outcome document has been drawn up. The ICRC distances itself from this assertion. A spokesperson says it was invited to participate in the process, but purely as an observer.

The present military rules in Afghanistan say that Nato-led forces have to hand over anyone they capture to the Afghan authorities within 96 hours. So far, the forces have attempted to comply with their human rights obligations by obtaining written assurances from the Afghan government, known as memorandums of understanding, or MOUs. The aim of the Copenhagen Process is to codify these assurances into international law.

As the high court testimony from the ten detainees shows, it appears that these MOUs are not always successful in protecting detainees from torture. Prisoner A told of multiple night-time beatings in an underground cell. Prisoner C recounted being hung from a ceiling for three days and nights. A common theme is the men's inability to identify their abusers - the beatings often took place under cover of darkness, or with the men blindfolded - but in those cases where identifications were made, senior officials were implicated.

“The use of memorandums of understanding is among the worst practices that states are currently engaging in," says Matt Pollard, a senior legal adviser at Amnesty International. "In effect, it is resulting in states bypassing their obligations not to transfer people to risk of torture. Basically states say: 'Yes - I'm not supposed to transfer a person to you if you're going to torture them - so please just promise me you won't torture them.' We've said categorically that that type of practice is actually undermining the prohibition of torture and other ill-treatment and other human rights obligations. It's one of the worst practices in terms of its effect on the system of human rights protection as a whole at the moment."

Juan Méndez agrees. "Diplomatic assurances do not relieve the sending countries of their state responsibility for having committed a serious breach of an international obligation." He argues that changes to the way MOUs are used "are unnecessary if the receiving country is not a torturing state and are utterly meaningless if the receiving country is known to engage in a pattern and practice of torture".

Then Méndez goes further, and makes a statement that is remarkably forthright for someone in his position. "In the course of the so-called 'global war on terror', countries have been transferring prisoners not despite the risk of torture, but precisely to facilitate torture - and to obtain the dubious intelligence thus gathered. I fear that an agreed-upon regulation of these transfers will be seen by some [prisoner-] sending countries as a way of legitimising what is clearly wrongful conduct on their part. If so, the agreement will not succeed in curbing torture and may well provide a veneer of legitimacy to it."

It's a view echoed by Brad Adams, Asia director of Human Rights Watch, who says that the detainees' well-being is put second to western armies' convenience. "The US, UK and others with troops in Afghanistan want to be able to capture real or alleged insurgents and interrogate them," he says, "but they do not want to build or run detention centres in Afghanistan. So they do the expedient thing and hand them over to the Afghans. For the most part, they have no idea what happens next.

“It's a hear-no-evil, see-no-evil policy of wilful blindness to the risks to detainees. And, to make matters worse, we know that many people detained in Afghanistan turn out to be completely innocent."

The organisation to which detainees are handed over is the National Directorate of Security (NDS), Afghanistan's external and domestic intelligence agency. Its track record is deplorable and the evidence of torture at its detention facilities is overwhelming. Since 2005, there has been a raft of reports detailing how torture is rife in it and other state institutions.

In 2007, the UN high commissioner for human rights reported that the NDS's use of torture and other forms of ill-treatment was frequent. Every year since then the same concerns have been reiterated.

In 2009, the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission reported that "torture was commonplace among the majority of law-enforcement institutions". It identified 398 victims and detailed the methods of torture: sexual abuse; branding with iron bars; use of tools, a lawnmower, tyre rods, staplers; flogging with electric, iron and plastic cables on the back, waist, feet, head, face and other body parts; beating with rods while blindfolded with hands and feet tied; use of electric shocks; victims continuously chained and shackled. The report concluded that no one had been prosecuted for any of these cases.

Even the US state department country report on Afghanistan published in 2010 referred to methods of torture and abuse. These included, but were not limited to, "beating by stick, scorching bar, or iron bar; flogging by cable; battering by rod; electric shock; deprivation of sleep, water and food; abusive language; sexual humiliation; and rape". Against this backdrop, a memorandum of understanding seems a flimsy safeguard indeed.

In 2009, the Canadian diplomat Richard Colvin created a storm when he revealed that, despite an MOU, Canada did not monitor detainee conditions in Afghanistan, and that detainees transferred by the Canadians to Afghan prisons were probably tortured. "According to our information, the likelihood is that all the Afghans we handed over were tortured," Colvin said. "For interrogators in Kandahar, it was a standard operating procedure."

He said his reports were ignored and eventually senior officials told him to stop putting his concerns in writing. Denmark's Winkler accepts that MOUs are not sufficient in themselves. Central to their success, he explains, is "aggressive monitoring": to try to ensure that the host nation - through the Afghan authorities - sticks to its part of the bargain. "We need the monitoring of not just the individuals transferred but also supervision and the co-operation at a general level with the receiving state in order to ensure that the facilities are there," Winkler told the Bureau of Investigative Journalism. "If the receiving state or entity does not fulfil the obligations as part of the MOU, then you cannot transfer."

This is where the central thesis of the use of MOUs by the Copenhagen Process starts to unravel. The UK - which is held up as an example of best practice - signed a bilateral MOU with the Afghan defence ministry in April 2006. Its intentions are laudable: "Ensure that participants will observe the basic principles of international human rights law such as the right to life and the prohibition on torture and cruel, inhumane and degrading treatment pertaining to the treatment and transfer of persons by the UK [armed forces] to Afghan authorities and their treatment."

However, a high court case brought last year by the peace activist Maya Evans exposed the fundamental failings of the agreement. At the time of the hearing, 418 UK detainees had been handed over to the NDS (the number is now more than 600). The main detention facilities are NDS Kabul, known as "Department 17", NDS Kandahar and NDS Lashkar Gah.

The judgment pointed out that "written assurances in themselves do not take matters very far . . . actions speak louder than words". It continued: "UK officials in Kabul reported that despite advice from London, the MOU was meaningless locally. The NDS did not recognise the authority of the Afghan minister of defence to promise anything on behalf of the NDS."

It continues that, because of deficiencies in the monitoring system, "the possibility of other cases of abuse which the monitoring system has failed to identify cannot be dismissed". However, the British judges refused to rule that the transfer of detainees was illegal. Transfers to NDS Kandahar and NDS Lashkar Gah could continue, "provided that existing safeguards are strengthened by observance of specified conditions".

That seems unlikely to happen: the Afghan­istan Independent Human Rights Commission has repeatedly been denied proper access to NDS facilities. During one visit in 2007, detainees were hidden on a roof.

The judgment also described the position at NDS Kabul as "particularly troubling". As it stated: "Little occurred by way of UK visits before the NDS refused all access to the facility in late 2008." Access to NDS Kandahar was limited. At NDS Lashkar Gah, visits were cancelled for security reasons and the character of visits was described as falling "well short of best practice"; guards were present during the interviews, and it was only possible to see detainees in groups with the guards still in earshot.

It was only through the high court hearings that the allegations of torture and abuse came to public attention in the UK. If those in charge of the Copenhagen Process have their way, the accusations are unlikely to surface again.

In the meantime, however, British troops continue to hand over detainees to their Afghan counterparts. The UK Ministry of Defence argues that, with better supervision, the situation has improved, but confirms that accounts of abuse continue to surface.

“We take all allegations of abuse seriously and consider these in all future transfer decisions," an MoD spokesman says. "We can confirm that there [has] been a very small number of allegations received since the judgment was handed down, but cannot give full details as they can only be passed on with the permission of the detainee and may be subject to an ongoing investigation, either by UK or Afghan authorities. Where permission is given by the detainee, an allegation will be passed to the Afghan authorities for further investigation."

As Nato-led forces plan to pull out from Afghanistan, the focus on how western armies can hand over detainees without breaching international law has intensified. Before the "war on terror" the west made great play of trying to engage with torturing regimes in an effort to get them to change their ways. Now, it stands accused of complicity, the result of a cynical attempt to erode the basic principles of the Geneva Conventions, international human rights and humanitarian law.

Angus Stickler is chief reporter at the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, a not-for-profit organisation based at City University London

Kate Clark is a senior analyst with the Afghanistan Analysts Network

This feature article was produced in association with the Bureau of Investigative Journalism

This article first appeared in the 29 August 2011 issue of the New Statesman, Gold

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What I learned from the Conservative conference protests

Speaking to the protestors, I found people desperate for a voice.

On Sunday journalists were spat at outside the Conservative conference in Manchester for doing their job. At the same time, in the same place, I moved around the protest without experiencing any of this. In fact, I’d already written the first half of this blog before I even knew it had happened.

It is plainly not okay for anyone to be gobbed on as they go about their business.

But here’s the protest as I experienced it.

The crowd around me explodes into noise.

“Stop taking pictures of us you f***ing *****!”

“Do you have the right to do that? Do you? Wankers!”

A young lad, about 18 with auburn curly hair and baggy grey jogging bottoms, makes the loudest comment.

“Why are you doing that from four floors up? Come down and take our picture if you want it.”

I’m stood amid a group of men aged 18 to 40, almost uniformly dressed in grey hoodies. They are part of the People’s Assembly protest gathering in Manchester’s Great Northern Square outside the Conservative party’s annual conference. It’s 10.45am on a Sunday morning.

The group caught my eye as I walked down the road from the Radisson Blu hotel – a place so swish it smells of expensive perfume. Pootling around ready for a fringe event I would later be chairing I’d collected my conference press pass a few minutes earlier and was walking back towards my hotel.

As I did, I noticed an angry bearded man with matted hair, holding a pair of black trainers in his hands, and walking in threadbare socked feet as he yelled at a policeman. Men in hi-vis jackets (working for an acronymed security company) were leaping out of vans and setting up barriers around the plot of grass which sits right in front of the Great Northern Quarter, overlooked by a huge brick converted warehouse, and alongside the conference entrance.

More dishevelled men were walking across the road. All white, all male, all looking as if they’d slept little for days.

One of the men asked if the police were completely blocking off the square. At this point I was curious. Were they being stopped from protesting? Aware that I was tottering in heels, wearing a bright pink coat, and holding a conference brochure I was a bit hesitant about asking further questions. The get-up shrieked I’m a tory. But a press pass isn’t just there for access to nice-smelling hotels. So I started to follow them.

“Is something going on in the square?” I asked the man, who later told me his name was Andy.

“It’s the People’s Assembly, they’re having a protest,” he said in thick Mancunian accent.

“Are the police going to stop it?”

“They can’t,” he said, nodding to the converted warehouse, “there’s an AMC cinema in there, and businesses. They can’t afford to stop them being open. They won’t mess with the businesses”.

I explained I was a journalist. They seemed fine. We kept talking.

A small group showed me the tents on the square where people had camped overnight, and described the protest’s centre at Piccadilly Gardens from where they had arrived.

I explained I wrote about schools. They told me of the Facebook page where I could look to see People’s Assembly’s education events and asked me about prison education. (They are worried about cuts).

Callum, the oldest-looking in the crowd, with a startling similarity to Timothy Spall, talks bluntly but smartly about Noam Chomsky, totalitarianism, Trident. His points are astute even if I don’t always agree. The whole group are excited that Jeremy Corbyn is due to visit.

During the conversation people wander in and out. Some look as if they are struggling with drug addiction; one has tobacco-stained fingers the colour of a chain-smoking 100-year-old. But they are sensitive to one another and keen to help me. They are worried that violent tendencies will mean the loss of their message and talk about the police with calmness, “They largely do their job well, just on occasion they go overboard.”

And then. It explodes.

From several floors up in the warehouse they hear a shout. I don’t hear it. But they seem to.

Camera lenses are suddenly pointing out of several of the windows – snapping away. Producers, photographers, on-lookers, all looking down from their lofty positions. The anger among the crowd swells.

Andy pulls his hood up, Callum starts pacing, many of them start shouting.

The young auburn-haired lad, circling from around the edges, now steps out in front of the crowd and starts yelling skywards. In his thick Manchester accent he wants to know from the camera people what rights they have to photograph him. He swears. He tells them he’s going to go up there and batter them.

Two men come out of the tents, waving sticks and middle fingers.

My heart sinks. Every time one of them throws their arms out or points their stick, I know the photographs are getting better and better. Every swear or insult proves their unreasonableness.

Andy and Callum know this too. “Stop being so aggressive,” they hiss at the young man.

“It’s a public car park. I’m going to go up there and get them,” he replies, shrugging his shoulders furiously and puffing out his chest.

“Why don’t you just ask them to come down here?” Callum says sharply, “Tell them if they want pictures of us to come down and ask us what we’re doing.”

The weariness of the group is palpable. I feel entirely torn by it. On the one hand I know why the photographers are four floors up. They’re awaiting the march. A fourth storey is a perfect vantage point from which to record it. While waiting, it makes sense to get some other shots. The group’s over-reaction is perfect.

At the same time, I can see how it feels intrusive. Here we are talking about Chomsky but me and the young men know that if the pictures are printed they will simply say ‘yobs’.

“They don’t even know our name”, says Andy.

Shortly after leaving the group I head to a fancy coffee shop on a parallel road. I order a flat white coffee and a bakewell slice. It costs six quid. The room is filled with smartly-dressed people who, like me, are here early for conference and who, also like me, are hiding in the comforts of somewhere warm, clean, ‘civilised’. It’s the sort of place most of us spend our lives, I suspect.

I think about Andy, Callum, and the angry young man. It strikes me that perhaps the ‘new politics’ isn’t so much about a lurch to the left as it is about recognising that the people on the ground want the people on the fourth floor to know their names. Or at least have the decency to come down and ask.

By 2pm I have watched my first fringe event within the boundaries of the actual conference. Education secretary Nicky Morgan has said all the right things and I have tweeted and written and clapped.

As I walk towards the exit reading social media on my phone I notice that journalists are rightly furious because one of them has been spat on by a protester. The picture lays bare the grim reality. Up ahead the police are telling people to hide their passes. There is panic in the air.

Knowing I must go back to my hotel regardless of the situation I decide to walk back across the square. If things turn nasty I hope I might be able to find Callum or Andy. Or that someone might remember me as the girl with the pink coat from earlier and go easy.

As I head out onto the square the protest is snaking around it. A choir of middle-aged women stands along one side of the road singing an adapted hymn about the bedroom tax. It is haunting and powerful. The tent group are mostly wearing face masks. I can’t see anyone I know.

I start talking to two security guards from the Great Northern building who are out on the square for a better view.

One has a thick scouse accent: “It’s all fine. The worse thing is when it gets violent, then the media will start saying that it’s everyone, and the words get lost, that’s bad, that means you’ve lost the message, but there’s good and bad in everyone, and look at all these people, and it’s fine.”

They complain that Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt purposely came through the square where the protesters were standing.

“Everyone else has gone the other way but he came through here and he wonders why people are at him and that, but he came through here on purpose.”

I have no idea if he did or didn’t, but it does seem an unusual route compared to other politicians.

One of the security guards bristles as he sees two "leaders" of the camp emerging from the protest, and heading to sit on a low wall by the grass. They’re the men I saw earlier coming out of the tents; waving fingers at the press. One is heavily tattooed, leaning on a walking stick, wearing a t-shirt with a comic cover, his eyes slowly rolling. The other is neatly dressed in jeans and a black bomber jack, but he’s agitated and gaunt. He has one visible tooth.

I wander over and ask whether anyone has told them to move their tents. They start explaining about Section 60s, and police "force", and spraying down pavements. I don’t know what any of it means. I explain that I’m a journalist. We talk for a while about their grievances.

One of the pair, Tom, is angry that his sister’s benefits have been cut dramatically and she is struggling to feed her daughter. She was forced to attend a food bank last week, he says.

“Meanwhile they’re ordering 3,000 bottles of champagne into there at sixty quid each and yet they’re the ones using the police to protect them.”

I don’t know if his figures are accurate nor why his sister’s benefits have been cut. But it’s an anger-riling sentiment if you, like Tom, believe it to be true.

The other man, John, talks about his homelessness in the 90s. Eventually he went to university (John Moore’s in Liverpool) and wrote poetry for a while. He had a book contract, once. But he lapsed when his sister got ill. Now he is angry with the royal family.

“Things like the first world war were caused by royalty” he says, “We send our poorest to die for them… But why aren’t their children ever the first into battle?”

I have no answer.

After an hour of ducking and weaving in the crowd I head to my hotel, then back again, each time without a hint of anyone shouting directly at me. Across roads I see people in suits being heckled and others on mobile phones diving under police barriers and being escorted away. The chants of Tory scum are happening as I walk up to the entrance. I can hear them. I just don’t think of them as personal insults.

Inside everyone is sharing their experiences of being yelled at; of being called a Tory c***, of being intimidated, of the awfulness. I feel guilty for pointing out my take was so different. On Twitter someone suggests it’s because I’m northern and scary. In my ludicrous outfit and with an accent considered normal for the area, neither is true.

Instead, the fourth floor metaphor keeps coming back to me.

Protesters simply see people in suits walking away. It’s the symbol of what makes them most angry: being ignored by the wealthy. That’s why they yell. And, to them, a media who sticks a camera in their face to get a story without first seeking to understand is a parasite. Not Tory scum, but journalist scum. A part of the establishment that ignores its people. It doesn’t matter whether the nuance of that is true or not – that’s how they feel, and so they shout.

Sadly – inevitably – inside the conference gates I learn that the spitting, the yelling, and the aggression has only served to build the walls up further. “They don’t deserve my attention,” says someone who has been yelled at repeatedly. “Welcome to the new politics,” remarks another with disdain.

And so we waddle into the age old battle of the powerful and rational deciding that unless you can have a "civilised" conversation then you’re not welcome at their door and the emotional crowd outside become angrier and angrier as their voice is dismissed for not being what is deemed civil while the people in power continue imposing cuts – a behaviour the protestors would argue is uncivilised – and they do so while applauding one another in a fancy conference centre.

No one should be spat on. No one should be dismissed as unimportant.

We must guard against the fourth floor crowd, who have the keys to the kingdom, barricading themselves in and dismissing the mob below. If that happens, the mass will increasingly want to come up and batter the ignorance out of them. And while, somewhere, on a metaphorical stair landing between the two, there’ll be me and Callum hovering around in our pink coats and grey hoodies trying to work out how the hell we get the two groups to talk sensibly, the fact is we have no clue of how to even begin. Writing up this experience was really all I could think to do.

Laura McInerney taught in East London for six years and is now studying on a Fulbright scholarship at the University of Missouri. She also works as Policy Partner at LKMCo.

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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