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No place for children

The UK has one of the worst records in Europe for detaining children but accurate figures on how man

It is shameful that UK law allows children who are not British to be detained without time limits and without judicial oversight. Many of the 2,000 or so children detained for administrative convenience every year have been here seeking asylum with their families. Others arrive on their own and are detained because, in the absence of identification papers, the immigration authorities refuse to believe that they are children.

The UK has one of the worst records in Europe for detaining children. However, accurate figures on how many children are detained, and for how long, remain hard to come by, despite repeated requests to the government from campaigners and parliamentarians for better information. Without such data, how can we be reassured by the government's claim that detention is used "only when absolutely necessary and for the shortest possible time"?

In recent years, there has been a growing consensus that the practice must end. According to a paper produced by a cross-bench group of MPs and peers for a campaign led by the Refugee Council and other NGOs in 2006, "There is a broad consensus that locking children up with their families is inherently harmful and to be avoided wherever possible. The UK's children's commissioners, the UK's chief inspector of prisons, international and national non-governmental organisations and community groups have all spoken out against the policy or conditions of detention." Yet despite such stringent criticism, the government has remained largely impervious to the devastating effects of detention on children.

The position usually taken by the government is that detention is used only when all other avenues to persuade families to leave have failed. Furthermore, the seemingly lengthy periods of detention endured by children are blamed largely on parents' attempts to frustrate removal from the country. However, the evidence to substantiate this argument has never been produced. Critics of the policy argue that Home Office decision-making remains poor. They say the emphasis on speed makes evidence hard to collect, and that asylum-seekers face a "culture of disbelief" that relies excessively on unsafe findings on the credibility of their stories. They also argue that there is a dwindling supply of competent legal representation for asylum-seekers, due to changes in legal aid. If the critics are right, it is not surprising that many asylum-seekers resist removal because their fear of return may be both genuine and well founded. But even if we leave aside these arguments, a real political commitment to community supervision as an alternative to detaining families has never been articulated or pursued. I have often heard it said that detaining families is a tried and tested way to keep removal statistics high, at a time when public confidence in the immigration system remains low.

Many of the children the government currently locks up have been here for a considerable time while their families' asylum claims are being processed. I speak to these children in places like Yarl's Wood Immigration Removal Centre, and they answer my questions in regional British accents acquired over many years of integration into our communities and schools. It seems positively cruel to rip up the hopes and aspirations of these young people, who have become settled and enjoy close ties with friends, teachers and neighbours, due to the historic problems of managing the asylum system efficiently.

For more recent arrivals, there is the potential for better decision-making and closer contact management of families in the new "case ownership" system, in operation since April 2007. This could have been the basis for a dialogue between families and case owners, assigned by the Home Office to work on single cases from start to finish, to explore the reasons why asylum-seekers are not returning to their country voluntarily. However, in the experience of families I have talked to, detention always comes as a surprise and a shock, and one that they are unprepared for. I say categorically that this should never be the case. Children's experiences of the process of arrest and detention are truly shocking.

"We didn't have time to collect anything and we don't have any personal belongings, clothes or anything. They even take your phone."

Boy, aged 11, in Yarl's Wood immigration removal centre, May 2008

When I visited the Yarl's Wood removal centre in May this year, I talked to nearly all the families and children there about their experiences. At the top of the list of concerns was the process of being taken into detention. We were told of early-morning raids on their homes - sometimes involving the breaking down of doors and a disproportionate number of officers - to arrest two, three or four people. Some claimed that aggressive officers gave them insufficient time to pack even minimal possessions, or to gather up medicines and items of personal importance or value. With the exception of one family who had contacted relatives to collect their belongings, none of the families interviewed knew what had happened to the possessions they had left behind.

We were told of children denied the use of a toilet (or allowed to go only while being watched with the door open) before lengthy journeys in caged vans. Girls claimed they were made to get dressed in the presence of male officers, and boys vice versa. Virtually every child spoke of their fear and distress at being awakened and shouted at by adults in uniforms who had entered their homes violently. Children said they were separated from their parents, were not told where they were being taken, and were humiliated in front of friends and neighbours as parents were handcuffed and they themselves were marched into vans. One child told me of being removed from his class at school by uniformed officers. Children, even the youngest, are deeply affected and traumatised by these events. Many of them have recurring nightmares about them, and they often demonstrate changes in behaviour. They can become persistently withdrawn, cling to their parents, refuse food or wet the bed. Children's best interests appear to me to be entirely invisible during the arrest and escorting process.

Girl: "It's a prison. You can't call it anything else, it's a prison."

Boy: "You're not free here. You're not able to go into friends' rooms and things."

Both in Yarl's Wood, May 2008

I first visited Yarl's Wood in October 2005 to see for myself the journey of a child from first point of reception at the centre. I noted then that the numbers of locked doors a child would have to go through before reaching the family unit would be a minimum of eight. Once in the family unit they would have to pass through a barred cell door and be subjected to a search. Even babies' nappies were inspected. While I was pleased that when I returned in May this year the current management had opened the unit out, removed the barred cell door and ceased searching children, it was clear to me that from a fairly young age many children are deeply conscious - and ashamed - of being in what they regard as a prison.

The lack of privacy, the locked doors, the lack of access to treasured possessions, the restrictions on where you can go and at what time, the intrusive and regular roll counts (as if families with children were likely to escape en masse) and the unappealing, institutional food all contribute to many children feeling powerless and frustrated.

Furthermore, detention often puts older children in the position of emotionally "carrying" their parents, who may be experiencing extreme distress, depression and detachment from their parenting role as a result of their situation. In practice, many children are used informally as interpreters between the administration and their parents, when they accompany a parent to the health centre, for example. Some older children shared their parents' fears of return and were utterly convinced that they would be killed if they were sent back. There are no children's mental health services in Yarl's Wood to assist them in dealing with these experiences and worries. On one occasion, I used my powers of entry to interview a teenage girl admitted to hospital from Yarl's Wood who had threatened to kill herself as a consequence of her profound distress.

Children told us time and again how they missed their friends, their pets, their schools and the lives they had built for themselves in the places they had lived before being detained. Some felt cheated because they had not been able to say goodbye, while others didn't want to return because the process of arrest in front of neighbours or school friends had been so humiliating. Despite government policy to the contrary, we came across one young person - about to turn 16 - who had been detained just as his GCSEs had started. He felt that all the work he had done had been wasted; there are no facilities for taking examinations at Yarl's Wood.

There is no specialist paediatric input into health care or clinical governance there, either. Nor does the decision to detain appear to be informed by any risks it may pose to a child's health. Both these features of the detention process can have serious and even catastrophic consequences.

Many parents we met at Yarl's Wood were extremely worried because their children and babies were losing weight. There is grave concern that the imperatives of security mean that babies are routinely put at risk, for example, by not giving mothers access to facilities in their rooms at night to make fresh feeds for bottle-fed babies. Other mothers are unable to sustain breastfeeding because of emotional turmoil and an absence of support from breastfeeding counsellors.

Where a child is under paediatric care prior to detention, it does not appear that there is continuity of the care regime once the child is taken to Yarl's Wood. Some children with long-standing illnesses are denied their scheduled appointments at hospital clinics. A mother who is HIV-positive recently complained to her case worker that the family's detention had meant that her three-month-old child had missed her BCG vaccination. This was the response she received:

It is considered that this risk [of contracting tuberculosis] is purely speculative but even if she were to contract tuberculosis on return to [country of origin], it is not considered that this would reach the threshold [of cruel or degrading treatment or punishment] imposed in the case of N(FC) v SSHD [2005] UKHL 31.

The paediatrician with care of the little girl in the case cited above had not been notified of the child's detention and described her missing her BCG as a "tragic misfortune". In contrast, this mother's case worker at the Home Office viewed the issue not from the perspective of the child's health, but only in terms of whether this could be a "barrier to removal". I surely cannot be alone in thinking that such policies are crass, insensitive and utterly unacceptable.

Public outrage

On our recent visit, we considered, among others, 14 sets of medical notes of children from sub-Saharan Africa. Only two showed that they had been given anti-malarial prophylaxis - and even then both for inadequate lengths of time. This puts these children at serious risk of life-threatening malaria if returned. We would not dream of exposing our own children to such risk if travelling to the same countries. Detaining children significantly increases the risk that, when removed, they will die from preventable diseases given the level of paediatric support that would otherwise be available in their communities in the UK. The interests of children who have no right to remain in the UK are best served by keeping them in the community where their health and education needs can be taken into account fully when planning any removal.

We welcome the recent moves to create a more child-friendly immigration system. We were encouraged by the government's decision to review the UK's immigration opt-out on the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, and its recent commitment to change legislation to make the UK Border Agency subject to a duty to promote the welfare of children. In light of these welcome developments, we hope now to see serious consideration given to ending the detention of children who are subject to immigration control.

We stand a far better chance of achieving that goal if the public expresses its outrage. I welcome the New Statesman's commitment to this aim and hope the glare of public exposure will hasten the end of this shameful breach of a child's basic right to liberty. The government has rightly earned praise for the "Every Child Matters" policy programme. It is now time for it to live up to its rhetoric by making sure that every child really does matter, including those caught up, through no fault of their own, in a system that can only be described as inhuman.

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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