December 09, 2013

Eritrea's botched kick-off – Football players defect

Once more it is not going well for the oppressive regime of Eritrean's President Isaias Afewerki. Desperately trying to find some honour abroad, at least in the field of sports, something keeps going awfully wrong.

Yesterday nine members of the Eritrean national football team, currently in Kenya for the 2013 CECAFA Cup, disappeared from their hotel and defected. With them is the team coach, which leaves the rest of the players stranded.

Already a week ago two players of the team had gone in hiding, so that now eleven Eritrean football players have turned their back on the regime that send them to the tournament. It is expected that they will file an asylum request with the UNHCR in Kenya.

Defecting athletes, something well known of Eastern Bloc nations during the time of the Cold War, are always an embarrassment to the regimes they flee from. Nothing shows so intensely the desperation of a people as when its national athletes make use of a sports event abroad to abscond. Eritrea however almost has a running tradition of this by now, and President Afewerki will have to think once more about the honour he tried to gain and lost double by the defection of national football team members, a situation he knows well from the past.

A running tradition of defection

In 2006, four players of the national team defected after a CAF Champions League match in Nairobi, Kenya. One year later, 12 members defected after a game of the 2007 CECAFA Cup in Tanzania.  Another 6 players sought asylum in Angola in March 2007 after a game in the qualification group 6 for the 2008 Africa Cup of Nations, and three more players from the national team sought asylum in Sudan.

As this was clearly getting out of hand, heaping shame after shame on the regime of President Afewerki that was so desperate to keep up the fairy tale of normality in the oppressed country, the plug was pulled, and Eritrea withdrew from the 2008 CECAFA Cup. With no players abroad, no shame by defection was to be feared.

Not participating however in the most important football tournament of Africa was shame in itself. So one year later Eritrea decided to take part again and hastily assembled a new team of football players for the 2009 CECAFA Cup in Kenya. In only 12 days the young team was drilled and this time a security payment of 100,000 nakfa (around $ 6.500) was demanded from the athletes before leaving to ensure they would return.

It went awfully wrong. 12 players – half the team Eritrea send to the tournament – failed to report for the return flight and filed asylum requests with the UNHCR in Nairobi. At first Eritrea pretended not to be aware of the defection, then it promised the defectors a "good welcome" on return despite them having "betrayed" the country. At the same time Eritrea however urged Kenya's police to find and arrest the defectors who for good reason did not fall for the temptation of a "good welcome" and remained in hiding for eight months. They were then granted asylum status and are now living – and playing football – in Australia.

In 2010, vowing to this time have a police escort that keeps a watch over the players at all times, Eritrea tried once more and send a new national team to the 2010 CECAFA Cup to Tanzania. But again 13 players defected, asked for asylum and are now living – and playing football – in Houston, Texas.

The streak of bad luck for the Eritrean regime was far from over. In 2011 it once again withdrew from the CECAFA Cup citing lack of funds, though everyone was convinced it was to prevent even more players to defect. By 2012 however the regime had pulled itself together and gave it another go. It turned out not to be the best of ideas.

During the 2012 CECAFA Cup in Uganda, 17 members of the Eritrean national football team and the team doctor left the hotel in Kampala to 'go shopping' or 'visit friends' – but never returned. They defected and filed for asylum. Only five players and two officials were left to return home to the once more deeply shamed regime of Eritrea. The defected players were granted refugee status by Uganda in February this year.

After such a tradition of losing its football players on practically every African tournament year after year Eritrea should have perhaps known better than to give it another try. But overzealous national pride yearning for at least some acceptance abroad despite the horrific human rights situation in the country seemed to have won over reason. With no good result.

It happened yet again

The 2013 CECAFA Cup proved to be yet another Eritrean Waterloo: 2 players ducked into hiding at the beginning of last week, 8 more players and the team coach disappeared from their hotel last night, are now in a secret place and will ask for asylum with the Kenyan Office of the UNHCR. Once more the plane taking the Eritrean national football team home will be half empty.

Eritrea, dubbed the 'North Korea' of Africa, has a serious problem. According to estimates, around 3,000 Eritreans are secretly leaving the country every month trying to get out of the terror grip of the ruthlessly authoritarian regime. High ranking air force pilots fly their planes to nearby Saudi Arabia to defect, where three planes have by now accumulated on the tarmac. A female pilot, sent by Eritrea to pick up one of the planes, immediately asked for asylum herself. And one of the most famous Eritrean singer, Yohannes Tikabo, defected only two months ago. It just doesn't work out well for President Afewerki.

With the new embarrassment now at the 2013 CECAFA Cup in Kenya, Eritrea has shown the world once more that its botched kick-off at African football tournaments is becoming tradition. There is no doubt that the lean, well trained Eritrean football players can run. Sadly for the President and his oppressive regime however, most of them – at least in the eyes of the President – keep running in the wrong direction.

October 22, 2013

What Egypt can learn from Hypatia Alber

I'm not the type to go into frenzy over a baby, I shamefully admit it. It is not, because I don't love children, on the contrary, I adore them and believe they are our most precious key to a future. But in general I feel – other than the parents escorting them – that one baby in a pram pretty much looks like the next, a little ruffled, much confused over the many faces that pop up over the limited horizon the little carriage offers, not very communicative – and often plain asleep. While I of course understand that to the mother or father next to it this baby is, no questions asked (dare you), the most wonderful, beautiful baby that ever graced the face of the earth, I – silently – beg to differ but naturally assure the good parents that this indeed is one exceptional offspring. Which is true, seeing it is theirs and not somebody else's. So I am not really lying.

There is one baby however that has truly captured my heart for many reasons these days. And yes, even I find that she's not only exceptionally nice to look at (who could not fall for this cute smile?) but also someone very special, with a really beautiful name to go by: Hypatia. Hypatia Alber.

The little one was just recently born by her mother to the most proudest father you probably can come across, one, who already posted photos of her when she was still inside her mother, constantly having her hands at her head and her head often down to which he excitedly exclaimed: "That's my girl!"

He should know. For he is a man who uses his head a lot himself and almost got killed over this only a year ago: Alber Saber.

For those, who are not familiar with his story, which I wrote about a year ago on this blog (Alber Saber - And all is well in Egypt), let me give you a quick sum up: Egyptian, intelligent, 27 years old, thinking aloud about religion and God and trying to find his way in the labyrinths called religions. A Copt, I should add. And all and all, in the Egypt that was 'ruled' by President Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood this was a toxic mixture.

A year ago this time, Alber Saber rotted in an Egyptian jail, awaiting the outcome of his trial for alleged blasphemy. In the aftermath of the riots around the vile anti-Islam movie "Innocence of Muslims", tensions against Copts ran high and Alber's posting of his contemplations on religion angered his Muslim Cairo neighbours who on 12 September stormed the house where he was living with his mother and threatened to burn the place down – with them inside. In their fear, mother and son called the police to protect them, but when the Egyptian police arrived and barely were able to make their way through a hateful, shouting mob, there was no interest to protect the Copts. The police sided with those attacking them instead, confiscated Alber's computer and arrested him, leaving the fear stricken mother alone with the death threats hurling crowd.

What followed was horror

Alber they took to the police station where he was thrown into a cell with criminals, not without shouting first that he had insulted God and was an infidel, so that the cellmates turned on him, beat him badly, and one slashed his neck with a razor blade. He had to spend the rest of the night in a corner, bleeding and scared and not knowing if he would ever come out of this alive.

His trial lasted almost three months and was an incredible, hate filled farce. On 12 December the judge ruled that Alber, in criticising religion, had incited 'tensions among Muslims and Christians' and therefor was guilty. The verdict: three years in prison. The chances of him ever getting justice in an Egypt full of sectarian strife under Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood had been crushed.

Five days later, as an appeal had been launched and due to the publicity his case and the unjust verdict received world wide, Alber Saber was freed on bail until the resuming of his trial in January 2013. On the day his appeal case was to start, Alber Saber had left Egypt. He knew, he would never get justice if he stayed.

The months that followed for him in Europe were both challenging and depressing. The freedom he gained was a wonderful gift, yet being torn apart from his family was extremely hard. He missed his wife, his mother, his friends. But had to grit his teeth and go on. His safety was at stake.

Then slowly things began taking good turns. The family situation became sorted out and a safe place to live was found. With a heavy heart still over Egypt and those left behind Alber Saber started to do what was his right as a young married man, to live and to love. And to become secure in his life.

It was at this time that a little human started to appear on the horizon, shy at first but bigger and bolder as the months went on, and a living proof that even after troubling times in an Egyptian jail good things can come out of it if you are released on bail. For this little one was conceived when freedom was restored, and it was for her the most that Alber had to make sure he would not rot in prison but be free when she would decide to enter this world.

And enter she did. With a smile so cute, it melts your heart, with wide awake, open eyes to observe and take in, with a twinkle in those eyes, as if trying to say that living after all is real fun and should be enjoyed and that sorrows surely are not part of the universe – and if ever they were may easily be forgotten.

Hypatia, as she so beautifully was called, was the biggest triumph over sectarian hate and police brutality and rotting in dark cells with cockroaches, violent guards and aggressive inmates. She was – and is – the epitome of life and what it is all about: Hope and humanity, compassion and happiness, and the wonderful right to own a future. For everyone. Even for her father who, only a year ago, had to endure such horrors.

The truth about being a father

It was one of the most dreaded parts of Mubaraks rantings, when the old dictator kept referring to Egyptians as 'my children'. When he called the men and women of Egypt 'my sons' and 'my daughters', though he never had a hand in their coming to this world and even less in their making a living and being allowed to live. While he named himself their father, he did not hesitate to make their life hell, neglect them, terrorise them, allow them to be beaten, arrested, tortured and even killed. Something a true father would never have done.

After he was gone, others came pretending to be different but picking up the same sick line of 'my children' and the farce of being a loving father. They too now are history, and how much the current strong man of Egypt, el-Sisi, feels to be the father of Egyptians has yet to be seen. But the well known, albeit dreaded, version of fatherly love from above is lurking once more around the corner.

Enters Hypatia again, full of innocence and natural trust, crouching into the arms of her real father, who could not be prouder and happier, and teaching those old Egyptian wanna-be fathers the simple lesson what being a father to a child really means. Three words are needed only: Love, security and trust.

If you see Hypatia's face, you know what Egyptians expect from their fathers and what they deserve. It is, with all those father figures, high time that the expectations finally are met.

If anything, Egypt can learn a lot from Hypatia and her wonderful smile: That it is worth living more than dying, that trust is the essence for happiness, and that without true, compassionate love, people should not even dream of calling themselves fathers. Only in the arms of a father of love, says Hypatia, can I cuddle securely, dream my little dreams of happiness and fall soundly asleep.

Which she promptly does.

Hush, Egypt, hush. It is time to become quite and contemplate what life is really about. From the darkness of jail hell to the brightness of pure happiness is but a short way. Choose the latter, come on. And while you still ponder on this – make sure please that you don't wake the little one. Psssst ...


All pictures © Alber Saber - reproduced with kind permission

September 11, 2013

The labels of otherness in our heads

On the sad anniversary of 9/11 listen to my thoughts on what really tears us apart. The categories in our heads and the never ending labels of otherness we can't get rid off. Written as an Op-ed after the bombs went up in Boston killing and wounding people, here you can now listen to them in a podcast. In the hope, that one day we'll be able to stop the hate that kills and maims humans like you and me.

July 22, 2013

Sinai: In the Realm of Death

In the current weekly print supplement Süddeutsche Zeitung Magazin, published in the German leading newspaper SZ, a horrific story about the torture of kidnapped Africans in Egypt's Sinai is spreading across 24 pages. Called "In the Realm of Death", it is a harrowing account of an 18-day trip to hell by the award winning journalist Michael Obert and Magnum photographer Moises Saman. As the report is only published in German but contains vital information especially for Egyptian readers and government authorities, I am recounting their trip here and added translations of vital passages that are chilling to read. Wherever quotation marks are set, the passage is a direct translation of the original report.

If anyone wonders if the horrid accounts of torture practices mentioned here are factual or not just products of over imagination, I can assure you I have read and heard numerous reports to this for a long time now that are as brutal as these. A human rights organisation in Israel alone has collected testimonies from over 1,300 Africans who barely survived the torture camps in the Sinai. Their stories tell of unspeakable crimes against humans and they carry the – well documented – horrific scars and injuries to go with it. The brutalities reported here in this report sadly are factual. We have to face it, whether we like it or not.

It is my wish that more people are willing to be aware of the terrible crimes against humans that are ongoing day by day by day in the Sinai desert. And that we manage to pressure the interim Egyptian government to undertake steps to put an end to one of the biggest atrocities of our times.

I urge anyone who is fluent in German to read it. It gives harrowing insights into the mindset of the torturers of Sinai, the Egyptian authorities who look away – and a world that does not care.



Up to July 26, 2013, you could find my very long, detailed recounting of the trip the two journalists took,with a number of translated quotes from the original German article here. The reaction to this blogpost was overwhelming and the many readers, the post had, were shocked to hear what is going on in the Sinai regarding the horrific torture of innocent human beings held hostage.

However, the publishers of the Süddeutsche Zeitung Magazin asked me to remove my post as their licensing department has purchased the rights for the translation to exclusive partners and they fear my post could interfere with this.

I have been assured that the article I find so important for English readers to read will be published in translation shortly in a big newspaper/mag, so it will then be possible for the English speaking audience to read the article in it's complete form.

As things stand, I have decided to oblige with their request and remove my recounting of the journey on this blog so as not to interfere with the said republishing process. I am very much interested that the article in translation finds it's way in whole into the English speaking public sphere.

My post was intended to inform and raise awareness of the horrors that happen daily in the Sinai. In this I was agreed with the author, who wanted nothing as much as to stir the world in order for it to wake up and make an effort to finally put an end to these unbelievable atrocities that have cost thousands of African lives in the last years.

(Read my article in the Daily News Egypt on this, and check this blog for further posts on the subject.)

Three quotes from the original article I would like you to read and know.

Of those hostages, who after horrible torture manage to come free, many are arrested by the Egyptian authorities, if they are badly injured, handcuffed to hospital beds, or otherwise thrown into jail. Michael Obert writes on this:

» Because, instead of going after the kidnappers and torturers, the Egyptian authorities go after the victims. «

That is – in addition to the original torture by the kidnappers – a serious crime and, as the representative for the UNHCR in Cairo puts it rightly, "a violation of the Geneva Convention".

The Bedouin guide, who led the journalists to the place were the torture chambers are hidden in houses of Bedouin human traffickers, showed himself outraged:

» "If only one European is abducted somewhere in the Middle East, then the whole world cries out, the media goes crazy and everything is done to rescue the hostage – but with thousands of Africans the world looks away and lets them rot to die."«

And one of the reasons behind this, Michael Obert points out:

» Because the world can't see these people and hardly anyone knows their stories, the kidnappers can torture them unhindered. «

Let us raise awareness where we can so the world starts to 'see' these people who suffer such incredible pain in the darkness of windowless rooms in torture chambers in the Sinai.

It is up to us to make it impossible for the kidnappers to torture them 'unhindered'. It is up to us and up to how much effort we make to put a stop to this, that decides the fate and often decides over the lives of those who fell victim to human trafficking in Sinai.

Theses horrors must come to an end. Once and for all.

May 23, 2013

'Déclaration' - Remembering Georges Moustaki - R.I.P.

A sad day not only for France. Georges Moustaki, the great French singer and composer, died today at the age of 79. A man known and hailed all over the world, unforgotten in his remarkable way to sing us ballads of romance and love, of happiness and sorrow.

I don‘t know if the youth of today have a connection to Georges Moustaki. But I know that we, who grew up in the previous century, could not possibly envisage our growing up ‚sans Moustaki' – without him. He was at our side in puberty, during our first love, our rebellion against our parents and the adult world, our coming to terms with the difficulties the world had in store. His records – vinyl at the time, believe it or not – passed from one to the other, were treated like treasures and regarded as solace in a world that did not understand us. Moustaki did. And he sang of it. We were inseparable friends.

It was his quiet way, his almost shy way to sing of solitude and longing for peace that captured us at a time when we listened to Uriah Heep and The Stones, The Beatles or Deep Purple, where noise factor only to our parents was a reason to be put off. Along came Georges Moustaki, the stark contrast, fascinating us with his words and his music and his mystical aura, a troubadour, a mind changer, a captor of our hearts. It didn't matter that our parents sighed in relief at the reduced 'noise'. Moustaki sang of love as we understood it, free, unrestricted love of hearts and body. A good enough reason to put them off again. He was ours, not theirs. And we would never have traded him in.

Many years after my teenage time I met Georges Moustaki at an open air concert in Germany. We spend many hours backstage, I watched him pass the time playing table tennis with colleagues or chat amiable with artists and us journalists alike. It was a quiet afternoon with this humble, soft spoken man where you could easily forget that just outside over 10,000 waited to hear him sing. He never showed any signs of arrogance or celebrity attitudes, was as human as you could have imagined. His way to sing was his way to be. A man not to fuss about, but a man you put deep into your heart to keep him there forever.

Now the news comes today that Georges Moustaki has left us for good. The heart pains. But he will never be forgotten to those whose lives he touched with his singing. I think of that wonderful afternoon back then and will forever be grateful to him for having been at my side in the difficult times of growing up, of finding love, of fighting against wars and adults and a reality that denies the logic of romance.

Of all the songs he gave us, his 'Déclaration' is the most precious to me.

Yes, Georges – we declare the state of happiness to be permanent – for anything else would not be a world we agree with. Not you. Not us.

May you rest in peace. Up there somewhere. But most definitely forever in our hearts.





Georges Moustaki

Je déclare l' état de bonheur permanent
Et le droit de chacun à tous les privilèges.
Je dis que la souffrance est chose sacrilège
Quand il y a pour tous des roses et du pain blanc.
Je conteste la légitimité des guerres,
La justice qui tue et la mort qui punit,
Les consciences qui dorment au fond de leur lit,
La civilisation au bras des mercenaires.
Je regarde mourir ce siècle vieillissant.
Un monde différent renaîtra de ses cendres
Mais il ne suffit plus simplement de l' attendre:
Je l' ai trop attendu. Je le veux à présent.
Que ma femme soit belle à chaque heure du jour
Sans avoir à se dissimuler sous le fard
Et qu' il ne soit plus dit de remettre à plus tard
L' envie que j' ai d' elle et de lui faire l' amour.
Que nos fils soient des hommes, non pas des adultes
Et qu' ils soient ce que nous voulions être jadis.
Que nous soyons frères camarades et complices
Au lieu d' être deux générations qui s' insultent.
Que nos pères puissent enfin s' émanciper
Et qu' ils prennent le temps de caresser leur femme
Après toute une vie de sueur et de larmes
Et des entre-deux-guerres qui n' étaient pas la paix.
Je déclare l' état de bonheur permanent
Sans que ce soit des mots avec de la musique,
Sans attendre que viennent les temps messianiques,
Sans que ce soit voté dans aucun parlement.
Je dis que, désormais, nous serons responsables.
Nous ne rendrons de compte à personne et à rien
Et nous transformerons le hasard en destin,
Seuls à bord et sans maître et sans dieu et sans diable.
Et si tu veux venir, passe la passerelle.
Il y a de la place pour tous et pour chacun
Mais il nous reste à faire encore du chemin
Pour aller voir briller une étoile nouvelle.
Je déclare l' état de bonheur permanent.


Georges Moustaki dies at 79

April 16, 2013

Boston: Where the Bombs Begin

Two bombs that exploded next to the finish line of the Boston Marathon yesterday killed three people and injured over a hundred. U.S. President Obama vowed to bring to justice those responsible for this "act of terror".

Egyptian journalist and blogger Nadia El-Awady voiced her reaction to the bombings in her most read worthy post: Boston: Why Arabs Like Me Are Horrified

In it, bravely and frank as is typical of her, she describes her reactions to the attacks on September 11, 2001, and the fears with regard to the new attacks yesterday in Boston. Her courage to tell what others rather keep a personal secret, is admirable. I felt compelled to answer and urge you to first read her post, before continuing here to read my reply.

When I saw the second plane fly into the WTC on September 11 – there was shock on my face and horror. Not, because this happened to the U.S., but because I knew that this happened to humans. The single mother battling hard with her two children after her husband had left her, the young man aspiring to become a scientist finding a cure to diseases, the old woman who had lost her husband and son in a car accident early and been alone and brave for 30 years, the businessman from abroad on a strenuous conference trip, working hard to ensure a living for his family and education for his daughter and son, the over 600 Muslims working in companies in the towers, being unaware of getting killed this very minute by so called 'Muslim' brothers – who were in fact no brothers nor Muslims but cold, pathetic terrorists and murderers.

These were the pictures that flashed through my head in a fraction of a second as I watched the plane plunge into the tower and explode in a fire ball. How could I have smiled, knowing that humans, real living human individuals were pulverised to nothing in this very moment? It wasn't the U.S. that was getting attacked in that very minute, it were humans, humans of flesh and blood, all the humans I had in my mind. And it was visible if the vision was not, for whatever reason, blurred.

I have had more than my fair share of anger over the U.S. (and that is putting it very euphemistically). But when the bombs exploded in Boston yesterday, I only saw the people, the humans torn to pieces and killed. The 8 year old boy, who was so proud that his father had run the marathon and reached the finish line, or the woman who had perhaps managed to fight a terminal illness and was just getting back on her feet, the young man, who had successfully made it through high school and thought his whole life lay before him – how could I see them other than 'humans', how would any other 'label' fit but 'humans'?

Some say: The U.S. was attacked. And to them that is the truth. That was the plan of those who planted those bombs. They wanted to 'attack the U.S.', and sometimes this gives a feeling of satisfaction to people, who do not realise that they are falling for the trap laid out for them by the bomb planters.

No, whatever they tell us or want us to say, it wasn't the U.S. attacked yesterday in Boston but innocent human beings: boys, girls, women and men – humans like you and me. And vice versa it also wasn't 'an Arab' or 'a Muslim' or whoever who planted those horrific bombs, but a coldhearted, pathetic murderer, like you sadly find them in any society around the world. There are murders happening in the Western world by Westerners that, regarding brutality, easily match this bomb attack. Not in numbers, but in ruthlessness. So how can a label of nationality or religion explain anything where inhumane horror is concerned, where we are talking of tearing young children's bodies apart for the sake of power and greed?

We must learn to do away with these labels that never tell us any truths but only help to manifest what the murderers want: That as a human community we fall apart, that our compassion for our fellow humans is halted, that we become divided into labels and camps of 'U.S.' and 'Arabs' and 'Muslims' and 'Christians', of 'Blacks' and 'Whites', of 'good' and 'bad' – into labels of 'them' and 'us' – of 'they' and 'we' – into never making it together.

A mother crying over her bomb torn boy cries the same, whether in Baghdad or Boston. The pain is no different. Why then should we allow the killers, who inflict these pains, to divide us into groups where the same very horrific pain over a dead child becomes a 'their pain' over an 'our pain'? Why play into the hands of those who kill and triumph if we fall for the categories they have decided for a distorted world of hate and power?

It is the categories in our heads that tear us apart. The bombs come later. If we would understand this, there would be no room for smiles, nor now for the fear to learn of the nationality of a bomb planter, of hearing, he might be "one of us", of dreading to "learn how far behind we will fall yet again". Because, no matter what he says and perhaps even believes, he did not plant that bomb as an Arab, or a Muslim, or a Christian, or an American. He planted these bombs as a pathetic, mentally disturbed, sick person full of hatred for himself and others. And he wants us to join him in his madness of thinking so he can feel that he's not alone with his disease.

I won't go along. You were never an Arab to me Nadia, and not a Muslim. You were a human being. The rest was a colourful and wonderful add-on that helps shape your personality. Nothing more. But nothing less. Like my add-ons, you like or dislike. Some we share, some we don't. But your tears are like mine, your smile is too – well, your laughter is a lot louder than mine, I admit it, but hey, there's got to be some difference! – you're a woman, I'm a man, you're a human, and so am I.

If one day – God save us from this – we both should get killed in a bomb blast in a terrorist attack, will you die as an Arab and I as a Westerner? Or won't we both die as the humans we were? Will anyone try to tear us apart even in death, in you 'the good' and me 'the bad' or vice versa? How dare anyone? We are humans. And as such we meet, and if fate wants it, we die.

Let us embrace our heritage, our cultures, our beliefs, our nationalities, as a unique personal gain and a richness of our diverse world. Let us respect and treasure it. But in the end – if we don't remove the labels of otherness from our heads in life and in death we play into the hands of those who plant bombs and horror. And with that we will never be able to stop the terrorists from doing their horrific deeds. Not on the ground. And – much more dangerous – not in our heads.

It's there after all, were the bombs begin.

April 01, 2013

Update: 8 year old Ahlam free from Sinai traffickers – but not yet safe

It can now be said and officially confirmed, that 8 year old Ahlam, the girl held captive with her family by Sinai human traffickers, has been freed after $41,000 ransom was paid to the Bedouin trafficker Abu Omar from Al Mehdia. He and his men had held and tortured them in North Sinai for almost three months – in full knowledge of the Egyptian police that did not intervene.

After the ransom was paid and Abu Omar finally agreed to let them go, the family was brought to Cairo to be received by international and Egyptian helpers on the case. But when they arrived in Cairo deep into the night of 27 March, things went very wrong on the last few metres and almost jeopardised the long sought freedom. For security reasons it is best not to tell that story, but it lasted almost another whole day until the situation could finally be resolved and the family was allowed to be taken into the care of the UNHCR.

While Ahlam and her mother were brought to a safe shelter in Cairo, Adem, the man known to be her father, had to be submitted to hospital for the grave injuries he suffered during the continuous torture inflicted by the Bedouins. He is currently still in medical care but will hopefully be able to join Ahlam and her mother soon.

The heroism of her uncle

In a stunning turn of events the truth about him and Ahlam's father has now surfaced, after the real father of Ahlam contacted the team that has worked hard for Ahlam's freedom. To the surprise of all helpers it was now disclosed that 'father' Adem is in fact not the father of Ahlam but her uncle, who only posed as her father in the hope to protect her from serious attacks by the Bedouins. In posing as Ahlam's father and husband to her mother, Adem also tried to guard the mother from being raped, which is a common practice by the traffickers in Sinai.

Ahlam's real father, who lives in Canada, had phone contact with the traffickers and his daughter and wife while they were held captive in Sinai, posing as a distant relative in Saudi Arabia – while Adem continued to play the role as Ahlam's father and husband to her mother to save both from the kidnappers assaults. For this he was subjected to torture, and one can only marvel at such bravery to protect his niece and sister-in-law.

Ahlam's father now hopes to see both his daughter and his wife and brother in Canada soon, and attempts are underway to secure the travel visa documents needed for this family reunion. It will take a few months until all is processed and the victims of the horror in Sinai will finally be able to regain the freedom they deserve so much. Until then they are in the care of UNHCR and are thankful to those Egyptians who have helped during the ordeal on arrival in Cairo, lawyers and contact persons that for their own safety ask not to be named.

The crimes continue

It must be noted that with her 8 years Ahlam has witnessed months of incredible brutality and even torture killings of other hostages right in front of her eyes. She will need serious trauma counselling in Canada, as Egypt does not provide this to victims of these horrible crimes tolerated in Egypt.

It must also be noted once more that Ahlam, her mother and her uncle were kidnapped by Bedouins in Sudan after they had fled across the border from Eritrea. They were abducted and trafficked over 1300 km to the Sinai where they were sold to Abu Omar and his men and held in captivity and brutally tortured.

The Egyptian government and the army and police in Sinai are well aware of the crimes happening and of the horrific fate of the hostages and were also aware of Ahlam and her family in Abu Omar's hands, but have undertaken no attempt to arrest the traffickers and free the hostages from the torture camps.

Only this weekend amnesty international in a strong appeal has once more urged the Egyptian government to finally act and put a stop to the human trafficking in Sinai which has now been allowed to go on for more than three years, has seen thousands of torture victims and hundreds if not thousands of innocent hostages being tortured to death.

Just two weeks ago, two young girls aged 18 and 19 were tortured to death as their families could not raise the high ransom demanded. Their mutilated bodes were dumped next to a road in the desert of Sinai. The week before, 8 year old Ahlam herself witnessed two male hostages being tortured to death by being hung up from the ceiling.

Up to now the Egyptian government has once more not responded to the international calls to act. The horror continues without any signs that the authorities will finally put an end to this humanitarian tragedy in Sinai.

Egypt remains silent – and thus complicit to these crimes.

March 21, 2013

UPDATE: Sheik Abu Omar in Al Mehdia, North Sinai, holds 8 year old Ahlam hostage

 The worries about 8 year old Ahlam held with her parents in the Sinai continue.

Ahlam has not been sold off to gangsters, as was announced by the kidnappers, as ransom money has been collected and it is attempted to get it to the contact persons of those holding Ahlam and parents hostage. It is a difficult task and complex situation, and as always the Eritrean-Swedish journalist Meron Estefanos is masterminding all this with an enormous discipline and compassion working tirelessly behind the scenes.

The ongoing negotiations are for clear reasons not up for publication so as not to endanger the hostages. But what can be said is that the donation site has managed to collect over $15,000 and further money could be collected from Eritreans at home and abroad. That money is now transferred to the contacts and it is eagerly awaited that word comes in that the money has arrived and Ahlam and her parents will be set free.

It must be noted that nothing is guaranteed at the moment, for in numerous other cases the kidnappers have not kept their side of the agreement and handed hostages to other gangs despite ransom having been paid. It remains to be seen if this time the hostages will indeed be freed.

By now it is known who holds Ahlam and parents captive. It is Sheik Abu Omar, living in a huge mansion in Al Mehdia in North Sinai, approximately 10km off the Egyptian-Israeli border. There can be no doubt that the Egyptian army would have no problems in cordoning off the area and arresting Abu Omar thus ending the dramatic hostage drama going on there for more than two years. Yet the army is much more busy with destroying tunnels to Gaza and could not care less for the lives of those hundreds of hostages held by Abu Omar and brutally tortured by his men.

An article I wrote in Daily News Egypt on Ahlam's horrors has found its way into the Sinai desert and is said to have enraged Bedouins who contacted to say they want to help. In how far this is however a true will or not just an attempt to clear the image of Bedouins in Sinai, remains to be seen. Fact is that many Bedouins in the area know exactly where the hostages are held but dare not to interfere, scared this could incite a tribal war.

In the meantime the Egyptian authorities allow the torture and killing to go on and thus become complicit to these crimes against humanity. With every murder that happens there, President Morsi and Prime Minister Qandil run the risk of being indicted at the ICC in The Hague for letting this continue to happen. It is about time to charge them for not undertaking the effort to put an end to these horrible crimes. Perhaps then they will note that brutal torture and the killing of human beings is a crime against humanity. Coming from the Muslim Brotherhood and hailing the compassion of Islam they seem to be strangely non aware of this. 

Six managed to flee – and where caught again

Further troubling news has been coming out of Sinai the last days while we wait to hear of Ahlam's release.

Three days ago it became known that six men, who have been held by Abu Sania, a brother of Abu Omar, managed to flee their captors into the desert. Shortly afterwards however they were recaptured and brought back to the torture camp. Someone familiar with such flight attempts going wrong confirms that these men will now be subjected to horrible tortures as punishment. It must even be feared that at least one or two will be tortured to death as a warning to all other hostages not to try an escape. The brutality is beyond imaginable. Hostages, who managed to come free after ransom was paid for them, testified to human rights activists later in Cairo and Tel Aviv that they had wished rather to die than have to endure the torture any longer. The pain inflicted can not be described to the outside world.

Two 18 year old girls die of torture

An even more troubling news came yesterday, as it was made known to Meron Estefanos during her contacts with hostages that two 18 year old Eritrean girls, who where held in Sinai for eleven months, were so severly tortured that they died in the early morning. They had no family contacts who could provide the ransom money, so that after eleven months of captivity the kidnappers gave up and resorted to raping and brutally torturing them. Both did not survive this. The bodies were dumped in the desert yesterday morning and according to another source are still not found.

Have we any idea what pains are inflicted until a young girl dies? Have we any idea?

It is not only the horrible news that these young two girls are dead now. It is the unimaginable pains these girls were subjected to before their bodies gave in and they died that must shock us to the bone. We have no idea, not the slightest, how horrific these pains are, for we did not endure them. They did. And now they are dead.

In the meantime a totally undisturbed President Morsi and an indifferent Prime Minister Qandil take to their beds for another good night's sleep. While 8 year old Ahlam does not know if she will survive the day that comes.

Egypt. 2013. A human catastrophe.

March 16, 2013

Sinai: 8 year old girl is about to be sold to criminals and her mother will be gang-raped before her eyes

The Sinai is a beautiful peninsula piece of desert land situated between the main land of Egypt on the one and the Red Sea and Israel on the other side. It is known for its tourist attractions in the south like the St. Catherine's monastery at the foot of Mount Sinai and the numerous exceptional diving sites at Nuweiba, Dahab or Sharm el-Sheik. Many tourists visit the South Sinai for holidays and marvel at the beauty. But little do they know that only a few hundred kilometres further north human tragedies of an unbelievable volume are happening daily – which tomorrow will cost an 8 year old girl her family and her sanity.

For years with the knowledge – and some suspect the consent – of the Egyptian government human trafficking has been going on in the north-eastern part of the Sinai with Bedouins from the Rashaida tribe holding human refugees hostage, demanding unbelievable sums of money for their release. The hostages, mainly from Eritrea but also from Ethiopia and Sudan, are often kidnapped in the South Sudan after fleeing their violent countries, some kidnapped even right from the UNHCR refugee camps in the region, then transported to the Sinai where they are held in underground locations or buildings housing up to 100 and more. They are subjected to unspeakable torture as the kidnappers try to press ransom money from the hostages relatives. For this purpose the kidnappers hand cell phones to the hostages and force them to call their relatives at home or overseas begging for the enormous sums of money that can reach up to $ 50,000 per person.

To make sure the relatives get the urgency of the matter, the kidnappers torture the victims while they are talking on the phone by beating them or dropping hot melted plastic on their naked bodies. Other hostages are beaten, burnt or even raped in the background to produce the right noise level to intimidate the hostages relatives to extremes. After such horrible phone calls not only are the hostages badly injured and traumatised, their relatives are frightened too and seek to do anything to get their family members out of the hands of these brutal gangsters. This the kidnappers know and have therefore scaled up on the brutality to an extent that is barely possible to believe or describe. The hostages are brutally beaten, burnt, hung up by their feet or hands for days, raped with plastic pipes or even – in the case of the women – hot iron rods. Eric Schwarzt, until 2011 U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for Population, Refugees and Migration, has worked on human rights issues for more than 25 years. But, he says: "I have rarely if ever heard about abuses as dreadful as those perpetrated against migrants by theses smugglers."

These abuses are the bitter reality for 8 year old Ahlam, an Eritrean girl currently held hostage in the Sinai with her father and mother. They all have been subjected to heavy beatings and witnessed the brutal killings of other hostages just this week. The kidnappers demand $ 40,000 ransom payable until tomorrow, Sunday, or they will take bitter revenge. The father will be beaten, as has happened before, more so the kidnappers have announced that the mother will be publicly gang-raped by other hostages forced to undertake this. Forced gang-rapes of female hostages performed by male hostages at gun point occur frequently at these camps. There is no doubt that the mother will be subjected to this horrific crime. To top it all however the kidnappers have announced that, should the ransom not be paid by tomorrow, they will sell 8 year old Ahlam to other kidnapping gangs and forcefully remove her from her parents for ever.

Ahlam knows this, as do her parents. In a telephone call on March 12 to the Swedish-Eritrean radio journalist Meron Estefanos, who regularly keeps phone contacts with the hostages and tries to connect to family who can provide help, both the scared father of Ahlam but also the girl herself have spoken of the horrors that await them tomorrow in the Sinai if the ransom money is not paid. Ahlam told how frightened she was as two male hostages had been brutally murdered that day in front of her eyes – and in response to her crying the kidnappers had grabbed and beat her. The girl was terrified when she spoke of the kidnappers announcement to sell her off on Sunday to other Bedouin gangs.

Estefanos and others engaged in trying to help the horribly abused and often mutilated hostages in the Sinai started a donation campaign on the internet to raise the ransom money so that Ahlam could be saved. Until tonight just around $ 15,000 could be raised, not even half of what the kidnappers demand. Whether this will be enough to at least put the gang-rape of the mother and the selling of Ahlam to other criminals on hold is hard to tell. It must be feared that the kidnappers will do at least the one or the other to heighten the pressure on those that try to raise money for Ahlam and her parents to be released. More than once the demanded ransom was paid but the hostages were not given freedom but passed on to other kidnappers who in turn started to demand money or else would kill the hostages. No one can say what tomorrow will bring for Ahlam and her parents.

Despite the fact that the human trafficking and the horrific abuses of hostages in the thousands has been going on for years, is well documented and known, no Egyptian government to this day has made any attempt to secure the freedom of the people who suffer unbelievably at the hands of these brutal gangs. The reasons are speculated on, but no official indication has ever been given why these human rights violations on such a scale are allowed to go on daily in the Sinai. Fact is that there is no hope of any intervention by army or security forces on behalf of Ahlam, her parents and the many hostages held captive with them in an unknown location in the desert. No one will come to their rescue tomorrow. Their fate is sealed.

While we go to bed tonight looking forward to a bright new Sunday tomorrow, 8 year old Ahlam and her parents will not be able to close their eyes this night, shivering with fear in the knowledge of the horrors that will await them tomorrow. And they know the horrors will come.

Now you know too.


The original telephone conversation between Merano Estefanos and Ahlam and her parents this week. Listen/read to know what will happen tomorrow in the Sinai, the piece of land everyone loves so much:

January 24, 2013

Talk of the Town: Heba Morayef - "Torture continues in Egypt"

Heba Morayef is the Egypt Director of the international organisation Human Rights Watch. She is working from Cairo. Looking back on almost two years since Mubarak was forced to step down, she gives insights into her work and her assessment of the current human rights situation in Egypt.

The interview provides background knowledge on the difficult work of a human rights NGO in Egypt, discusses human rights violations during the transitional period under the Supreme Council of Armed Forces (SCAF) and possible changes under the freely elected President Morsi, and offers in-depth information on the difficulties in dealing with a complex and often corrupt judiciary system even after the revolution.


Transcript of interview:

Heba - thanks very much for your time. Let us perhaps start by looking back: During the revolution in 2011, when Mubarak was still in power, your office was raided by security police and some of your staff was arrested and only released after a few days. Now, almost two years, a military junta and a freely elected president later, how have working conditions changed for you?

Well, I think that the arrest of the 28 human rights defenders, which included staff from amnesty international and Human Rights Watch, took place as part of a raid on the Hisham Mubarak Law Centre, an Egyptian NGO that had been providing assistance for protesters over a period of two years as part of the 'Front for the Defense of the Egyptian Protesters' [FDEP]. So the choice of the Hisham Mubarak was I think very targeted. There was military police, military intelligence, who raided the offices. And so in a sense the international NGO workers were in the wrong place at the wrong time. They weren't specifically targeted. And I think that shows how during the revolution the military intelligence and obviously the SCAF saw the NGOs who were continuing to publicise police violations and had started publicising military abuses – whether arbitrary arrest or torture or even military trials in those first few days – they saw them as a threat, and I think that really is something which none of us forgot. And it's why human rights organisations continued to feel very insecure under the year-and-a-half of military rule when the SCAF was fully in power.

The turning point was really mid-August, when the civilian president elected after the presidential elections Mohammud Morsi dismissed Tantawi and Anan, the two leading Generals who controlled Egypt for that year-and-a-half, and I think that brought Egypt into a new phase. NGOs don't feel – are no longer afraid of the military and feel that they have tools at their disposal, especially when it comes to the media and activist groups.

It is a little bit different with international NGOs because after the smear campaign late last year and the NGO trial which saw four American NGOs – the staff of four American NGOs – being put on trial, that has continued to contribute to the general sense of insecurity on the part of international NGOs.

The main problem of course is the fact that there hasn't been a new NGO law yet. Parliament was discussing a new NGO law between January and June – and then it was dissolved in mid-June before the law could be finalised. So I think, until a new law is passed, human rights NGOs in Egypt, whether it is Egyptian or international, will not feel safe.

Why do you think in the wake of this NGO trial that is been ongoing is it that international organisations like amnesty international or Human Rights Watch were not targeted?

Well, there are many international organisations who operate in Egypt who are either registered – that's a very small minority, mostly development organisations – and then many other international organisations who are still awaiting registration or are under registration, so admitted their paperwork years ago. So it's not like all international NGOs were targeted. They weren't. There were specifically US NGOs who were targeted, and I think it's a reflection of the fact that this all started out as a bilateral disagreement between the Egyptian government, specifically led by the then Minister for International Cooperation Fayza Aboul Naga, and between USAID and the US government's different pots of funding. And that's why even though there were other organisations raided in late December – so the Arab Centre for the Independence of the Judiciary, an Egyptian organisation, was one of those raided – the NGOs referred to court were only the US NGOs. So clearly part of a politicised case, a politicised prosecution that was a result of a break of bilateral relations over the funding of civil society.

Numerous times Human Rights Watch published scathing reports on serious violations of human rights, illegal arrests, missing protesters, prisoners subjected to inhumane, brutal treatment, especially during the transitional period when SCAF was in power. How did these publications effect your daily working life? After publication was it business as usual or did you get threats and interventions from the official sides?

Well, 'business as usual' for the human rights community under Mubarak meant that you knew that you constantly were under surveillance, you assumed that your communication was tapped, in particular cell phones, because that was the regular practice, but also that your email communication would not be secure, that any meetings you hold publicly would also not be secure as such. And there's been very little reason to suspect that there's been any shift in that status quo or in the view, the perception of the human rights community on the part of security agencies' tasks with monitoring and surveilling the actions of the NGO community.

So, in the first days of the uprising – we spoke about the raid of the Hishram Mubarak Law Centre and the arrests of the international Human Rights Watch – I mean, obviously that was a high-point where human rights NGOs were a target of arbitrary arrest and subsequent detention of three days by the intelligent services. There hasn't been a repeat of that incident. And I highly doubt that we would see another repeat. But given in the year and a half when the military was very displeased at the publication of abuses by the military that the NGO community was putting out, there wasn't another attempt to have, you know, that kind of direct intervention.

What took place instead was that the military was sort of trying to control the media most of all at the point of publication, and then I think the initiation of the investigation from July onwards was another attempt to remind NGOs that they were still vulnerable. But for the most part most organisations did not receive direct threats to them as individuals or as organisations. I think that is to a certain extent a reflection of the new empowerment after the revolution that the NGO community felt.  

So in the last months now that a freely elected president is in the government, has the atmosphere significantly changed or do you still feel vulnerable?

Well, the sense of vulnerability comes from the fact that there isn't a new NGO law yet that would allow Egyptian and international organisations to register under them. If you look at the majority of the independent and reputable human rights organisations in Egypt, you'll find that the vast majority of them are not registered under the NGO law, they're registered as law firms or clinics or companies – or non-profit companies in many cases. So that sense of vulnerability, legal vulnerability, will continue until they are actually able to register and have the protection of the law. Protection against interference of security agencies and protection just in terms of their status for their staff.

The other factors, that even organisations that are registered, even those few organisations that are registered like the New Women Foundation for example, are now – are still unable to get their funding approved. So if you are registered under the NGO law this means you have to get approval from the government for every single incoming fund, even if it's been – even if it's part of the multi-year project from the same source of funding. And what this NGO has found over the last year and then also for other organisations like the Egyptian Organisation for Human Rights or the Egyptian Centre for Women's Rights is that the security agencies are blocking their funding. So that's another reason why organisations continue to feel vulnerable, because in many cases, you know, they had to put their staff on 50% salaries, they've lost a lot of their staff – it's having already a direct impact on their activities. So until there is an unfreezing of funds and until there is an interference from the new government, the new presidency, to actually address this issue, I don't think there will be a noticeable shift in the daily reality of the work of human rights organisations.

How does this affect you personally? I know that many times when you tried to re-enter Egypt coming from overseas you had problems with the security officers, one time even this notorious black-list of Amn al-Dawla was cited. And you once said how ridiculous it is that you face these problems again and again on entering your own country. What is behind this harassment at the airport do you think?

Well, putting activists on airport watch lists, on interrogation lists or even banning them from travel was a regular practice that the security services would use as a form of harassment against activists and against the opposition. I mean, that is obviously something that the Muslim Brotherhood in particular experienced, as so many of them had travel bans and in some cases would win cases overturning the travel ban because it was an arbitrate decision, even then could not actually get their names lifted from security lists at the airport. I think there's a whole area which is unexplored until now, which hasn't been prioritised or addressed so far.

I think in my case, I am on an old list which is called an Amn al-Dawla list, a State Security Investigations list, and there hasn't been a change in that list in terms of my case. So every time I leave the country I need to get additional security clearance to actually leave the country and I also need to get the stats safe security clearance to enter my country. And I think, you know, I think this is a reflection of a sort of fundamentally problematic approach that was fairly typical of the Mubarak era but that I hope will change in the next months. That is something the Muslim Brotherhood themselves personally experienced.

How influential do you think the government believes NGOs of your sort are? In the BBC Hardtalk interview with the Prime Minister Qandil Stephen Sackur referred to you as one of Egypt's most influential women. How influential do you feel under the circumstances?

I mean, it's a difficult question to answer. It's always very difficult to actually quantify the influence that human rights organisations, whether international or Egyptian, have. It depends on the issue, it depends on how much media support, how much media coverage there is for a particular issue. And you also have to catch the attention of the media and the policy makers at that particular time, so there are some areas of our work that get less attention.

For example the issues that I've worked on over the years has been human trafficking in the Sinai because it's an issue that has been purposefully ignored and there's been a refusal to recognise that by the government. But when we put out short reports or long press releases on human trafficking in the Sinai that doesn't usually get a huge amount of coverage. However with other issues such as with our analysis of one of the earlier drafts of the constitution, that did get a lot of coverage and attention. So, I think, you know, influence is something that really depends on the set of circumstances at that particular time.

I think we are in an era in general post-revolution where the influence of human rights organisations has increased in a sense. Despite the smear campaign against NGOs last year, there is a new willingness to engage and meet with human rights NGOs. They almost have a new status in Egypt today. And how that will evolve going forward is still unclear. There may yet be a regression once more, but for the moment I think the new Muslim Brotherhood leadership is at least listening. And I think that's what's important.

You publish internationally. How do you get the information that you publish across to the Arabic speaking people of Egypt and is the Arabic media in Egypt now picking it up more than it used to do?

Well, I think what's been really noticeable over the last year and a half is that the Arabic media is very sensitive to what gets published in the international media. So we regularly see New York Times or Washington Post articles translated, and that's often because the correspondents in Egypt managed to get quotes from the leadership that is significant, that is politically significant. And especially over the last year and a half, and especially obviously with the American newspapers when it came to the military. So that sort of become a regular practice. The media in Egypt is very outward looking, it will either translate entire articles or often report on what the main newspapers in the US and the UK are writing. And I think, obviously social media has also broken the boundaries in terms of what sort of Egyptian media versus international media, and everything then ultimately gets picked up in a sense.

So you would say there's a boldness now more than before of the Arabic Egyptian media reporting on these cases? Because of course the state media never did.

Absolutely. I think at the moment the Egyptian media is still in a phase where it sort of feels that it has nothing to fear. The red lines of the Mubarak era may be re-established along different lines. I mean, obviously there's been no media reform as such of the institutions of state media, and we still don't know whether or not there will be that kind of media reform. It was something the Muslim Brotherhood were particularly interested in but we just haven't really seen – apart from vague statements about looking into media reform – we haven't really seen any steps in that respect.

Can we talk about how you work on a daily basis for Human Rights Watch? How do you go about researching these cases of human rights violations that you then publish?

Well, the model that we use at Human Rights Watch is one where our work relies primarily on documentation, on report writing with a strong advocacy component to it, and obviously media work connected to both.

So, you know, my work on a daily basis – I obviously have to monitor human rights abuses that are generally taking place in Egypt. Again, our model that we at Human Rights Watch have: one researcher per country if your lucky, and sometimes one researcher for two countries. So you need to be aware generally of everything that is going on in the country and then you need to make choices on a weekly basis about which issues to actually zoom in on and focus on. And you make that choice based on an assessment of whether your voice is needed – I mean, if Egyptian organisations are already covering a particular issue then you might not need a Human Rights Watch input as well as that – but also in this area the consideration whether or not we can have an impact. If there's an area where we think that we in particular – that our voice would be helpful in addition to other organisations, then that is the second criterium on which we make these choices.

And then, once you've chosen to work on a particular issue, you always try and get – you need primary sources of information. We are very testimony driven in our work and so sometimes, even if you are just writing a short press release, you will need to speak to several people. I can remember for example that with the March 9th, 2011 arrest of protesters in Tahrir square I wrote a press release about torture and I think, if I remember the numbers correctly, I'd spoken to – I'd done interviews with about 16 victims of torture just to be able to then say that we knew for sure that there had been torture of more than hundred protesters on that day. So, for every fact you actually need to have the background to it. So depending on what project your working on at that particular point you may be out there gathering the testimony, meeting with the families, cross-checking the testimony then with the lawyers very often, because there's always a legal aspect to it, checking with lawyers whether or not complaints have been filed.

In an ideal world you always also want to get a response from officials about that, I mean, either to bring the issue to their attention, so that they know that you're going to publish a report or a press release, but also in order to verify information about what legal steps have been taken on the part of the authorities. Thus far that's been a little more difficult in Egypt. But here again that is something that may shift, because we're seeing in general in parts of the government a recognition that they need to be more responsive to media questions.

And then there is the writing part. And whenever you write anything for Human Rights Watch you always have to make sure that you include recommendations about what you think needs to happen to address the human rights violation. If you're doing that at the press release, it's very often, you know, what comes out in the quote and usually gets picked up by the media; if you're doing it in a report, then you'll have a whole recommendations section with recommendations addressed to either, you know, different government bodies and sometimes to third governments or to multilateral institutions.

And then you take the risen product and you meet with the authorities, whoever is in charge of the particular issue. And you try to pressure them both directly through this meeting and subsequently through the media coverage that you then seek in order to put out this report and to give it more weight.

Are you also allowed inside prisons and do you have access to prisoners who file complaints?

No. The last time Egypt allowed a human rights organisation into its prisons formally was 1992. At the time they gave Human Rights Watch permission to visit several prisons. Obviously after that we went away and we wrote several reports that were pretty critical and after that then to us the doors were shut.

There hasn't been a change in the authorities position on this so far. It is something that technically lies within the realm of the Public Prosecutor. So right now only the National Council for Human Rights has access to prisons. And it's obviously one of the main demands of the human rights community that that changes, because it's one way of ensuring oversight of the police and the best way of actually identifying police abuse very early on and talking about prison conditions.

Right now, when we do a report thing on prisons, it's often either through families, through lawyers who can actually visit, and very often people will have phones – in informal basis will have access to cellphones inside the prison. And that's fairly common across the Middle East in some countries. 

In the new constitution that has seen many revisions during the draft process, there is one article that stipulates that for the future no one is allowed to be in a prison in unhealthy, indecent, inhumane conditions and only allowed to be in a prison that is overseen by the judiciary, not allowed to be subjected to physical or psychological treatment. Could you believe this to materialise in the near future in Egypt?

Prison conditions in Egypt is a big, bis issue. Many prisons in Egypt don't meet minimum conditions. It's an issue – it's a budgetary issue, it's also a managerial issue, and I think it is something that will take many years in the future to address, the main problem being the fact that the prison system relies on private donations from families ultimately. And there's a lot of corruption also within the prison administrative system at a very local level. So if you're somebody who is from a richer background, you can ensure better conditions inside a prison, if you're less fortunate, then your treatment will suffer accordingly. And that's of course not the way it's supposed to be. But it's a long term problem, because it's an issue – it's a structural, institutional and budgetary issue, at least in terms of the conditions.

I think in terms of treatment, that's something that's more specific, and that's something that we can work on in the short term in the human rights community within prisons. And also – but a lot of this will require legal reforms, and I think we won't really see any of this being addressed until there's a new parliament. I think, the important thing is to have the principles set out in the constitution, but then the next step is to actually address legislation in terms of the prison's law and other pieces of legislation. And then of course that will require a lot of lobbying on the part of the NGO community to ensure that these issues are actually implemented.

When the 24 that were charged with being responsible for the Battle of the Camel where acquitted, you tweeted that this did not surprise you after you had spoken to the prosecutor and had seen the weak evidence compiled by the prosecution. How was Human Rights Watch involved here? Did you actually get access to these papers by the prosecution?

No. I didn't review the case files. But you could have had access to them because there were lawyers who were representing victims in that case and they would obviously have access to that. But in this case I was actually speaking to a prosecutor who had been involved in investigating that case from one of the central Cairo prosecutorial offices. And so I thought his perspective was very interesting. I mean, he basically said that the prosecutors were under a lot of pressure to refer this case to court early on, even though they didn't have sufficient evidence.

And I think that's another of the problems in general, in terms of the way accountability has gone in Egypt over the last couple of years. I mean, I'm no fan of the office of the public prosecution. I think it's an office that requires a lot of fundamental reform in terms of it's independence. I think it has very often served to maintain the impunity especially for security services and obviously also for the military over the years. However, I do also recognise that they have been under an immense amount of pressure over the last two years for quick referrals to court, even in cases where their investigations were not complete.

How is your working relation with the Public Prosecutor's office? Is there any working relation?

No, not really. The Public Prosecutor – I mean the office of the Public Prosecutor is obviously the very senior prosecutor, the Public Prosecutor himself, and the deputy public prosecutors. And they are usually extremely busy and very difficult to access. So in a sense, the best way of actually understanding the prosecutor's perspective has often been to have informal conversations with prosecutors at lower levels as opposed to actually trying to have that kind of conversation about an individual case.

We have in the past sought meetings with the Public Prosecutor himself and even with the Assistant Public Prosecutor and so far they've always declined them due to time constraints. Which in some cases I believe was actually very true, because, you know, in the first half of 2011 in particular they were investigating all of the police abuse cases as well as many of the corruption cases. So I have some – yea, I do understand that to a certain extent. However I do think the office of the Public Prosecutor needs to have a better relationship with the human rights community in general.

When Morsi tried to 'promote' the Prosecutor General to ambassador at the Vatican there were huge protests. I mean, he was unfazed and just stayed in the job for the reason that he gave. There were reportedly more than 1000 judges and prosecutors supporting him, warning to touch the "independence of the judiciary". On the other hand many point out that the judiciary is very corrupt, that you have to have connections, family ties even better, to become a judge. How 'independent' is this judiciary?

Well, the short answer is that the judiciary in Egypt has a very mixed reputation. And overall you can't say that the judiciary is independent, because of everything you referred to. There are lots of corruption concerns, there are lots of concerns in terms of how – in terms of the judges who used to sit on Mubarak's State Security Courts or who used to oversee Mubarak's elections and which, you know, were completely forging it obviously. So those judges – many of them are actually known by name also to the Muslim Brothers, since in many cases they were the ones who were being sentenced in these cases. So obviously the issue of independence of the judiciary needs to be addressed.

The issue is how. And I think the way Morsi went about it with the Public Prosecutor, I think that was very clearly, extremely mismanaged and obviously would also, you know – they can get the formal protection for the independence of the judiciary then become the issue as opposed to the policies of the current Public Prosecutor.

But then, you know, more broadly speaking, you have the same issue when it comes to the Supreme Constitutional Court. The Muslim Brotherhood see that court again as being one of the last bodies controlled by pro-Mubarak people. And while I think that that's actually not an accurate estimate of the full make-up of that court – some of those individuals are judges who are known to have been responsive to the government, I think on some cases – but you can't make that assessment about all of the judges on the Supreme Constitutional Court.

So it's really a fundamentally problematic issue. You know there's a problem of the independence of the judiciary, you know that you need to address reforming the institution, but you can't do it by – through executive order from a president at a time when you really need the judiciary to continue to be a check to the executive, you need the judiciary to address accountability of the security services, you need the judiciary to help you with implementation of the rule of law. And a sledgehammer approach is not going to be productive for anybody in Egypt. I think it has to be a process that's based on the new judicial authority law, it has to be a process accompanied by some transparency, and it has to be a process that goes slowly, because we also have examples from other countries where this becomes – where, you know, taking too quick an approach of cleansing the judiciary can become detrimental to the entire institution over the following years.

If as you say or as one can see the judiciary body is perhaps one of the remnants still of the old regime, is this then perhaps one of the biggest fights still between the felool and the new forces in Egypt and could this be one of the battles that still has to be fought by the revolution?

You see, I don't – I don't – I don't think so, no. I don't agree with the assessment that the judiciary as a whole is a felool institution. I think that is an inaccurate assessment because there are also many judges who would often – especially if you look at the administrative courts over the last period – who would often take decisions that were independent as such. So I think there's a mix within the judiciary, there are certain layers – there are different levels of those judges who are really complicit with the government, complicit with the system, who take orders, instructions from the government by phone and would make politicised decisions. I think, those judges, you know, are fundamentally problematic. But I don't think – I don't think it's productive to take a holistic approach to the institution as a whole.

I think, looking at the institution as a whole you have to address that from a legal reform perspective, how to increase guarantees of independence moving forward. And in terms of individual judges, I think in a sense the best way to address that is actually through transparency, through publication of what they were involved with in the past and their sense that will affect their impartiality as individual judges, and they can be increasingly shunned out of the system.

Let's talk about another topic: Women's rights are human rights. Yet women - who fought alongside in the revolution - now feel left out in the process in building the new Egypt. Only 7 members in the Constitutional Draft Committee of 100 were women and the constitution itself, as you criticised, omit's women's rights when it comes for instance to trafficking. There was a march to the presidential palace by women demanding that their rights should be respected. Do they stand a chance of being heard?

I think, in a sense one of the small victories perhaps for the women's rights movement has been the fact that they've managed to get women's rights in the constitution put onto a list of issues that liberal political parties, political party representatives and liberal political personalities on the constitutional assembly are negotiating with a hard line Islamist – that's one of the sort of red lines. Obviously there's been a lot of coverage of the question of what status Sharia will have within the constitution and that will have an impact on women's rights. So it's not just women's rights groups on the outside, it's now also politicians on the inside who are negotiating on behalf of those groups. And I think that's important, because that's not only the case in Egypt, unfortunately.

I think, you know, the extent to which there will be success on that issue, that isn't clear yet. The latest compromise is the removal of Art. – I mean the deletion of Article 68 as a whole, because Art. 68, which is the one on equality between men and women as it stood, was limited by the language, saying that the state shall provide for equality without prejudice to the rulings of Sharia. And the word 'rulings' here is highly problematic because it sets out a very rigid determination of which rules in particular with regard to family law would apply to women. And in a sense at this stage my position – I mean our position at Human Rights Watch is that it's better to exclude a provision like that which would set out so clearly the limitation rulings of Sharia while retaining the general non-discrimination provision than to retain a provision as it stands.

Of course Egyptian's women's rights groups' reactions has been to insist that there'd be a provision that provides for full equality on the grounds of gender and provides for other rights for women and then they're quite right to continue to fight that battle. But it's not a very optimistic situation given the way things have been going on the constituent assembly.

Let's talk about Maspero. The peaceful march more than a year ago by Coptic christians was brutally crushed by the military and 27 people were killed. There was lots of video evidence showing how deliberately army drivers ran over unarmed protesters with their APCs and crushed them to death. With so much evidence one should have expected quick trials and harsh sentences. Were these expectations met?

Well, no. I think the trial that took place before a military court was one that was, you know, fundamentally problematic. Our recommendation at Human Rights Watch has always been that serious human rights abuses by the military not be tried before a military justice system because this is a clear conflict of interest. And the military justice system in Egypt has no assemblance to independence. Judges report to judges serving military officers and the line of authority, the head of the military justice authority, reports to the minister of defence. So there is not even an attempt to have a semi-independence military justice system. And as such the decision to refer three very junior soldiers – who were said to have been driving APCs on that day – the decision to refer them to trial was an inadequate one and the sentences that were issued against them were extremely inadequate: between two to three years for that crime is nothing.

And there was a specific decision to exclude any investigation on the role of the military in the killing of 14 protesters using life gunfire. The case that actually went to court only looked at the killing of 13 protesters who were crushed by the APCs. But the military from the beginning has refused to acknowledge that it's ever used live gunfire. And that is, you know, fundamentally a problematic approach.

So, no, I don't think there's been any serious accountability for Maspero. I don't think those responsible have been investigated and prosecuted because there was also no examination of commander responsibility. It's not just the drivers of the APCs on that day who were responsible. It was also the people issuing orders, it was also the military commanders who were deployed at a field level, it was also military commanders who discussed plans for that day and who aren't in the military offices in that way. And that is not something which I think Egypt will ever get a real investigation into until the civilian justice system is in a position to actually investigate the military. I have no hope that there will be accountability while it's only the military justice system that can investigate and prosecute military officers.

I suppose this also holds true then in your assessment regarding Mohamed Mahmoud street, cabinet clashes, other protesters killed?

Well, I mean it holds true for the cabinet clashes in particular, because there again we have protesters who were killed. We have also clear video footage, a clear documentation of the assault of protesters, beating of men and women protesters by the military and yet there's been no investigation into that.

Mohamed Mahmoud I think is a slightly easier battle, or rather let me say a less difficult battle, a less impossible battle, because there you don't actually need legislative reform in order to be able to try people. In a fact, I think there is so much evidence that's out there, as I say, that really if there is a political will to prosecute people from Mohamed Mahmoud, technically speaking that could go ahead. So what you need is a political will, you know, you don't actually have to fight the entire military justice system in order to get the evidence as well. And yet we've only seen one police officer put on trial, which is of course completely ridiculous. So there again, we haven't seen accountability for Mohamed Mahmoud.

Let's turn another page: In April a 17 year old boy in Assiut got sentenced to 3 years in jail for a photo on Facebook that was said to be blasphemous. The young boy now serves prison time and one can rightly expect his life to be ruined. At the time you spoke of a "frightening pattern". Since then more Copts have been sentenced to prison terms, small Coptic children have been arrested for allegedly defaming a Quran they can't even read, and the young Copt Alber Saber is awaiting his next court sessions, also fearing years in prison. Is this the "pattern" you spoke of?

I think what worries us most in the Human Rights Community is the increase and the number of complaints filed on the grounds of blasphemy and increase in the number of prosecutions and trials. I think for accuracy's sake it's important to point out, that while Alber Saber is technically a Copt, he himself identifies as an atheist. And so this isn't something that is targeted purely at Coptic Christians although they form the majority of victims so far. It is something that will also target atheists and there's also been a Shia Iman sentenced to one year under this provision. So in a sense, anyone who does not conform to either – I mean, anyone who will either criticise Islam the religion or the Prophets, he will be at risk. But also individuals from faiths other than the three Abrahamic religions will also be at risk in this sense. And I think what's most frightening for us is, that we're – I think we're likely to see an increase in the number of these prosecutions going forward.

People blame the president and the Muslim Brotherhood for this. But isn't it the judiciary that was formed under Mubarak that is actually doing this?

I think it's a combination of factors. I don't think it's a – I don't think you can just blame one or the other party. The main problem of course is that this provision is an extremely broad one and it is still in the books. This is the penal code that was obviously used under Mubarak. Many of these cases are filed at a local level by Islamist lawyers and many cases Salafi lawyers. The fact that there is a lack of interference from the authorities at that early level, I think that is one opportunity to actually address this. But once it actually goes to the prosecutor's office, because of the broad discretion given to prosecutors under this provision, they will almost invariably refer the case immediately to court. And here again, once it's in court, once again because the provision is so broad – it basically just says that anybody "insulting Islam" ... , and that is open to definition to anyone – but if you end up with a conservative judge, which is very likely to take place, since many of theses cases also take place, you know, outside the bigger circuits in Cairo, then the likelihood of a conviction is also very high.

There's also been an increase again in rounding up and arresting suspected gay men in Egypt. What does Human Rights Watch monitor with regard to the post-revolution situation of LGBTs?

I'm not sure that we're at a point where we're actually seeing targeting, because there has obviously been an increase in reported cases, but so far it's still – they're still fairly isolated cases. If we were to see the kind of crackdown that we saw in early 2004, the numbers we'd be looking at would be much, much higher, because it's fairly easy to track down the gay community in cities like Cairo or Alexandria, should they want to. So luckily we're not yet at that stage, but here again it's a very, very, very serious concern the fact that some of these arrests have taken place. Because, if there is a decision to take the case to court, I think there is very little that anybody in the human rights community can do to protect these people from a conviction. So our whole advocacy strategy in a sense is to actually prevent the arrest itself and to prevent a referral to court.

During the revolution many people were arrested, abducted and went missing. I remember in February 2011 we both compared lists of the missing and an estimate of 330 at the time we found very high. Then there was a study in March coming out saying 1200 went missing. And now the campaign "We will find them" [Hanlaqihom] says, almost two years after the revolution hundreds are still not found. Is that a number you can relate to?

This isn't something that I – no, this isn't something that I've actually examined and verified. I've heard 'We will find them' muse various numbers at different points, even the number a thousand a few months ago, which I think is too high. It's possible that there may still be some – and I'm afraid, in most of these cases I suspect that these are people who were actually killed but were either not properly identified in the morgues or – you know, might be in places where they've unable to communicate their identity if they're still alive. But I don't believe that we would get a two year detention that will be this long without people that hear of the prisoner. I mean, knowing Egyptian prisons you can usually send word, either via other prisoners who are receiving visitors ... – And I don't think any of them are also specifically valuable detainees in the sense that they would want to disappear them. And we have no evidence that disappearance as a crime is something that is taking place by the security services at this point. So, I'm afraid that in most cases it must be individuals who've either been killed or maybe are unable to communicate with their families.

Lawyer Ahmed Seif El-Islam, he is a member of the official committee set up by Morsi to look into prisoners, said in August that there are "private prisons" associated with certain security agencies and outside the inspection jurisdiction of the prosecutor. Have you any knowledge of this?

No. No, I don't.

Can you give a short assessment regarding the renaming of Amn el-Dawla into Amn el-Watany? Is this really a change, was there a reform? Or is this only pouring old wine into new bottles?

Well, we know that many of the staff of State Security Investigations were just transferred into National Security, and there's been no transparency about whether or not there was any overall method or any criteria for the reappointment or not. So there's no reason – we haven't seen any real accountability, we haven't seen any transparency, we haven't seen any accountability for the crimes of the Security Investigation's officers over the years. And I think at a minimum we can say with confidence that the National Security is not any different from State Security Investigations in that sense. There hasn't been an improvement of oversight. And we're still getting cases where they are interfering politically, although we haven't been getting cases of detention or ill-treatment so far.

So how safe are Egyptians these days from torture?

Oh no, torture continues in the context of normal criminal investigations. We're just not getting torture cases from National Security yet. But no, torture continues as a practice. There's been no attempt to actually halt torture in any way.

When apartheid crumbled in South Africa, a truth and reconciliation committee was set up under Desmond Tutu. Criminal figures could get amnesty if they confessed to their crimes and asked the victims for forgiveness. When in Germany the Berlin Wall came down, former criminal members of the regime where put on trial and got sentenced to jail. What solution would you think to be better for Egypt to heal the wounds after decades of suppression and human rights violations?

I think what Egypt needs is a proper accountability process for the crimes of the past, and not just these partial and ineffective prosecutions that we've had for the violence of January 2011. And even those haven't brought about real accountability. In a sense the fact finding committee set up by President Morsi could be a potentially good starting point. They have looked at a number of incidents where there hasn't been accountability.

But I think most importantly there actually need to be prosecutions for the use of torture – the political tool of punishment – but more importantly as a regular form of extracting confessions in the context of criminal investigations. Unless you actually start prosecuting and having trials you will not be able to deter the practice moving forward. And unless you actually address prosecutions within the security sector and reform the security sector in a comprehensive and transparent way, you won't get a change in the behaviour of the police moving forward and we will see more incidents like Mohamed Mahmoud or the other incidents of excessive use of force on the part of the police. So accountability is an essential part of that.

Heba, thank you very much for this interview and your time.

Thank you.


You can follow Heba Morayef on twitter at @hebamorayef