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Easy Prey: How Egypt Exploits the Families of the Detained and Forcibly Disappeared

An unprecedented amount of political arrests and arbitrary detentions has led to increased exploitation of detainees’ families by conmen and lawyers, often involving thousands of Egyptian pounds. These patterns of extortion also extend to dynamics inside the prison, where humiliation, smuggling, and bribery is rampant.

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The family of former detainee Muhammad Ahmed* searched for him for days. They went through hospitals, police stations, and homes of relatives, friends, and acquaintances, to no avail. He was nowhere to be found.

Later, Muhammad’s family learned that he was being held in one of the headquarters of the National Security Service; they had no information on whether he had been tortured or not. A lawyer close to the family recommended they send a letter to the Public Prosecutor to report Muhammad’s disappearance, and to try to use his connections to release him before he is officially linked to a political case. The lawyer also advised them to avoid speaking publicly or posting on social media about Muhammad, to avoid making things worse.

The family rushed to see their relative, a member of parliament and one of the city’s notables who does business with influential figures and has strong ties with the governorate’s officers, prosecutors, judges, and officials. Although he welcomed them, he refused to help and even sounded terrified as soon as he knew that the Muhammad’s case was political in nature. He told them that “if it were a criminal case involving murder or using weapons, one phone call from me would have been enough to release him right away, but as the case is political, there’s nothing I can do.”

Families of the detainees: Victims of the regime and society

We interviewed 17 former detainees aged 20 to 65 years old from nine different governorates, including 10 detainees who were arrested during the protests of September 2019, which took place after contractor Muhammad Ali had accused President Abdel-Fattah El Sisi of corruption. The detainees passed through seven different prisons, police stations, and detention centers. We also contacted five human rights lawyers working with three Egyptian human rights organizations, three of whom work from within Egypt and follow cases of the Supreme State Security Prosecution on an almost daily basis. The other two lawyers are based abroad, having left Egypt after they were threatened with arrest due to the political nature of their work.

In Egypt, political detainees usually go through several phases of detainment. After their arrest, they are forcibly disappeared for varying amounts of time, are subjected to a series of physical and psychological abuse through which officials attempt to extract confessions, and then they appear at the State Security Prosecution Office pending a case. After that, the detainees are transferred to a prison to serve their sentence or remain in a prolonged pretrial detention. In the event of a detainee’s release, they are still not free; they remain under surveillance by the police and are subjected to constant follow-ups by the National Security Service. Throughout this entire ordeal, some of the detainees’ families fall victim to scams, exploitation and financial drain, as they try to find ways for their family members to gain freedom again.

During the period of enforced disappearance, some detainees’ families become easy prey to people who claim to have strong ties to the security services.

During the period of enforced disappearance, some detainees’ families become easy prey to people who claim to have strong ties to the security services. These individuals ask for large sums of money in return for the release of the disappeared or even simply for proof to confirm that the detainee is alive, as detention can extend for months or even years without the family knowing the detainee’s whereabouts. 

In her interview with TIMEP, Aisha Al-Sawy*, sister of one of the forcibly disappeared spoke on this matter, stating: “My brother was subjected to enforced disappearance for more than a year and a half, and we later learned that he was at the National Security headquarters in Abbasiya, in Cairo. One of the lawyers asked us for 120,000 EGP [around $4,000], claiming that he could transfer my brother from the Abbasiya headquarters to the to the Abis headquarters in Alexandria [a coastal governorate in northern Egypt], and then he would speed up the process of my brother’s appearance before the Public Prosecution for a case with less charges.”

In another interview, former detainee Muhammad Ahmed* added: “An unknown person contacted my family, telling them that he knew where I was being held. He tried to convince them of his strong ties with the officers in charge at the National Security Service, and that he would try to negotiate my release from their headquarters, where I would otherwise be charged with a political case and spend years in jail. He asked my family to pay 500,000 EGP [approximately $31,000, according to the exchange rate at the time], claiming that the money would go to the officers in charge.”

Muhammad’s family told this person that they could pay the money on the condition that Muhammad was released first, but he refused, telling them that half of the amount should be paid in advance, and the other half after the release. The family rejected this offer, and days later, Muhammad appeared in front of the Supreme State Security Prosecution, pending a political case on charges related to terrorism. He went on to spend four years in pretrial detention.

People exploiting the situation kept trying to get money from Muhammad’s family at different stages of the detention process. Initially, they claimed to be able to exclude him from the case before it was referred for trial, or before Muhammad was set to have his pretrial detention reviewed by a judge. They even tried to convince his family that they had strong ties with the prosecution; specifically, they said they could pay bribes to the prosecutor’s secretary in order to schedule a pretrial detention renewal session for Muhammad before one of the judicial districts where they presumably had good ties with the court’s judge, to secure Muhammad’s release. This process alone required a lot of money in order to bribe the prosecution and court staff.

Another detainee, Ahmed Eid*, spent two years in prison after being sentenced for protesting in 2015. Talking about his experience, Eid said that a lawyer contacted his family and volunteered to take on his case; he requested 10,000 EGP ($333) in attorney’s fees, which the family paid. “During the course of the trial, the lawyer asked my family to pay 5,000 EGP [$166]. He said he would then use that as a bribe to the prosecution in order to issue a decision to release me. Of course, no release decisions were issued. After I was sentenced to five years, he asked for another 3,000 EGP [$100] to file an appeal within 60 days. We eventually discovered that another lawyer had filed it.” Eid had no knowledge of any of these events until he was released. When he learned what had happened, he went to the lawyer’s office and asked him to return the money he had taken from his family. Eid was eventually able to recover 8,000 EGP ($267) from that lawyer.

Buying the illusion of freedom: New patterns of exploitation

Egyptian academic and human rights defender Dr. Moataz Al-Fujairi informed TIMEP that “Imprisonment for political reasons has become an essential pillar of the ruling regime in Egypt. This issue is not being dealt with effectively, despite all the talk about the national dialogue and the Presidential Pardon Committee, which are mere formalities that do not affect the overall situation in prisons; as we can see there is no clear change in security policies, and if dozens of detainees are released, then hundreds of others are arrested.” He added: “Why is there no general rule that applies to everyone without exception, so that a decision on pardoning a prisoner is not in the hands of the security services?” 

For years, human rights lawyer Fouad Hajjar* has been following cases of the Supreme State Security Prosecution, pleading on behalf of detainees pro bono. He agrees that there are many patterns of exploitation and fraud, not only on the part of people who claim to have good ties with the security services, but also from some lawyers who use political cases as an opportunity to gain large sums of money in a short period of time.

These lawyers, who are neither human rights activists nor volunteers, took advantage of people’s fear and the lack of knowledge surrounding the nature of political cases.

Hajjar referred to the emergence of new lawyers who take on political cases, especially after the September 2019 protests, when the number of arbitrary arrests increased exponentially throughout the country. These lawyers, who are neither human rights activists nor volunteers, took advantage of people’s fear and the lack of knowledge surrounding the nature of political cases. They approached families of detainees and claimed that only they—as skilled lawyers—can tackle these cases successfully, subsequently demanding large sums of money that range anywhere between tens and hundreds of thousands of pounds per case. “Some other lawyers ask a relatively small fee, but they have hundreds of cases they defend, which results in them making huge amounts of money,” Hajjar added.

Similarly to Hajjar, human rights lawyer Laila Antar* believes that some lawyers view the Supreme State Security Prosecution, especially after the September 2019 protests, as a source of quick profit. “There was a big wave of arrests at the time, and lawyers were unable to cover all the defendants, which were around 4,000 in just a few days,” she added. The Egyptian Commission for Rights and Freedoms documented 4,421 arrests in about 25 governorates in connection with the protests.

Antar mentions two cases: namely, Case No. 1338 of 2019, known as the case of Muhammad Ali or the events of September, and Case No. 1530 of 2019, known as the “Joker Cell,” both of which were referred to trial, with heavy sentences issued against the defendants. In its report on the violations of the Supreme State Security Prosecution, Amnesty International documented at least 3,715 detention cases in Case No.1338, making it the largest protesting case in the history of Egypt in terms of numbers of defendants. 

Before the “Joker Cell” case went to trial, some lawyers learned of the names of those who were going to be freed immediately during the trial, so they quickly demanded big amounts of money from the detainees’ families, lying to them and telling them that they, the lawyers, were the ones behind their release.

Laila Antar* describes these lawyers’ behavior as “exploitative, unprofessional, and damaging for the reputation of the legal profession,” stating that “some lawyers have even agreed among themselves on a minimum fee for cases, and they also try to convince detainees’ families to join cases together as a two-for-one situation, or to file an appeal against the decision of imprisonment for a fee of up to 50,000 EGP [$1,660]. When one of the forcibly disappeared appears before the State Security Prosecution, these lawyers contact their family and do not provide them with any information about their loved one until the family transfers a sum of money, usually about 5,000 EGP [$166].”

Human rights defender Moataz Al-Fujairi told TIMEP that “people are facing an unstoppable repressive machine,” as Egypt has never witnessed such a large number of detainees, and that such violations have been continuous since July 2013. He believes that the crisis lies in the big numbers of the detainees and the lack of resources to cover their needs, which are “greater than anyone’s ability to help.” This forces human rights organizations to focus their efforts on certain cases while neglecting others. Al-Fujairi also stated that he personally witnessed a considerable increase in the demand for financial support by families of detainees in order to cover costs such as attorney’s fees and bribes, among other things.

Exploitation inside prisons: Drug and mobile phone mafia

The exploitation of detainees and their families also happens within prison walls. In prisons that have “canteens,” prisoners are allowed to buy some basic commodities as well as cigarettes, but these are sold at high prices so that the prison can make a quick profit from the prisoners. Well-off prisoners also routinely bribe security personnel for respectful treatment and basic humane living conditions, or even to have longer periods of exercise outside the cells.

Additionally, when visiting their relatives in prison, detainees’ families are financially drained by the security personnel in charge of the inspection, as they are forced to pay in order to bring in food, clothes, and medicine, even though they should be allowed to bring in these things.

Former detainee Saeed Jaber* describes the exploitation he endured and witnessed during his detainment. He recounts how security personnel were involved in smuggling drugs and hashish to prisoners at double the price, providing them with quick profit. He adds: “Each cell had to pay a sum of money on a monthly basis; this money would go to the prison warden, who in turn would deliver it to the informants in order to ensure their loyalty and offer them comfortable living conditions. There is also another monthly sum of money that goes directly to the chief of investigation, in return for making the prison “open”: as in, to allow the smuggling of mobile phones under the supervision of the prison administration. This way, the chief of investigation essentially became the head of a mobile phone smuggling network, as he sells phones to prisoners at double the price through the informants who work for him.”

Moataz Al-Fujairi also said that “there is complete immunity for the supervisors of the penal system in Egypt, which is unprecedented and which no police officer enjoyed even during former President Hosni Mubarak’s rule. Today, there is an implicit greenlight by the regime to allow actors in the penal system to humiliate detainees, and therefore, it is natural for these patterns of corruption and exploitation to appear. This manner of dealing with the penal system in Egypt leads to flagrant corruption, as well as the deterioration and politicization of the role of the justice system.” 

*Muhammad Ahmed, Aisha Al-Sawy, Ahmed Eid, Fouad Hajjar, Laila Antar, and Saeed Jaber are pseudonyms to ensure the personal safety of real persons.

Mostafa Al-a’sar is a Nonresident Fellow at TIMEP focusing on press freedom and media in Egypt.


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