Ai Weiwei and his legal team have, since 2011, fought allegations, arrests and fines for tax evasion case widely regarded as "political retaliation" by the Chinese goverment.
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The Ai Weiwei papers

On 27 September, the Chinese courts rejected Ai’s second appeal against a £1.5m fine for tax evasion. Here, his legal team sets out the facts of a case riddled with corruption and secrecy.

An Introduction
Jerome A Cohen

The New Statesman is rendering a great public service in making available an English-language account of the Chinese government’s use of its tax laws to persecute the innovative and courageous Chinese artist and activist Ai Weiwei. Having been pressured by world opinion to release Ai from the harsh and blatantly illegal confinement to which its police had subjected him for almost three months, the Chinese government decided to crush him by resorting to economic measures whose illegality would presumably be less apparent both to its own citizens and to the outside world.

Fortunately, thanks to the presentation that follows this introduction, the unfairness and abuses that have marked this tax case have been unmasked. As Ai’s lawyers make clear, at both the administrative and the judicial levels the proceedings against him have been a farce. Much of the evidence apparently used against Ai was unlawfully collected and retained by the police and the tax authorities. Administrative hearings that purported to determine his alleged tax liability were truncated and plainly in violation of international standards of due process of law, and the subsequent judicial reviews were no better.

I personally am saddened at this spectacle for reasons that transcend our friendship and my admiration for Ai. It is nauseating to witness the damage that the Chinese government has chosen to inflict on its reputation through the misuse of its criminal justice and tax systems. As an international lawyer and a law professor seeking to assist in China’s economic development, I spent over 20 years co-operating with Chinese officials who were seeking to develop a legal  system that would earn the confidence of its own people and of the foreign business community. Beginning in 1979, for several years I enjoyed especially close relations with the National Taxation Bureau, which, during the early period of the Deng Xiaoping reform era, led the way for other government agencies in establishing impressive regulations and procedures for carrying out its responsibilities and for developing a legal process worthy of respect.

The handling of the Ai Weiwei case has been totally inconsistent with that earlier accomplishment. Neither the Chinese nor the foreign communities can afford to ignore the scandalous mistreatment of Ai. If he can become the victim of criminal and commercial injustice, no one in China or who deals with China can feel safe.

Jerome Cohen is a professor of law at New York University and an expert in Chinese law

The Fake Cultural Development Ltd tax case

1. Process summary

On 3 April 2011 in the morning, Ai Weiwei was taken away by police at passport control at Beijing Capital International Airport.

On 3 April 2011 at midday, Beijing Public Security searched Ai Weiwei’s residence for almost 12 hours. They confiscated 127 items, including computers and CDs. Ten people were taken to the police station for questioning until the early morning.

On 3 April 2011 at midday, Ai Weiwei’s assistant Wen Tao was kidnapped by four plainclothes police officers and went missing. He was illegally detained at a secret location and not released by public security until 24 June. Before this, his family was unaware of his location and received no official notification.

On 6 April 2011 in the evening, Beijing Municipal Public Security went to Beijing Huxin Ltd, the bookkeepers of Fake Ltd. They searched company information, including bookkeeping records and financial statements, dating from its establishment. Xinhua News Agency then published an English bulletin: “Ai Weiwei is suspected of economic crimes and is now being investigated according to the law.”

On 7 April 2011, Beijing Public Security brought the company accountant, Hu Mingfen, who was visiting family in Lanzhou, back to Beijing. After being put in a detention centre for one month, she was transferred to a secret location and detained illegally until she was “granted bail” on 13 June. Her family received no official notification.

On 8 April 2011, the Second Tax Inspection Bureau and Beijing Public Security searched and confiscated all of Fake’s financial and accounting information, contracts and seals from 2005 to 2010.

On 9 April 2011, the Fake shareholder and manager Liu Zhenggang was kidnapped by four men in plain clothes. After being put in a detention centre for one month, he was transferred to a secret location and detained illegally until he was “granted bail” on 11 June. His family was unaware of his location and received no official notification.

On 10 April 2011, the driver Zhang Jinsong was taken away. After being put in a detention centre for one month, he was transferred to a secret location and detained illegally until he was “granted bail” on 23 June. During this time, his family was unaware of his location and received no official notification.

On 12 April, Beijing Local Taxation Bureau Second Tax Inspection Bureau questioned Fake’s legal representative, Lu Qing, for the first time. On 20 May 2011, Xinhua News Agency published a bulletin stating: “Public Security has investigated the alleged Ai Weiwei economic crimes case. The preliminary finding is that Beijing Fake Cultural Development Ltd, under the actual control of Ai Weiwei, has committed offences including evading a large tax payment and deliberately destroying accounting records.”

On 22 June 2011, after 81 days in detention, Ai Weiwei was released “on bail” and returned home. His family members received no official notification. They could not get information about his suspected crime, what forceful measures were used and where he had been detained.

On 14 July 2011, the Bejing Local Taxation Bureau Second Tax Inspection Bureau held a closed hearing.

On 1 November 2011, the Beijing Local Taxation Bureau Second Tax Inspection Bureau decided that Fake had committed tax evasion and was required to pay 5,263,756.61 yuan in back taxes, a 3,190,331.52 yuan late-payment penalty and a 6,766,822.37 yuan fine. The three payments totalled 15,220,910.50 yuan (£1.5m).  n 29 December 2011, Fake asked for an administrative review at the Beijing Local Taxation Bureau. On 29 March 2012, the Beijing Local Taxation Bureau turned down the request for a review.

On 13 April 2012, Fake sued the Beijing Local Taxation Bureau Second Tax Inspection Bureau at Beijing Chaoyang District People’s Court. The trial opened on 20 June 2012. On 20 July, the court rejected the entire Fake case.

On 3 August 2012, Fake lodged an appeal at Beijing Second Intermediate People’s Court. On 27 September 2012, in the company’s second and final appeal, the intermediate court upheld the original decision.

2. Points of controversy in the tax case

The Fake tax case contains grave problems and controversy in terms of both procedure and facts.

1. Points of controversy in the procedure

Procedure is essential in implementing justice.

Although Fake repeatedly raised serious procedural issues, the tax authorities and courts gave
no response. The main problems at each stage of the procedure are as follows:

1.1. Beijing Municipal Public Security Bureau
1.1.1. Public security exceeded its authority in the Fake tax case.

According to the Criminal Law Amendment (7) and the regulations on the administrative pre-procedure related to “Provisions (II) of the Supreme People’s Procuratorate and the Ministry of Public Security on the Standards for Establishing Criminal Cases under the Juris - diction of the Public Security Organs for In - vestigation and Prosecution”, only after the offending party has declined to implement tax administration penalties and after the tax organs have transferred the case to public security organs can public security organs establish a criminal case against the responsible parties. The Second Tax Inspection Bureau made its decision against Fake only on 1 November 2011. It is clear that in April 2011 public security detained five people in secret, including Ai Weiwei, on the grounds of “tax evasion”. They searched and confiscated Fake financial information, which was exceeding their authority and handling the case illegally.

In the Fake tax case, the tax organs were completely reliant on the Public Security Bureau for their evidence, and the police were pushed to the legislative foreground, which strengthened the contradiction and artificially produced   case of “major impact”. The police administration was brought into the government administration mechanism, which in essence weakened the function of legal and responsible adminstration.

1.1.2. “Arrest before investigation” is a violation of the law. On 3 April 2011, public security took Ai Weiwei away. They then detained four people, including a Fake shareholder and the company accountant. However, of the evidence  in the file put together by public security, none was collected before 3 April 2011. The essence of “an arrest before investigation” is assuming that a suspect is guilty.

1.1.3. The authorities confiscated all the company’s account books and refused to give them back. During the Fake case review, first hearing and final hearing, the company’s account books were confiscated by Beijing Municipal Public Security and not given back.

1.2. Beijing Local Taxation Bureau Second Tax Inspection Bureau

The Bureau was responsible for the adminis - trative handling of the case. The following problems existed in its administration and law enforcement:

1.2.1. More than 95 per cent of the evidence came from public security and was obtained illegally. The Second Tax Inspection Bureau issued the following statement on the composition and source of the “evidence list”:

“1. Account books, certificates and related tax documents were provided to the defendant after they were obtained by public security  organs from the plaintiff’s bookkeeping company;

2. Third-party account books, certificates, instructions and other materials were provided to the defendant after public security organs obtained them;  

3. Notes from public security questioning were taken by public security and then provided to the defendant;

4. Bank statements etc were provided to the defendant after they were obtained from the bank by public security;

5. Inspection process documents and notes were produced by the defendant; 6. Tax records, inspection materials and certificates from tax organs were obtained by the defendant.”

This indicates that most of the evidence that the defendant cited in the Fake tax case and for making a decision came from the Public Security Bureau.

Fake believed that: first, the evidence “transferred” from public security organs was obtained while violating legal procedures. It therefore constituted illegal evidence and should be discounted. Second, the Law on the Administration of the Levy and Collection of Taxes has given tax organs tax inspection rights through legal means. This is the responsibility of the tax organs, and the public security organs should not be investigating on their behalf.

The Second Tax Inspection Bureau argued that the public security organisations exercise judicial authority. According to the 57th and 58th clauses of the Law on the Administration of the Levy and Collection of Taxes, tax organs have the right to obtain relevant documents from organisations including public security organs. Based on this, obtaining evidence from public security organs is legal.

Fake believed that the 57th and 58th clauses of the Law on the Administration of the Levy and Collection of Taxes gave tax organs the right to investigate “relevant organizations and individuals, regarding taxpayers, withholding agents and other parties and their situation regarding tax payments or tax withheld and remitted or collected and remitted”. This is completely different from public security investigating taxpayers and transferring evidence, so the defendant’s response was irrelevant.

1.2.2. None of the evidence had been crossexamined. This should be regarded as a lack of factual basis. During the hearing procedure, the bureau presented only part of the review document. It had not been checked. During the trial, the plaintiff’s right to cross-examine was also removed by the court.

1.2.3. In order to comply with public security, coercive methods were used to obtain evidence. The Second Tax Inspection Bureau and public security, on condition of “bail”, coerced Ai Weiwei, who was in prison, to sign a “recognition of alleged tax violations” on 22 June 2011.
This was self-incrimination, and was used as forceful evidence that Fake had evaded taxes. It would be hard to imagine that the “recognition of alleged tax violations” could be a legal document at the tax inspection trial stage. However, it appeared at the previous tax inspection stage, as if a man-made satellite had appeared in the Qin or Han Dynasty.

1.2.4. The tax inspection work had no statutory elements or contents.

The Second Tax Inspection Bureau did not have documents such as the “tax inspection working paper”, “tax inspection report” and “tax inspection trial report”. The contents of the “decision declaration” were incomplete. It did not mention how the “tax evasion” amount or the late-payment penalty amount were calculated.

1.2.5. The hearing process violated the law. The Second Tax Inspection Bureau did not conduct an open hearing on the basis that the case involved commercial secrets. This reason is not valid, and the facts later confirmed that the socalled commercial secrets did not exist.

1.3. Beijing Local Taxation Bureau

The bureau carried out the review. On 2 February 2012, Fake applied to the bureau for a review of the documents and hearing attendance. On 27 and 28 March the document inspection started. On 29 March, the bureau made a decision about the review. Not only did it refuse to conduct a hearing, it made a decision about the review in less than 12 hours after the lawyers finished inspecting the document. They deprived the attorney of his right to state his case and the right to defence.

1.4. Beijing Chaoyang District People’s Court

Fake sued the Beijing Local Taxation Bureau Second Tax Inspection Bureau at Beijing Chao - yang District Court. The hearing was held on 20 June 2012.

1.4.1. It was called an open trial but in fact it was a secret trial. A trial as conspicuous as this was arranged in a small court, which could hold five spectators only. Five insiders were arranged to take up all the seats, and Fake was not allocated any spectator seats.

1.4.2. The court did not carry out its obligation in collecting evidence. Fake had previously requested the court to provide evidence of the plaintiff’s account books and certificates that were confiscated by public security, but the court had decided not to collect the evidence prior to the court session, nor had it sent a notification to the plaintiff saying that collecting this evidence was not allowed.

When Fake asked the court about this, the collegiate bench said, “We will answer this after the trial opens.”

1.4.3. The court did not carry out its obligationto call witnesses. Fake applied to summon Liu Zhenggang, Hu Mingfen and others as witnesses, but the court did not inform them. It claimed that the obligation to notify lay with the plaintiff. Fake asked for the defendant’s law- enforcement officials – ten people, including You Pengnan – to testify, but the court did not arrange for it.

On the contrary, however, after the court opened, You Pengnan appeared, representing the defendant. Fake raised an objection, but the collegiate bench replied that the company should raise it again after the trial.

1.4.4. The court removed the plaintiff’s right to present evidence. Fake requested evidence
from the collegiate bench prior to the opening of the court, but received no response. On 20
June in the morning, Fake went to the Three Shadows Cultural Exchange Centre and obtained evidence partly sufficient to overrule the decision. In the afternoon of 20 June, before the court opened and three times during the court session, the evidence was presented to the collegiate bench, but the court did not accept it, because it “overran the deadline for presenting evidence”.

1.4.5. The court refused to investigate the legitimacy of the sources of the evidence. According to law, the defendant can collect his own evidence, but it was all collected by public security authorities. More than 95 per cent of the evidence on administrative behaviour presented by the defendant was collected by public security organs.

Public security intervened in the tax case illegally, and the evidence was illegally obtained from detainees, which was not legitimate. Therefore, the plaintiff asked for the above evidence to be discounted. However, the court claimed that “the legitimacy of the public security investigations is not within the range of this court’s hearing”.

1.4.6. The court refused the plaintiff’s legitimate request to check the original evidence documents, and illegally removed the plaintiff’s right to cross-examination. During the session, the defendant failed to present any original documents for evidence. The presiding judge, Wu Nan, upon the request to see the documents, repeatedly struck his gavel and said, “As for the documents, the court has already made a decision; do not bring it up again!”

The court “summarised” when questioning the evidence and did not control the questioning time reasonably. Pieces of evidence numbering a thousand pages were given five minutes for questioning: on average, less than one second for every page of evidence. If the time exceeded five minutes, then the questioning would be regarded as abandoned.

1.4.7. The court removed the plaintiff’s right to debate. The plaintiff’s speech was repeatedly interrupted by the judges and was counted down. During the debate stage, three attorneys spoke for only ten minutes in total. The plaintiff could not fully express an opinion.

1.4.8. For these reasons, the plaintiff considered that the collegiate bench could not carry out this trial justly, and therefore requested the court to withdraw the case.

After the court was adjourned, the collegiate bench refused the request. The plaintiff appealed the decision, and the Chaoyang District Court refused orally, refusing to offer any written documentation.

1.4.9. The court refused to allow the litigants and the representatives to copy the court notes.
After the hearing, the court administrative divisional director promised the defendant that the following day at two o’clock in the afternoon they could come to the court to copy the notes, but the next day when they went to court, copying was no longer permitted, the court citing internal regulations.

1.4.10. The order of legal procedures was swapped when the court refused Fake’s request for evidence only after the trial. On 7 June 2012, Fake made its “application for collecting evidence” to the court.  The court did not respond. Yet after the court opened on 4 July, it decided not to allow any evidence to be collected. The reason given was that the defendant “did not meet the conditions for requesting evidence”. However, the decision did not contain a notification, required by law, to specify “which group and which piece of evidence violated which condition for evidence collection”.

2. Focus of controversy over the facts of the case 

Global Times, a subsidiary of the Chinese official newspaper the People’s Daily, published an editorial, entitled “The law will not bend for mavericks”, on the Ai Weiwei tax case, saying that certain western governments and “human rights organisations” had attacked China with strong commentary without understanding the true situation.

What is the truth behind the Ai tax case? Fake Ltd was established by the shareholders Lu Qing and Liu Zhenggang. Lu Qing was the legal representative and the wife of Ai Weiwei. Liu Zhenggang was business manager, responsible for company operations. The company’s income came mainly from design services. Ai Weiwei was not a staff member of Fake, but provided guidance and advice to the design services of Fake as an independent artist.

Fake went into operation in 2001. The tax organs believed that, over ten years of operation (until 2010), Fake concealed three counts of income, totalling 15,823,724.36 yuan. They pursued unpaid taxes of 5,263,756.61 yuan, a fine for overdue payment of 3,190,331.52 yuan and a penalty of 6,766,822.37 yuan, totaling 15,220,910.50 yuan.

Regarding the facts, the parties were in controversy over the following:

2.1. Who was the tax-paying entity for these three projects with alleged tax issues?

The standard for determining the tax-paying entity depends not on form, but on substance. This is the so-called principle of substance over formality in tax law. The heart of the problem is, who was the true controller of these three projects? Usually the actual controller is determined by who has the right to dispose of and the right to benefit from income. In tax law, the object of the test to determine the right to dispose of and the right to benefit from income is the sum of income. The public security organ, tax organ and the lawyers of Fake all acknowledged that Liu Zhenggang disposed of and controlled the project funding in the case. It is a shame that the conclusion drawn by each party was very different.

2.2. Was it tax evasion?

Regardless of whether the tax-paying entity was Ai Weiwei, Fake Ltd or Liu Zhenggang, the fact that tax duty had not been declared on the income for the three engineering projects is not in dispute. The key to the problem is, does the failure to declare taxable income constitute tax evasion?

According to China’s Law on the Administration of the Levy and Collection of Taxes, there are generally three types of failure to declare tax duty:

2.2.1. “Tax evasion”: falsely filing or deliberately failing to file taxes, causing an underpayment
of tax, following Term 63 of the Law on the Administration of the Levy and Collection of Taxes. This is breaking the law. If it reaches a certain ratio, it constitutes a crime.

According to Term 201 of the Criminal Law, it is the crime of evading payment of tax. The constituents must consist of the resulting elements, namely underpayment of tax and of a clear amount.

2.2.2. “Tax leakage”: not deception or concealment, but human error causing underpayment of tax, according to Term 64, Article 2 of the Law on the Administration of the Levy and Collection of Taxes. It counts as a normal administrative offence, not a criminal offence.

2.2.3. “Making up tax”: underpayment of tax caused by reasons not related to the actor (including incomplete factors in levying tax), as in Article 35 of the Law on the Administration of the Levy and Collection of Taxes. For example, where, although it is clearly income, the expenditure can’t be verified. The tax organ, by approving the profit rate, makes complete the factors in levying tax to realise the aim of levying tax. This type of underpayment of tax is the result of the expansion of administrative powers of the tax organs. It is not breaking the law, so the authorities cannot levy an overdue payment fine or penalty fine.

The contention of this case is focused on the dispute between “tax evasion” and “making up tax”. A simplified breakdown illustrates:

According to the law, when the cost is difficult to verify, an estimated tax should be levied. It should not be handled as a case of tax evasion. When the costs and expenses of a project cannot be checked, it cannot be asserted that the party has been evading tax.

2.3. The issue of verifying costs and expenditures for the three projects

The Second Tax Inspection Bureau said, “The defendant, upon confirming the total amount of taxes that the plaintiff should have paid, has also confirmed the costs related to the taxable income and subtracted it according to regulations.”

The plaintiff believed that the three projects that the tax bureau considered as evading taxes are defined by incomes that greatly mismatch with their costs. The Second Tax Inspection Bureau verified the income of the Boya Garden project as 1,107,716.00 yuan and its costs as nil. That goes against common sense. Income from the Three Shadows and Upper House projects was 14,716,008.36 yuan, the confirmed cost was nearly 1,047,349.39 yuan and the rate of profit was 92.88 per cent.

The costs were ridiculously low because the public security and tax organs jointly and deliberately concealed evidence of costs. For example, it has already been proved that Three Shadows, upon requests from the public security organ, presented it with receipts for expenditure of 3,738,551.06 yuan for materials used in the project. However, the total cost for all three projects that the tax organ received from the public security organ was only 1,047,349.39
yuan, less than a third of the cost for one project. Through this kind of deliberate selection of evidence, the profits of the projects were artificially enhanced to frame the company.

3. Conclusion

When one looks at the overall progress of the case, it is clearly an erroneous lawsuit. How could it have proceeded so smoothly? Because all the processes had already been arranged. The tax law-enforcement organ, the administrative review organ, the judicial court or representative lawyer were all following a set course. Administrative surveillance, independent trial and lawyer participation had no opportunity to exercise their rightful functions.

Tax cases such as that of Fake are ubiquitous in China. Unjust cases of sanctioning a party through tax means are also common. Most of the affected parties choose to remain silent in exchange for a reduction of the penalty by the tax organisation.

Fake used all means to fight its case, exposing illegality at each stage. This is unprecedented. The wish is that, through the heavy price paid by Fake, through the price for freedom paid by a person who doesn’t believe in following trends and who dares to speak the truth, we can make progress in China’s law enforcement.

The information used in this article was provided by Ai Weiwei’s lawyers

This article first appeared in the 22 October 2012 issue of the New Statesman, Ai Weiwei guest-edit

Photo: Getty Images
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How can Britain become a nation of homeowners?

David Cameron must unlock the spirit of his postwar predecessors to get the housing market back on track. 

In the 1955 election, Anthony Eden described turning Britain into a “property-owning democracy” as his – and by extension, the Conservative Party’s – overarching mission.

60 years later, what’s changed? Then, as now, an Old Etonian sits in Downing Street. Then, as now, Labour are badly riven between left and right, with their last stay in government widely believed – by their activists at least – to have been a disappointment. Then as now, few commentators seriously believe the Tories will be out of power any time soon.

But as for a property-owning democracy? That’s going less well.

When Eden won in 1955, around a third of people owned their own homes. By the time the Conservative government gave way to Harold Wilson in 1964, 42 per cent of households were owner-occupiers.

That kicked off a long period – from the mid-50s right until the fall of the Berlin Wall – in which home ownership increased, before staying roughly flat at 70 per cent of the population from 1991 to 2001.

But over the course of the next decade, for the first time in over a hundred years, the proportion of owner-occupiers went to into reverse. Just 64 percent of households were owner-occupier in 2011. No-one seriously believes that number will have gone anywhere other than down by the time of the next census in 2021. Most troublingly, in London – which, for the most part, gives us a fairly accurate idea of what the demographics of Britain as a whole will be in 30 years’ time – more than half of households are now renters.

What’s gone wrong?

In short, property prices have shot out of reach of increasing numbers of people. The British housing market increasingly gets a failing grade at “Social Contract 101”: could someone, without a backstop of parental or family capital, entering the workforce today, working full-time, seriously hope to retire in 50 years in their own home with their mortgage paid off?

It’s useful to compare and contrast the policy levers of those two Old Etonians, Eden and Cameron. Cameron, so far, has favoured demand-side solutions: Help to Buy and the new Help to Buy ISA.

To take the second, newer of those two policy innovations first: the Help to Buy ISA. Does it work?

Well, if you are a pre-existing saver – you can’t use the Help to Buy ISA for another tax year. And you have to stop putting money into any existing ISAs. So anyone putting a little aside at the moment – not going to feel the benefit of a Help to Buy ISA.

And anyone solely reliant on a Help to Buy ISA – the most you can benefit from, if you are single, it is an extra three grand from the government. This is not going to shift any houses any time soon.

What it is is a bung for the only working-age demographic to have done well out of the Coalition: dual-earner couples with no children earning above average income.

What about Help to Buy itself? At the margins, Help to Buy is helping some people achieve completions – while driving up the big disincentive to home ownership in the shape of prices – and creating sub-prime style risks for the taxpayer in future.

Eden, in contrast, preferred supply-side policies: his government, like every peacetime government from Baldwin until Thatcher’s it was a housebuilding government.

Why are house prices so high? Because there aren’t enough of them. The sector is over-regulated, underprovided, there isn’t enough housing either for social lets or for buyers. And until today’s Conservatives rediscover the spirit of Eden, that is unlikely to change.

I was at a Conservative party fringe (I was on the far left, both in terms of seating and politics).This is what I said, minus the ums, the ahs, and the moment my screensaver kicked in.

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.

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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