Forgotten Victims of Egypt’s ‘War on Terror’

Once, sometimes twice, a month, Aisha Abdel Salam Saleh is ready for her journey by early sunrise. “For three days before it, I already can’t sleep! I am tense all the time,” she says. Waiting to see her youngest son, Abdallah, who has been detained without charges for seven years, the sixty-year-old woman spends days cooking her son’s favorite homemade food.

Aisha hurries to meet a small group of women in black niqab, also carrying big baskets of food—all on their way to visit their incarcerated siblings in Wadi al-Natroun II prison. “The cab costs 80 (Egyptian) pounds. I can’t afford it on my own, so we all split the fare” of a two-hour journey, says Aisha. “I am now allowed to visit him every week, but I cannot do that anymore. I am too old.”

Aisha and the other women gather in front of the prison gate for few hours, before seeing their relatives during a visit that lasts one hour. She then takes the road back to her small house on the outskirts of Kerdassa village in Giza, the twin city of Cairo, where she lives alone.

She runs around searching the drawers in her room, and proudly produces a picture of Abdallah, taken shortly before State Security detained him in 1997. He was, then, a 14-year-old student in his first year of high school, she remembers.
“He had nothing to do with politics,” she insists. “They arrested him to know the whereabouts of his two brothers. They tortured him to make false confessions, although he does not know anything.”

Abdallah’s eldest brother is Mohamed Nasr Eddin Farag al-Ghizlani, who was sentenced by a military court in 1997 to 15 years in prison, along with his middle brother Essam, then a first year Engineering student. The government accused Mohamed of leading an Islamic Jihad cell that was planning to attack an Israeli tourist group in Khan al-Khalili bazaar. The Kerdassa group allegedly was clustered around the village mosque, where they used to meet and discuss the theology of jihad. Ayman al-Zawahiri, the government said, tried to mobilize the group using two operatives, Mahmoud Shaaban al-Deeb and Adel Ali Bayoumi al-Soudani to revive the armed struggle. Mohamed al-Ghizlani, himself, had earlier spent three years in prison in the mid 1980s, for alleged involvement with other Jihad militants in burning a video store.

Mohamed’s lawyer Montasser al-Zayat insists the accusations were fabricated, and that the Kerdassa group did not do anything but “talking.”

As for Aisha, she remembers a different Mohamed—a shy boy, who did not mix a lot with other kids despite his love for football. His main concern was what he regarded as disintegration of “religious morals.” After his release in 1989, Aisha continues, he enrolled in law school, got his degree and settled down with a wife and two children.

However, “if you are arrested once, they always come back for you,” she says. “For them, anyone who leaves his beard is a terrorist.”

State security agents were frequent visitors to the Ghizlanis, since Mohamed’s release in 1990. Mohamed and Essam were usually interrogated or briefly detained. It wasn’t till seven years later that the government cracked down heavily on the village and the mosque’s attendants.

“They parked the prison truck, with its backdoor blocking the mosque’s entrance. They snatched everybody coming out… and shoved them inside the truck. Then they came for my sons,” Aisha recalls in horror.

Mohamed escaped and was picked up later by the police in Alexandria, while Essam turned himself in to the authorities after hiding for a short period.

Their youngest brother, Abdalla, was taken later. And secret police agents showed up regularly at the family’s house for interrogating the parents. “They (security services) have psychologically drained us,” said Aisha.

Aisha stayed for seven years without being able to see at least the two eldest sons except in the military court. Only last Eid, and on the Prophet’s birthday that she was allowed prison access. Her case, though, is not unique. The Egyptian Organization for Human Rights (EOHR) has highlighted other similar cases in a report published earlier this year titled, “Members of One Family under detention”

A visit to Islamist lawyer Montasser al-Zayat’s office in downtown Cairo, can clearly demonstrate that Egypt’s “war on terror” is by no means over. The reception room was full of veiled women, young and old bearded men in white galabayias—all there to follow on the cases of their detained sons, brothers or husbands. Zayat’s young assistants were usually running around with papers and folders, replying to phone calls, assuring their worried clients that “Mr. Montasser” was doing his best to get their sons out, or obtain prison visit permits.

“No one knows the exact figure of Islamist detainees in prison,” Zayat told me. “The government has not released an official figure. The Egyptian Organization for Human Rights said they are around 16,000. I say they are about 35,000 prisoners; 5,000 were released so now we may have less than 30,000 political prisoners.”

I could not independently confirm that figure.

Since Gamaa Islamiya, Egypt’s largest militant group, announced its renunciation of violence following its unilateral ceasefire in 1997, prison conditions have improved for the incarcerated members of the group, and their families. Prison visits have become more regular, security hassles for the militants’ families almost stopped. But, according to Zayat and EOHR reports, the picture may still be different for the Islamic Jihad, which hasn’t renounced violence in principle despite being out of business for years.
Scores of alleged Jihad militants still lie in prison without charges, and denied family visits. “The minister of interior bans the visit by a decree,” Zayat complained. “We appeal against it at the state council. The state council reverses the decision. The minister issues a new decree the following day. And so on!”

Such a cat-and-mouse game between the Ministry of interior and Islamist lawyers is also in effect when it comes to the continuous detention of militants (and sometimes their relatives) without charges.

“We submit a complaint asking for the detainees’ release. The authorities transfer them from their prisons to temporary detention cells at the State Security premise in downtown, until the court and state security look into their cases,” Zayat explained. “They stay for a week or two, during which State Security investigates their case. Usually the release is refused, and the detainees go back once again to prison.”

I spent 36 hours with 18 alleged Jihad detainees in one of those temporary underground detention cells back in October 2000, when I was detained briefly as part of the government’s crackdown on leftist students involved in the solidarity movement with the Palestinian intifada.

Among my “jihadi” cellmates was Sayyed, a pharmacist in his 30s who was eager to know about the latest comedy movies in theatres and good seafood places. Another was Mustafa, a building contractor and a Marlboro-Lights-chain-smoker. Both had been detained for a year without charges. They insisted they were never affiliated with the Jihad, but their cousins were. “My cousin, the male members of the family including myself, and his male friends in the neighborhood, were all detained,” Sayyed told me. “They know quite well I’m not in the Jihad. They have been torturing me for a year, asking ‘What did your cousin used to tell you?’

“Look at Mr. Mustafa!” Sayyed continued, laughing. “He smokes and used to drink alcohol! Does he look like a Muslim terrorist to you?”  Mustafa was then busy, convincing our jailers to buy him a new cigarettes pack.

Mustafa and Sayyed told me they spent their detention time between Al Aqrab and Tora prisons, and the State Security cell in Lazoughli whenever their families submitted a complaint. I don’t know what happened to them later. I don’t know if they were released or not. And I don’t know if Sayyed took his wife and daughter to that small seafood restaurant I described to him in Heliopolis.

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