The press conference was convened on the occasion of HRW releasing its latest report regading the ongoing detention and torture of the citizens of Northern Sinai governate, particularly the city of al-Arish.
This story broke in the beginning of December before I began blogging here at the Arabist.net. At the time, I had written this, which now serves as background information for those unaware:
1 December 2004:
The story of the week is the detention and torture of somewhere between 2,000-3,000 people by Egyptian Security Services in the Sinai cities of al-Arish and al-Shaykh Zwaid.
The story was reported by three Egyptian human rights groups - The Egyptian Association against Torture, Hisham Mubarak Law Center, and El-Nadim Center for the Rehabilitation of Victims of Violence. These groups traveled to north Sinai governate and carried out research. The testimonies of victims is available online (these testimonies are no longer online but there are testimonies in the HRW report - if you absolutely want the original information, let me know and I will get them on the blog somehow).
The story has been commented on by other domestic human rights groups such as the Egyptian Organization for Human Rights (EOHR). Their statement was published here.
The international media has been slow to pick up this story. After Amnesty International issued its statement, more attention has followed.
A straight-forward article was published in today's Financial Times. A slightly more nuanced piece is Paul Schemm's "Trouble in Sinai" in the bi-weekly Middle East International (3 December 2004).
As far as the Cairo press goes, al-`Arabi (the Nasserist Party paper) printed an investigative piece yesterday entitled, "City under Siege". The rest of the Egyptian press is remaining reserved until the security services and/or government comment.
Unfortunately the state's use of collective punishment and torture is a frequent occurrence in the past 15 years. Whether it involves Islamists in Cairo's Imbaba section (1992), sectarian violence in Sohag governate (village of al-Kosh) in August 1998 and January 2000, or problems with drug runners in Nakhila (Assuit governate) in February/March 2004, the state's trend response is the mass arrest and torture of men, women, and children.
Today's press conference was headed by HRW's MENA director, Joe Stork. It also included the head of the Hisham Mubarak Legal Center, Ahmad Saif al-Islam, and the head of El-Nadim Center for the Rehabilitation of Victims of Violence, `Aida Saif al-Dawla. It seemed like the Cairo activist and journalistic world was there. Organizations such as al-Jazeera, al-`Arabiya, al-Ahali, al-Wafd, Cairo Mag, AP, LA Times were there to name a few.
I will not go into the report - that is online and linked above. Instead, I would like to share some of my impressions and some of the press conference's asides.
First off, female family members of those detained in al-Arish were present. I would guess about eight women were there in the front rows. After Stork, Saif al-Islam, and Saif al-Dawla spoke, one of these women spoke. Her story was moving to be sure. She had five male immediate relatives (ages 17-30) taken off to Amn al-Dawla (State Security in al-Arish). Apparently, Amn al-Dawla entered from the windows, balcony, and doors. This woman's four-month year old baby was sleeping and got stepped on. The baby suffered broken ribs. They went to the hospital and the hospital treated her but refused to issue a report on the injury because of who was involved. The women in the house, at the time, were told that the men were being taken to see the "Basha" (head of Amn al-Dawla in al-Arish) and that they would be back in 5 minutes. Some of them remain in prison without being charged. The woman who testified was threatened and told not to come to Cairo to this press conference but she said that through the encouragement of one of her released brothers that this was something that needed done for the sake of freedom and so that her other relatives would not be forgotten. As an aside, the woman noted that women were having their naqabs taken off their faces forcefully by security and that men were dragged from mosques while they were praying during the security sting between mid-October and mid-November.
Stork outlined HRW's report and noted that last night he received a phone call at 12am saying the after repeated denials and unresponsiveness that he could have meetings with senior figures in the prosecutor's office and at the ministry of the interior. This, as a friend noted, is a new development. We will have to wait and see what comes out of it. Stork mentioned that they believe 2400 people remain in detention and torture is endemic. He mentioned his boss, Ken Roth, informally raised the issue in Washington at a meeting with senior US government figures who told them that this was to be expected after an act such as the Taba bombing. Stork also mentioned that he had contacts with the Egyptian National Council of Human Rights. As of December, the NCHR had not had any communication with the government concerning al-Arish. He was told that the NCHR preferred to handle it in a "quiet" manner. From his understanding and a meeting with NCHR members yesterday, the council is discussing the issue. They have, yet, to issue a public statement though.
`Aida Saif al-Dawla commended members of the Popular Committee for Citizens Rights in North Sinai for bringing the issue to Cairo last November. Without this, chances the al-Arish detentions would not have received any attention. `Aida's main call was for the Egyptian press to keep a record and report the story and the HRW's finding so that further government retribution can be minimized by spotlighting the abuse. She also noted that al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies deputy director, Dr. Mohamad al-Sayyid Said, publicly asked president Mubarak to clarify the ongoing detention and arrests of nearly 3,000 people in al-Arish. The president apparently noted that "The whole of al-Arish does not have 3,000 inhabitants." Al-Arish has a population of 125,000. Stork interjected and felt that Mubarak's arrogance and dismissive attitude of the situation would probably be better off kept to himself.
Lastly, Ahmed Saif spoke about his recent experiences with the Security Services. While he and the other contributing NGOs were preparing the reports with HRW, his apartment in Boulak al-Dakrur was broken into and his laptop was stolen as well as some of his personal files. He understood the break-in to be the work of petty thieves. Yet, yesterday after 1230 pm, his apartment was broken into again and his new laptop was stolen and papers taken. Outraged, he went to the Boulak al-Dakrur police station and filed complaints against president Mubarak, the head of public intelligence, and state security. This is not the first time Saif al-Islam has filed charges against the president of the republic. In March 2003, he filed charges in the prosecutor general's office citing that Mubarak and his minister of Interior, Habib al-Adli, committed crimes against the rights of demonstrators during the protests after the Iraq war began. The P-G never acted on the charges filed preferring to bury them.
In response to the latest round of harassment, Saif al-Islam had a prepared written statement in English and Arabic. I will reproduce the English version but note that the Arabic version is very harshly worded (its meaning and connotations are even harsher than the English statement despite being the same in content):
Your message was clear
My response is: I shall not be silenced
Let my blood contribute to the redness of the rose of freedom
Tyrants, pharaohs of Egypt,
I have received your message when you violated the privacy of my home in midday on the 21st of February 2005. This time your message was clear and obvious in its meaning and intent, no longer obscure like earlier ones which could have tolerated several interpretations.
My answer is simply and humane and is not directed to you, but to my fellow Egyptians.
Let it be clear:
Yes, I refuse the oppression and dictatorship of Hosni Mubarak.
Yes, I refuse a renewal of his mandate as president.
Yes, I refuse being passed as a piece of heritage to his son.
Yes, I shall not stop criticizing the president, no matter who he is.
Yes, I want a democratic constitution that grants all human rights, without exception to all citizens with no discrimination on any ground, which provides an effective role of the legislative and judiciary authorities, restricts the malignant infiltration and spread of the executive authorities, and grants the right to elect the president of the republic from among more than one candidate and for no longer than two terms.
Yes, I shall continue to expose human rights violations in this country, foremost torture and arbitrary detentions, persistence of emergency state and all forms of discrimination between citizens especially those based on religion and gender.
Yes, I shall continue to struggle with all involved to liberate civil society organizations from the many restrictions that control them and limit their freedom of organization.
Yes, I shall continue to struggle with all those who believe that foreign occupation is itself a flagrant violation of human rights.
I shall not be intimidated or silenced by the red lines of tyrants, no matter who draws them.
I shall not submit to silence imposed on us by the power of oppression or even by the power of the law.
Do not believe them when you read in their newspapers or watch or listen in their mass media that we are charged of criminal charges (debauchery, drugs, rigging) in an attempt to defame the reputation of the opposition. Do not believe them no matter how grave the charges.
They say the fish starts rotting from its head. Don't you smell the rot of our fish?!
Lawyer Ahmed Seif El Islam Hamad
22 February 2005
I do not share this statement to get Ahmed in trouble. The statement is in the public domain already and he has forwarded it to the authorities. Besides, Ahmed is well-known to them. I bring this to your attention in the hope that awareness will win out. Please share this account with other interested and uninterested parties.
There you go. That is what I saw. Notably, and with the qualification that Saif al-Islam and Saif al-Dawla neither want nor welcome US support, what I did not see today was a representative of the US Embassy in Cairo at today's press conference.
They must be off somewhere finishing their dissertations about freedom, liberties, and democracy...
According to the BBC this morning, Joe Stork has commented on his meeting with the Egyptian Interior Ministry. The ministry is claiming that they only have two-hundred (200, not 2400 as HRW claims) in custody.
Stork said, "I find that non-credible." So they gave him a meeting instead of not responding but did not bother to provide an interesting addendums or counter-points.
Meanwhile, the Foreign Ministry released a rebuttal to the HRW report, which Arabist.net has but is yet to translate. We will give it a read over and make a decision if its counter-arguments are worth our time. Quickly though, the FA says that any trasgressions by the state conecering HR in al-Arish that are proven will be prosecuted. I guess we will see.....