CAIRO — In interrogation rooms shielded from the public by black site prisons, hundreds of Egyptians opposed to the military regime are being tortured as they are secretly detained without their families or lawyers knowing their whereabouts, according to human-rights activists.
Rooted in Egypt’s role in the American extraordinary rendition program, head of the Egyptian commission for Rights and Freedoms, Mohamed Lotfy, says this practice of forced disappearance has become increasingly common for political opposition since the July 3 coup. Set to release a report later this month on those disappeared into detention centers, Lotfy contends that security forces have cast a wide net for detainees ranging from civilians caught up in the crossfire of Sinai’s insurgency and protest leaders to suspected militants.
When “Ibrahim” went to take a university exam in January, he wasn’t thinking it would be the last time anyone would hear from him for more than two months. But instead of completing his semester, the student leader of protests against the army’s return to power, orchestrated by former general and now president Abdel Fattah El Sisi, says he was disappeared into a secret military prison and brutally tortured repeatedly.
Declining to use his real name out of fear of reprisal, Ibrahim describes a dark and gruesome odyssey.
On January 10, he says, he was stopped from entering his exam by campus security and handed over to the army, who accused him of planning to attack university buildings with Molotov cocktails. Thrown onto the floor of a military vehicle with soldiers all around him, he says he was kicked with steel-toed boots and beaten with rifle butts all the way to the university sports stadium, which had been commandeered by the army.
In what sounds like a parallel to the horror stories of Chile’s military government in the 1970’s, Ibrahim details being blindfolded and taken into the stadium where interrogators beat him with sticks and electrocuted his hands, nipples, eyelids, armpits and genitals.
“They wanted to know the names of protest leaders… and main student leaders in the universities,” says the skinny man with a blank stare, who is in his early twenties.
Student protests have become the core of popular opposition to the regime and, despite an escalating crackdown on campus activism, universities are one of the only places in Egypt where the demands for freedom and social justice of the 2011 revolution are still forceful.
After interrogators in the stadium finished with him, Ibrahim recalls overhearing a conversation where a commanding officer ordered that a police car en route to officially arrest him be turned away. He says he was then thrown onto the floor of another military vehicle and beaten all the way to his next destination, which he later discovered was Azouli prison, secluded in a massive military base outside the city of Ismailia.
Upon arrival at the prison, Ibrahim depicts a scene where he begged for medical attention and to have his blindfold removed because of the swelling in his face. When the blindfold was taken off he saw a man in civilian clothes behind a desk who forced to him sign a confession to the accusations of possessing Molotov cocktails and intended arson. The man then order soldiers take him to a clinic in the prison for topical medical treatment. It was the last time he would see a doctor for the next two months.
“I was dying from the torture so they had to keep me living. They had to keep me alive to [continue to] get information from torture,” he says bitterly.
Ibrahim describes the detention center as a three-floor prison originally intended for soldiers who violated army laws. However he says two of the three floors were full of civilians, half being tried by the military and half under military investigation like him.
The Commission believes there are between 600 and 1,000 civilians held in Azouli, including minors. “We know of one minor in the black site, he’s 16,” says Lotfy of a high-school student detained for protest organizing.
At first put alone in a cell, Ibrahim’s only interaction with other prisoners was in the morning when his cellblock was briefly let out to use the bathroom for, he contends, roughly ten seconds on the toilet each. The rest of the time he was either locked in his cell or taken blindfolded to interrogation, where he says he could tell from soldier’s conversations that he was in the care of military police or by military intelligence while being viciously questioned and tortured.
On the way to the interrogation, he says, he would hear the screams of other detainees being tortured and could at times hear the cries of children.
Interrogated about student protests and leaders on four occasions during his detention at Azouli, Ibrahim says he was again regularly electrocuted for long periods, tied in stress positions, hung from the ceiling by his arms, which were tied behind his back. He says he was also water boarded and beaten.
In addition, Lotfy has gathered reports of detainees having hot oil poured on their backs.
After his initial interrogations Ibrahim says was given a cellmate, Ammar El Nisr, who was allegedly disappeared because of footage he took during the massacre of 51 protesters by security forces at Cairo’s Republican Guards Club in July 2013. The two were -eventually moved to a 16-by 10 foot where there were housed with 23 other detainees for another 51 days, until Ibrahim was released without charge.
Unable to contact his family or a lawyer, he says the only way he was able to notify his parents about what happened to him was through another prisoner who was released and able to phone them.
“It’s a horrible situation when you disappear and your family doesn’t know if you’re dead or alive, or if you are being tortured,” says Ibrahim.
Although Ibrahim has returned to his family and society (though he’s not living at home and recently went on the run again, as the police are still targeting him for his political activity), many other families with loved ones believed to be in Azouli have had no reunion. After, in some cases, more than 10 months relatives are still searching prisons and getting nowhere in the bureaucracy of Egypt’s judicial system and military in desperate attempts to locate missing brothers, sons and husbands.
Ismail Adel Hamid, father of 22-year-old Adel Hamid, has been looking for his son since he received reports that he was arrested by police during the Army’s dispersal of the August anti-coup sit-in at Cairo’s Rabba square where hundreds of protesters were killed. A student at Al Azahr University in Cairo, Adel had voted for Mohamed Morsi when he was elected president in 2012 and joined the protests against his removal by the military a year later.
Traveling to Cairo from Kafr el Sheik in the Nile Delta region, searching morgues, hospitals and prisons, Hamid says he finally heard from former Azouli prisoners now standing trial and a military lawyer that his son was being held in Azouli. However, when he traveled to the vast military base in January, he was denied access to the prison. He has made five trips to the base in an attempt to reach his son but says he’s now been told that his son has was moved to another undisclosed prison.
“Here in Egypt it’s not like your country, if a person disappears, it’s no problem,” says Hamid with large bags under his eyes, exhausted and broken yet still desperate to find his son.
Badria Said has also been searching for her son, Omar Mohamed Ali Hammed, since Rabaa—but unlike Hamid, she has no idea where he is. An Al Azhar student and hip hop MC, Mohamed Ali Hammed was with his older sister, Miriam, when they were separated during the violence of the dispersal. Miriam recalls her last conversation with her brother being about him trying to help members of his group escape the crackdown. She says some of his group members are also still missing.
She describes spending the rest of the day searching through piles of bodies trying find her brother among the corpses, something she is still traumatized about. She later heard from witnesses that he was arrested by soldiers after being shot in the shoulder. It was the last time the family herd any news about Omar.
“I just want to know where my son is. The whole family is facing problems,” says Said distraughtly sitting next to her pale and shaken daughter. “Our youth were supposed to get this country back on its feet, now they are in the ground or in jail.”
While those disappeared and their families experience a new level of hell in political detention, even gathering information about the black sites and the disappeared has become dangerous. Although it’s been acknowledged by Ministry of Interior officials that 16,000 people have been arrested since July, The Commission for Rights and Freedoms is under pressure to stop investigating Azouli and the secrete detention process.
Haithem Ghoniem, a researcher with the commission, has been unable to return home since police showed up at his parent’s door looking for him in March. Central in gathering testimony from those vanished and tortured as well speaking with families who can’t find loved ones, Ghoniem continues his work but is constantly on the move. He says undercover police have been stationed outside his parents building and he now fears a fate similar to those he is trying to make the public aware of.
“I’m being targeted because we are talking about Azouli and secrete prisons,” he says dryly. “I know this is the price you pay for talking about such cases.”
Previously arrested in 2010 under former autocrat Hosni Mubarak for blogging about Egypt’s security forces, Ghoniem was arrested again in January, just before the third anniversary of the revolution. He was jailed for 26 days.
Noting a trend of security forces targeting family members when they can’t find their suspect, he says his biggest fear is that something will happen to his mother or his sister. Ghoniem, who says incarceration and repression is now as far worse than even the Mubarak era, now fears a greater polarization in Egypt where young people feel pushed to embrace armed opposition on a wider scale.
“We talk to sons who have lost their father and brother and say ‘why am I alive? They have taken everyone I love.’
Despite repeated attempts, the army was unreachable for comment. A spokesperson from the Ministry of Interior denied any knowledge of Azouli detaining civilians, secret detentions or any collaboration between its National Security Force and Central Security force and the Army in arrests. He said the military had its own practices and procedures for investigations, arrests and detentions.