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

January 19, 2013

Syria - The outrageous failure of us all

The war in Syria has raged now for what seems ages. We have seen Homs burn and Baba Amr get shelled and Aleppo go down, we have witnessed – if we cared or dared to look – horrific crimes against humanity, against humans – children, women, men. We have seen people vanish who were close to our hearts, lingering in some prisons now we cannot access. We fear for their lives every day – or for all we know for people that are no longer alive. One day we will learn perhaps in bitter truth if our clinging to the hope they might live was a folly – or the undying justified loyalty we feel we cannot let end just because the world goes under.

As the atrocities continued, we shouted and screamed, we pleaded and protested, we urged the world leaders to listen, to act, to intervene and stop the killing. We tried to push them to action by calling out the number of the dead – 6.0123 – 8.689 – 10.413. When we reached 12.000, we knew something would stop this madness. It just couldn't go on any longer. We even braved those who, as always to be expected, pointed out, that this number might just be too high, exaggerated, made up perhaps only to serve a political purpose.

A little later, just two weeks ago, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights published her report and we learned: while we spoke of 12.000 for the world to take note, more than 40.000 had in fact been butchered, with now more than 60.000 dead.

60.000 dead. That means 48.000 humans were killed while we still clung to hope and pleaded to the world to make this end. 48.000 shot, burnt, torn to pieces, while we discussed, what could be done. The time span was merely a few weeks. But to the victims, that time span full with horrors was an eternity.

Now we fall silent. The killing goes on. The shelling continues. Bombs rain down on innocent students in universities or unarmed civilians waiting in queues to get bread. Body parts litter the streets, horrific videos show us the bloodbaths we cannot stop with our calling. We have learned that Russia and Iran will never allow this to end, as long as they must fear that a precedent will be set for dictators to fall when they turn against their own people. So Russian warships have entered the Mediterranean and the lunatic killer that calls himself president feels he is strong and gives orders for more of his people to be murdered. We look away. For we cannot take it anymore. Not the blood. Not the screams. Not our own helplessness, our futile attempts to stop this. We have done, what we could, we know, and we could do nothing. It just goes on and on and on. We are just fools with empty hands.

Are we truly?

These days, in bitter cold Lebanon in the Bekaa valley, a slim Hollywood actress turns to us and says: A tragedy is unfolding, and we – and she means us – do not do enough to stop it. She doesn't mean the killing, we cannot halt, nor the blood of the innocent that spills without us being able to prevent it. She speaks of those who managed to flee the hell of Syria, who left all their belongings behind, travelling by night over unmarked paths and snow covered mountains, whole families, old men, women, children, with hardly enough clothes to sustain in the freezing cold. When they have survived the shelling and shooting that is happening across the border and they finally arrive in the refugee camps of the international community, they fall down with exhaustion. But they are alive. Not shot. Not burnt. Not eradicated, but alive, with the only yearning in their heart to make it.

That's where we come in. But we don't. We watch from afar with the empty hands we think we have, our shoulders pulled down in sorrow and pain after the horrors we witnessed – while others endured them – and think that we have learned that nothing can be done. Not by us at least, for haven't we tried it all? We have, truly, we really did try it all to stop the killing. And because we did not manage to stop the killing – we now believe we cannot help the living. How wrong can we get?

Refugee camp for Syrians in the Bekaa valley, Lebanon

Crushing hopelessness

The refugee camps, comprised of tents and make-shift housings, are icy cold. The snow is everywhere and the wind is fierce. There are no beds to sleep in, just the frozen floor and a blanket. The refugees lack warm clothing, the children are without coats and shoes. The situation is critical for each and everyone who made it to here and has the yearning to live. Thousands are holding out in the brutal cold of the valley, only few find shelter with Lebanese families, of which some open their tiniest lodgings to help. But we, in the shelters of our lives, imagine ourselves to be with empty hands.

Mia Farrow, who has travelled from New York via Beirut into the horror of Syria's refugee reality, sits on a cold floor in a small room and listens, as she listens a lot during these days she is spending there as Goodwill Ambassador of UNICEF. The people, so desperate to make someone hear their cries, pour out their hearts, tell stories of unbearable tragedies back where they came from and tell of their devastation in this situation that allows for no dignity. "They are grieving the loss of beloved family members and friends killed in the ceaseless violence. They are traumatised. Again and again they told me how they long for the fighting to end. They just want to go home. Home is Syria - not this heap of icy mud with its crushing hopelessness", she says.

A heap of icy mud? But isn't this a refugee camp of the international community? Are not UNICEF, the UNHCR and partners doing everything possible to ensure decent, dignified living conditions? Are we not all comforted to know that those that have made it out of the hell of Syria are now in the safety of the hands of international aid organisations under surveillance of the United Nations, the international community? What then could possibly go wrong?

A lot, as Farrow points out, for the sheer numbers of refugees and the limited resources create a human catastrophe just after the catastrophe the refugees barely survived. Under our eyes, with our consent. Because if we don't take note that this tragedy is unfolding, we are to blame and not Assad. To us that is new.

The empathy of Hanna

More than 200.000 civilians have fled Syria to save their bare lives. Almost 75% of them are women and children, vulnerable and in danger of diseases in a hostile, muddy environment, unable to cope with the pouring rain and falling snow. The humanitarian workers and aid organisations are doing their best, but there seems to be too little of everything. And for supplies it needs money, but money is scarce. "UNICEF and partners are working around the clock to help the refugees survive but they are alarmingly overstretched and underfunded," says Farrow, and the worries are written across her face. "A lot of help has to come fast, or I just don't know how people are going to make it."

Fact is, under the Regional Response Plan issued in December 2012, US$35 million are at least needed, of which less than one third is currently funded. The United Nations’ US$1.5 billion appeal for the Syrian Arab Republic issued in December 2012 has produced only a minimal response from the members. And a new fierce snow storm at the camp site is expected this coming week. The world is failing. And we are the world.

UNICEF Goodwill Ambassador Mia Farrow visiting Syrian refugees

In the midst of this tragedy, hearts open up of those who themselves barely have enough to share, as the actress recounts:
»A short drive from the tented community, I visited an unfinished cement house belonging to a Lebanese family - Hanna, her husband, a grocer, and their three children. They had welcomed five Syrian families into their two bedroom home – sharing all they have for the past year with now a total of 45 people.

“My husband was killed in Homs,” an old woman told me as tears streamed down her face.
Never in my life did I imagine we would be with nothing. We were in the street here, with nowhere to go. Hanna lifted me up during my darkest days.” Hanna smiled but brushed off the compliment. "It was just my responsibility as a human being to take them in. Even if they are not my actual family, I feel they are family,” she said.

We were all seated on the floor. You could see people’s breath when they spoke and despite my warm coat, I was shaking from the cold. 

I left that house as inspired as I have ever been. If only the rest of us, as an international ‘community’ could demonstrate a fraction of Hanna’s empathy and generosity – what a very different world it would be.«

Then why isn't it a different world? What is stopping us?

If the international community – that is us, that is you, that is me – can spend billions of dollars on wars, why can the international community not spend millions on saving those, who survived a war?

If those that try to help have to battle with underfunding, we are to blame. We all, no exceptions. We are failing outrageously, if we continue to be timid.

We can turn to our governments and demand explanations why humanitarian aid to Syrian refugees is chronically underfunded. Yes, I know money is scarce everywhere these days. And yet – if we cannot stop the tragedy of the war waged by Syria's president against his people, we at least must stop the tragedy we witness in the refugee camps. Push your government to give more. Call your Senator, Congressman, Member of Parliament, whoever holds responsibility. Push for the funding to go up, so people can live. And if they tell you that there is no money left to spend – remind them of the enormous sums they would easily spend without flinching an eye if a military intervention in Syria would be decided. The millions and billions for armies and navy and air force to be deployed would pour out in streams without anyone asking questions. So a silly million cannot be found extra to fund those who survived? Don't let them lie.

But it's not only them, we must turn to, not only our governments the world over we must push and push hard. It is us too.

How can we be so stupid to think we are empty handed? We all have pockets we can turn upside down, even if richness is not our luck. It does not have to be much, a cent, a penny, a dime. If one million people would give only one dollar, can you imagine how many shoes that would be for freezing children in the Bekaa valley, how many jackets for their cold mothers, how many blankets to fathers and sons?

Children bearing the cold in tented refugee camps for Syrians

We are not with empty hands – they are! The refugees who have nothing but their traumatised life. The humanitarian workers who want to help and are helpless against the underfunding and lack of empathy. It is they, who are empty handed, not us. And they are, because we do not understand that we can stop the killing after all.

We can reach them – Assad can't

If we really burn for saving the lives of Syrian people, what better chance do we have than this?

No, we cannot stop the killing within Syria. But we can prevent Syrians being killed by the horrid conditions outside. And while we thought that we held no powers, with connecting the dots we must finally realise – saving those in the refugee camps is something we can do. And it is the only lifesaving that Bashar al-Assad and his killers will never be able to stop. We can stop the killing. He cannot stop us. If only we truly want to, we can lift up our shoulders back to where they belong and act. For in the light of unbearable human tragedies in Syria we have fallen silent and forgotten the powers we hold after all.

Donate a dollar, a euro, a pound, that is all it needs. And I mean it. It does not have to be much, but DO it. And do it now. If we all give a dollar, a euro, a pound, millions will come together to save those who made it out from Syria's hell.

There is something to be won for us all. For with every Syrian who survives the bitter cold of the refugee camps, the dictator is losing his vicious war against his people. He cannot reach them anymore. But we can. That is our triumph. And it will be the downfall of his inhumanity in the end.


To donate to UNICEF, read the report on Mia Farrow's visit to the refugee camps in Lebanon. Beside it you will find a red 'Donate' button. Click on it, choose your country, and give whatever you can give. And if it is only one dollar, one euro, one pound or whatever your currency may be – ANY amount can help.

Make this your motto: Better give one than give none.


Pictures taken courtesy of UNICEF from the video diary:

Mia Farrow: "Let's be a community"

January 08, 2013

Talk of the Town: Robert Becker - The NGO trial and the assault on dignity

In December 2011, eight months after the revolution toppled Hosni Mubarak, Egyptian police raided the Cairo offices of 10 NGOs that had been working on monitoring elections and educating both parties and voters. Included were four American NGOs - the National Democratic Institute (NDI), the International Republican Institute (IRI), The Freedom House and the International Centre for Journalists. A total of 43 persons, including 19 Americans, were accused of violating the law by not filing registration paperwork fully in accordance with the Egyptian law and therefore receiving illegal funding from outside the country. Amongst others, the German Konrad Adenauer Stiftung was also implicated after having worked in Egypt with the full knowledge and approval of the Egyptian government for over 30 years.

The accusations were widely seen as absurd, especially as many NGOs had indeed filed registration papers that were lying in Egyptian offices for years without anyone dealing with them.

The impact of this surprise raid and the subsequent diplomatic row on international relations was immense, especially with Germany and the US. It was finally temporarily resolved, when the Egyptian government – in return for a substantial payment of million of dollars bail – allowed the foreign staffers to leave the country on March 1 on a US military plane.

One American however did not board the plane: Robert Becker, Political Party Trainer and Election Observer with the NDI, stayed in Egypt despite his NGO employer demanding him to do otherwise. Together with his Egyptian staff he has been facing the ongoing NGO trial ever since, spending almost every 4 weeks for hours in a cage at the Cairo court hoping that one day the verdict will show, that they are all not guilty and can go free.

The next session in the NGO trial will take place on January 10 at 10 a.m. After a year of stressful times spend in a slow-grinding trial it seemed a good time to ask Robert Becker about his motives to stay behind, about the impact the trial has on his life and the life of his Egyptian colleagues, and about the future after a verdict that hopefully will speak in their favour.

The raid - the charges - the interrogation - the training of parties and voters

The raid was a complete surprise to us.

There was no warrant. There was no explanation. They seized files, computers, pretty much stripped the building.

I learned from the charges via twitter. There was a news conference from the prosecutor that a journalist from AJE tweeted. That's when I saw my name and learned I was charged. This is not the usual way it's done.

This was a surprise. This was a real setback for Egypt coming out from the Mubarak regime.

The plane left without him - fired by NDI - in clash with US foreign policy - Fayza Aboul Naga started this smear campaign

I got fired. Did it upset me - yeah, it did. On the other hand I did defy direct orders.

It was an assault on civil society and I personally decided that it was a fight worth fighting.

There was a working theory: If all the foreigners left, the Egyptian government would go easy on the Egyptian staff. To which I countered my working theory, that if all the foreigners leave, they might retaliate against the Egyptian staff.

If democracy is to survive in Egypt following the revolution, the citizens have to be a part of it. People have to not fear organising at the local level. - This democracy won't survive without the active participation of the Egyptian people.

How dare we as an American NGO come to this country and preach democracy and preach human rights - and the first time that we get hit with some paperwork felonies the instinct is to run.

All NGOs felt that they were very wronged in this raid.

The 15 of us that are standing in the cage - I think we all wish our governments would be a bit more vocal.

So far there hasn't been any evidence presented against us.

If you ask me who started this and who I would pin the blame on I would say former Minister Fayza Aboul Naga.

Her testimony was rather outstanding. She proved our point that this is simply a political case. None of her testimonies had anything to do with the charges brought against us.

Is it a "smear campaign"? Yes, it is.

The cage - the judges - the defendants - "The Egyptian defendants are patriots"

It is very difficult to hear, what is being said. People accused of a crime should have the basic right to hear what the lawyers and judges and witnesses are saying.

The one blessing we have is, we have a set of judges that seem to be focused on the facts of the case.

We are required to be there. But there's no active participation in the case. It's a mesh cage and you can't hear anything. We're ushered into the cage and we don't come out until court's adjourned.

There are 13 Egyptians in that case who took these jobs to help improve their country. To me they're great patriots. Their only 'crime' is to work very hard to see a better Egypt.

Impact on the Egyptians - Bio is blemished even if acquitted - Impact on economy: Scared off investors - Reaction of Egyptians after the foreigners were allowed to leave on plane: a shift in opinion

Most NDI staff lost job and it hurt their careers. - There is a bit of a stigma.

Tens of millions of investor's Euros are on hold.

Okasha in his talk show was calling for our execution, questioning the patriotism of the Egyptians that worked for these NGOs. You had members of parliament that were doing the same thing. - I had more than a fair share of death threats in January and February 2012.

There was a general shift in public opinions after the foreigners were allowed to leave on that plane. So that I think today most Egyptians are convinced that the trial is a farce.

The future of Egypt is the youth. Egypt needs my colleagues engaged in the political and civil society process moving forward. They need hundreds of folks like that.

I hope that a new NGO law will get us where we were one-and-a-half years ago when there was a general new sense of freedom on the streets of Egypt. Because fixing the problems of 30 years of dictatorship is going to take a long, long time. And Egypt needs the valuable contribution of these Egyptians that are in the cage. I consider them patriots. They worked, really, really hard to make Egypt better.

No change since the Muslim Brotherhood president was elected - Lessons to be learned - What is missing is the thought about dignity

The Morsi administration could have reached out to organisations, parties and groups outside of their folds, in the human rights world, in the judicial reform world, with the liberal parties, to build sort of a national consensus for the need for change. To bring people inside the tent to build a better Egypt. Instead they did the decree and sort of fast tracked this whole process and made it clear that they did not want the help of any outside party.

The lesson that Egyptians in power need to learn: In a democracy there's winning and there's losing. When you win the parliament, you control the spoils of winning. But when you're writing a constitution or when you try to address the nation as a whole you have to reach out and work across party lines, across ideological lines. Otherwise you get into a bunker mentality.

I certainly don't want to spend the next four to six years in an Egyptian prison, but it is a distinct possibility. I have seen stranger things happen in this country.

This is a very political case. And the last thing Egypt needs right now is a guilty verdict on it. Mainly because there is no evidence for it. But as much as the international media has stopped covering it, I bet they would start covering it again if it came down with a guilty verdict.

Moving forward, the Muslim Brotherhood needs to get out of its bunker mentality. They need to start reaching out to the NGO world, civil society world, the political parties, because there are very, very large problems that need solutions.

The thing I think is missing the most now in Egyptian politics from all sides is the dignity. With lot of the economic things that are coming out, there is not a lot of thought process about what this is doing to the dignity of the Egyptian man or woman the way they are living in the country. And the biggest assault I have seen in this country is an assault on their dignity.


You can follow Robert Becker on twitter at @rbecker51

Information on the ongoing trial you find under the hashtag #NGOtrial

You can view the interview in one complete sequence at the Atlantic Council

January 03, 2013

It takes all kinds to make a world

As short as the New Year is, I nevertheless already got a huge overdose of racist and misogynistic slurs on social media. And I keep wondering, why is it that people are so afraid of others being different? What scares them so that they would resort to vile attacks, vicious insults and overall defaming of what they consider to be – not in line, not according to their way of living, not being identical with what they think they themselves are? Why is 'different' so scary and needs to be fought so hard against?

The great Austrian painter Gustav Klimt created a masterpiece in 1907 when he finished his famous "Flower Garden". In looking at this painting I have always marvelled at the diversity of flowers that he strew across the green grass. The painting is full of life and beauty where flowers of different kind and colour come in abundance and where diversity is the name of the game.
How often have I wondered how we would look at that painting and what we would think of it if he had left out the splendour of different colours and just gave us a plain green meadow to look at? I doubt we would have been equally pleased. What makes his painting so enchanting – and is in fact the true thrill we feel when seeing such places in real life – is the multiple choices we have of picking colours with our eyes. Yes, we plainly love that there are so many different flowers to be seen and we would be dulled if this was not so.

Why then do we react differently to people than we do to flowers in a garden? While we treasure the diversity in nature, many are plain scared when it comes to the diversity of people, of race, culture, gender, sexual orientation or religion. But is this not too just the richness nature has to offer? Why then feel scared when you can be enchanted? Would a Daffodil be afraid of a Daisy because it's colours are different?

The little brown boy became my friend

When I was a young boy, there was a time when we lived in a little village on the outskirts of a small German town. In the primary school of the village 20 puffed-faced little kids sat in my class and tried to learn the alphabet, knowing nothing yet about the diversity of the world. Most of my classmates were farmer's kids. We made mischief in the barn, rolled around in the straw or – much to the dismay of their fathers – played hide and seek in the corn fields. We couldn't read papers yet and on television we only got to see children's programs. We were a closed little community of know-nots and happy in our childish ignorance.

One day in the second grade – I was seven years old – the door of our classroom opened and our teacher came in with a little, slim boy. He was brown in skin colour, had black hair and dark eyes and twenty white-faced, puffed up little kids stared at him in amazement. They had never seen anything like him in real life. Our teacher told us, the boy came from India and his father was sent to work in the town nearby. From now on he would be our classmate and we should be kind to him and make friends. Twenty stunned kids looked back at her blank.

"Who would like to sit next to him?", our teacher asked, and you could have heard a pin drop. No one stirred. Only my hand shot up, almost reaching the ceiling. "I would", I shouted almost a bit too exited as I could see the scared look on the face of the brown boy, not understanding what was going on but feeling intimidated by the stares of his new classmates. I wanted this boy. I wanted him to be my friend, I so knew it. He was different! He didn't look like us! He was full of adventures! We would have great fun, I was sure of that!

Since no one else stirred, the decision wasn't hard to take, and a minute later the little brown boy with his black hair and dark eyes shyly squeezed into the bench next to me and hardly dared to move. I shared my books with him and my pencils, he nodded thankfully, not being able to speak the language – but before the day was out we both were proud of our achievements. Who needs language when you are a kid, when you've got hands and feet, when you can draw and paint in the air, when you are willing to look and learn and listen to the sound of a voice that teaches you much about the heart behind it? It took us weeks to communicate in broken German, but until then we had long made friends.

None of the others in the class showed interest. And while they kept their friendship with me, they did not interact with him, as if they couldn't make heads and tails of what he was about. I did. He was about difference in colour and language, in the form of living and food (I loved his mom's different cooking!), about religion and Gods. And I remember how much I enjoyed playing over at his house full of mysterious paintings and figurines, how kind his mother was to me, how she catered for both of us equally as if we were brothers. I never ever felt alien when being with them, and in all differences that could be seen, the friendship we had was a wonderful bond no one could destroy. The summer was heaven, and it soon turned out that he was obviously from a good family, well educated and – as I have to admit – much more well-mannered and behaved than me. We made a funny pair, we two, and never noticed the world around us or the stares of the others when we were together. No difference in colour made any difference to us. To us we were one and enriched each other with the cultural backgrounds we made the other come to know.

When the year was out, his mother told us one afternoon that his father had been called to go to London to work there and for this reason they would have to move yet again. My friend and I just looked at each other and couldn't believe this. And when they left, it broke our hearts, and I was returned into the world of twenty white-faced look-alike kids not bothering about other worlds to explore. But my friend and all the adventures he brought into my life because he was different, I could never forget.

The richness of Africa

Two years later it was my mother who told me that my father now was being sent to South Africa and we would move there. And so before I knew it, barely eleven years old, I once again entered the world of differences and came to live in a country that could not be fuller of diversity. It was still the times of apartheid, and the maltreatment of blacks could be encountered everywhere. But to me this seemed no obstacle that could deter me. The blacks I came across were different to the brown boy I had been friends with. They looked different, they dressed different, the spoke a different language and had a totally different culture. For anyone out to explore new worlds and make new friends, as I was once more determined to do, this was paradise.

I remember a class trip we took when I was twelve, when we drove hundreds of kilometres to plunge into the vast, majestic landscape of Zululand that was dazzling to the eye. In a very small village, barely comprised of more than a few huts and a small church with an adjacent little building, practically in the middle of nowhere, we were shown how the women of the village learned to work with sewing machines to make an easier living. Our teacher, who had organised the trip and was fluent in Zulu, asked the lady in charge if the women could sing something for us. And before we knew it, the women got up from their places, gathered at one side of the little hall and without any hesitation started to sing a-cappella the songs they sang in their kraal. It blew my mind away. The intensity of their voices, the volume, the harmonies I had never heard before - all this was so strong that I felt it tore down the walls and barriers around us, flinging the window panes out into the valley below and allowing these amazing voices to fly out into the vastness and grandeur of Zululand, filling the space easily as if it was nothing. There was such an unbelievable richness in what I encountered, I could never after that understand how anyone in his right mind in that country could not see what treasures they had with the diversity of the cultures. Where they only saw black and white, I saw colour. And to this day, decades later, when I travel through South Africa and see the treasures of it's nature, I hear the amazing voices of those simple clad women, beaming with shy pride to show us what they knew to do so well. And the volume of their singing opens up the sky above the majestic Drakensberg mountains telling us there are no barriers for voices that are free.

South Africa had plenty to explore for me, as there were more than 50 peoples living there with different backgrounds, beliefs, customs and languages. They had different ways to build their houses, used different motives to paint their walls, they dressed in different ways and practiced different rituals. For anyone seeing the richness, this country was overflowing with it to make you dizzy. And then there were of course the neighbouring countries to visit, with yet again different peoples - Botswana and Zimbabwe, the wonderfully friendly locals of Malawi and the once again different looking inhabitants of Mozambique. Later I moved to Namibia and met with the proud Hereros and clever Bushmen, again so much different to what I had encountered in South Africa. And on visits to Kenya I learned about even more tribes and peoples and cultures and rituals. Africa, it seemed, was just endless in being different and wonderfully enchanting, like the rich flower garden Klimt presented us with in his painting.

The barriers are gone

Many years later, when we came to live in Cairo, I again was confronted with differences. I learned that there was not the Egyptian, but that there were people from Upper and Middle and Lower Egypt, diverse and enriching the country. And I also learned that there was not the Arab, as Arabs from all parts of the Middle East travelled to Egypt to mingle in what was deemed a more free atmosphere in Cairo. And hardly one was alike, coming from different nations with different backgrounds. Diversity never came to an end. It was as if someone had offered me a huge silver platter piled up high with fruits of all forms and sizes, in red and pink and yellow and green. One as enticing as the next and never of the same taste. If that is not richness, what is?

When I travelled across America, there was yet more diversity to explore. And once again, with the many different cultures of the Native Americans, I saw the treasures of a country that so many simply wanted to ignore, shying away from embracing the 'otherness' and not understanding what jewels of different inspirations and customs were offered to them freely to have and to hold, to learn from and to be enriched by. I have never seen anything scary in 'otherness' and never felt anything bad in people being different. On the contrary. My life could not have been richer to this day than it has been with so many encounters with people and peoples being different to me. The era of internet and modern communication after all teaches us how silly it is to build borders and walls, especially if it's in our hearts. And when once, after having spent four weeks on Aruba, a dark skinned local lady we had befriended looked at my almost equally dark tanned arm and said in joyful surprise: "You're one of us!" - she couldn't have paid me a nicer compliment. She meant much more than just my tan. I was still me. But the barriers were gone.

Don't be afraid

Some say, I have been privileged and blessed with such a rich life so far. And of course they are right. Yet I think about the twenty white-faced kids back then in that little village school and know, they all could have grabbed the treasure when it was offered to them. Because they turned away and I did not, I was blessed with the friendship of that little brown looking boy. Often these days I think of him and wonder if he still remembers his little white friend. At first of course we were shy, and when we looked into books together we couldn't help notice that his arm on the table was brown and mine next to it was white. But as unusual as this was for us kids at that time, the colour never made a difference but for the excitement that there was something different there to be explored. Would we still be able to talk today as adults? Could I discuss with him the perils of modern India, where women are still subjected to horrific abuses just for being 'different' to men? Knowing that he too was confronted at an early age with diversity, I would want to believe I could. While our arms were of a different colour, our hearts definitely were not. We had become friends. Despite the differences.

To those, afraid of anything different, I can only say: don't. Don't be afraid to tackle something new, don't be afraid to learn about other peoples ways, their customs, their beliefs. The diversity we enjoy in the painting of Klimt is the richness of our world. We could go out there forever learning and listening and discussing, and not a dull moment in sight. Why anyone would not want that, why anyone would prefer the look-think-talk-alike version of life, is beyond me. There are treasures out there to be found, if only we are willing to take the risk. But taking it will enrich us in a way we could never imagine. After all, it takes all kinds to make a world. And in the end, at least for me, thinking about my Indian friend and the many other friends of different colours and races I later made, the truth is really pure and simple: If everyone on this earth would be like me, I'd be bored to death.