By Geoffrey Mock, Country Specialist, Amnesty International USA
When Hanan Badr el-Din’s husband became one of thousands of Egyptians to be “disappeared”, the safe thing for her would have been to keep quiet.
Instead she joined with other family members of the disappeared to create a large and vocal group advocating for the disappeared and for judicial and police reforms that would end the practice.
Hanan shined a forceful light on a practice the Egyptian government wanted to keep quiet. Since 2015, there has been a rise in documented cases of enforced disappearances. Security forces seized people from their homes, the street, cafes and their places of work. During detention, the victims have been tortured to obtain “confessions” to be used against them or to implicate others. Victims include children as young as 14 years old.
Security forces took action against the group, arresting the co-founder. But Hanan wasn’t going to be silenced. Then, this past May 6, the police came for her, detaining her while she was at an Egyptian prison meeting with a prisoner who had been disappeared and might have information about her husband.
A half-year later Hanan remains in jail. Authorities have falsely accused her of being a member of a banned organization and of smuggling illegal documents during her prison visit, but they’ve not bothered to bring any actual charges against her. In what has become the Egyptian authorities’ way of handling political trials, they have continued to renew time and time again her detention without charge and without giving her any opportunity to contest the imprisonment.
In jail, she joins Amnesty International Write4Rights cases Shawkan, women’s rights activists such as Azza Soliman, defendants in the infamous Case 173 targeting leaders of Egyptian human rights organizations, and thousands of activists held in pre-trial detention limbo such as Ola al-Qaradawy and her husband Hossam Khalaf.
It becomes hard to maintain outrage when each day in Egypt seems to bring a new case of security forces silencing the media and civil society. Egyptian activists haven’t given up, but they have no space to act. They are counting on us to raise our voices when they face repression.
And it can work: When the US government stripped $300 million of military aid to the country, Egyptian government officials took notice, launching a significant public relations campaign to improve its human rights reputation in the United States.
But just as civil society has little space to act, the Egyptian government is also losing options. As the attacks by armed Islamist groups increase in Egypt, the security situation continues to deteriorate, undermining the government’s main claim to legitimacy and effectiveness. To date, the government’s main response to each security disaster is to arrest more civil society activists and clamp down more on the remaining independent media.
That’s why Hanan’s Write4Rights case is so important. Speaking loudly and publicly on her behalf will maintain the external pressure on human rights when the government attempts to silence voices internally. It will take up the pressure started by the cuts to military aid, and let the government know it can’t solve this problem through public relations but by action.
It sends a valuable solidarity message to Hanan and other activists in Egypt, letting them know that they are being heard and they are not alone, even those like her husband who have disappeared into the Egyptian prison system.
And freeing Hanan will strike a blow against the practice that motivated her activity in the first place. Enforced disappearances is a cancer on the Egyptian judicial system, stripping a system that even during the worst years of the Mubarak regime showed an independent streak that provided space for human rights defenders to fight for justice. It should be a place where people like Hanan can seek justice.
Instead Hanan sits in Qanatar Prison. She still has yet to receive any information about the whereabouts of her husband.