Thursday,20 September, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1153, 20 - 26 June 2013
Thursday,20 September, 2018
Issue 1153, 20 - 26 June 2013

Ahram Weekly

An unending problem?

Doaa El-Bey looks at the complicated issue of Egyptians detained in Arab countries

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Al-Ahram Weekly

The question of Egyptians detained abroad is a thorny one, involving the authorities in their countries of detention, their rights under the law, the question of legal representation and the need to inform the detainees of their rights. “It is one of the most important issues dealt with by the Egyptian Foreign Ministry,” Ali Al-Esheri, assistant foreign minister for consular affairs, said.
However, there are differences between persons detained for criminal reasons and those detained for political or security reasons. The former, Al-Esheri said, are offered consular services that include visits and checking that they are getting medical or psychological care if required. Conveying messages to families and complaints to the authorities of the state of detention also falls within the remit of the consular services offered to prisoners detained on criminal charges.
“The ministry also tries to arrange amnesty decrees for certain Egyptian prisoners on national days or religious occasions, especially in the Arab countries,” Al-Esheri added.
Foreign Ministry statistics put the total number of Egyptian prisoners kept abroad at approximately 2,500 in July 2012, 1,462 of them in Arab states, 872 in Europe, 92 in Asia, 75 in Israel and 15 in the US. Since then, Al-Esheri said the numbers were likely to have changed since some prisoners have been released and others have been arrested. A new set of statistics will be issued soon.
“Given that there are more than eight million Egyptian expatriates, 2,441 detainees, most of them in criminal cases, seem plausible. In Saudi Arabia, for example, there are 881 Egyptians detained on criminal charges and 11 on security related charges,” he said.
There are a limited number of detainees held in certain countries on charges related to national security. Such cases can take months to resolve, sometimes years, depending on the charges.
“Official policy in these cases is to push to end the investigation quickly, issue the charges and refer the case to the judiciary,” Al-Esheri said. This is where the role of the lawyers starts, he added.

DETAINEES IN SAUDI ARABIA: Given that more than one-and-a-half million Egyptian expatriates live in Saudi Arabia, it is used to having the largest number of Egyptian detainees in the Arab world.
However, the last two years have seen new developments, Ashmawi Youssef, head of the Association of the Families of Egyptians Detained in Saudi Arabia, said. The association, a pressure group founded in 2011 by the families of some 36 Egyptian nationals detained without trial in the kingdom, acts to assist Egyptian prisoners. As a result of its efforts, Youssef said, the Foreign Ministry and other officials have managed to reduce the number of detainees in Saudi Arabia to just eight.
“In 2011, there were 205 Egyptian detainees in Saudi prisons. Now there are only eight, and their cases have been referred to the judiciary. They are now being properly tried, such that they will be punished if found guilty and acquitted if found not guilty. This is what we have always sought,” Youssef told Al-Ahram Weekly.
Youssef emphasised that the association also intended to be active in the coming months to press the rights of the detainees. Youssef’s own son was among the Egyptian detainees in Saudi Arabia, being detained for four years before being released without charge. He returned to Egypt in January.
Youssef said that the association wanted to see the questioning of officials who had detained Egyptians without enough evidence and had detained them for years without clear charges. “We are waiting for the return of the remaining detainees, and we will escalate the matter further to claim their rights, whether financial or legal,” he said.
The association has held press conferences and organised protests to raise awareness of the plight of the detainees, many of them in front of the Saudi embassy in Cairo and the Egyptian Foreign Ministry. A protest was also held in front of the presidential palace, and appeals have been sent asking for meetings with President Mohamed Morsi.
The association has issued a booklet, A Prisoner Until When? in which it records the cases of 28 detainees, some of whom had been detained for more than seven years without charge or proper trial.
Al-Esheri said that the Saudi file was one of the most complicated the ministry had to deal with, but that positive developments had taken place over recent months. “The number of detainees has been reduced from 42 last year to only 11 this year,” he said.
The question of the detainees was a top priority during the meeting of the joint Egyptian-Saudi committee held last month in Cairo. Officials from both states emphasised their will to close the file, and the committee is now supposed to hold a meeting every year to discuss issues of mutual interest, including detainees.

DETAINEES IN THE UAE: The issue of Egyptians detained in the UAE has been in the news since the arrest of 11 nationals accused of leading an expatriate Muslim Brotherhood cell that had gathered sensitive military information and plotted against national security in the country. The men were arrested in December last year.
However, there has not been any declared development in the case since. “The case was referred to the public prosecutor in the UAE, but the official charge has not been issued yet,” said Ahmed Zazaa, the son of Abdallah Zazaa, one of the detainees.
He recalled how his father, a dentist who had lived in the UAE for 28 years, was arrested at his dental clinic in December in front of his patients and staff and taken to an unknown location. “At first, we did not know where he was or why he had been arrested: no one gave us any answers or explanations,” he added.
The detention was a further blow to the already tense relationship between Abu Dhabi and Cairo. Official efforts to secure the quick release of the detainees failed, although a top-level political delegation including presidential adviser Essam Al-Haddad and General Intelligence chief Mohamed Shehata visited the UAE shortly after the arrests. Emirati officials told the delegation they would let justice take its course.
However, the visit also shed light on the alleged double standards the Egyptian authorities use in dealing with the issues of detainees. Sherine Farid, spokesperson for the Association of the Families of Egyptian Detainees in Saudi Arabia, said that the way the Egyptian authorities had handled the case of the UAE detainees constituted a clear act of discrimination.
“The authorities sent a high-ranking official delegation to follow up the case of the Egyptians detained in the UAE just because they are members of the Muslim Brotherhood. Why was the same step not taken with regard to the Egyptians detained in Saudi Arabia?” Farid asked.
The detentions, together with the failure to produce official charges against the detainees and the perceived failure of Egyptian officials to take steps to end their ordeals, have given rise to anger mixed with feelings of disappointment, these being expressed in protests held in front of the UAE embassy in Cairo.
Egypt’s Foreign Ministry has said it is following the cases by pressing for official charges to be issued, making regular consular visits to the detainees, and informing their families about developments in the case.
Al-Esheri met the families in his office in Cairo a few times and the Egyptian embassy managed to arrange for the detainees’ families residing in the UAE to visit them last month. “We are trying to organise a visit by the detainees’ families living in Egypt to the UAE to visit the detainees,” he added.
However, Zazaa said that a request was passed to the ministry a while ago, but that the ministry has not got back to the families on the issue. Human rights groups have also expressed their concerns at the detainees being kept for months without official charges.
The US NGO Human Rights Watch said in February that the cases were a “sad example” of the UAE authorities ignoring the due process of law and basic legal protections, adding that they should stop the practice of arresting people only to hold them without charge for months on end. It recommended that the UAE authorities should either release the detainees or issue official charges.
Under the UAE’s criminal procedure law, the authorities must transfer detainees’ cases to the public prosecutor within 48 hours for charges to be filed, after which the prosecution may extend detention indefinitely with the approval of a judge. The UAE authorities have not released public information regarding the legal procedures followed in these cases, however, and the detainees’ families do not know when the prosecution will file charges against them.
Although the cases of the Egyptian detainees have not yet been resolved, other cases, including the recent release of more than 100 prisoners in the UAE, have been seen as positive gestures.
Last month, UAE officials announced the release of 103 Egyptian detainees arrested by the authorities on various charges. There are still more than 200 Egyptians detained in the UAE, however, including the 11 arrested in December.
Al-Esheri hailed last month’s move especially because it had not come on a special occasion as usual and did not include any other nationalities. The move concerned Egyptians only, he said. The decision also included the paying off of all financial obligations incurred by the detainees as a result of their detention.
The move came during a visit by the Grand Imam of Al-Azhar Ahmed Al-Tayeb who was also named Cultural Personality of the Year by the Sheikh Zayed Book Awards in the UAE.

DETAINEES IN LIBYA: Expatriates living in some countries may face special difficulties or even have their lives threatened if there is political unrest in those countries, and this has been the case of Egyptians living in Libya and Yemen.
The death of Ezzat Atallah, a 45-year-old Egyptian Coptic Christian who was detained in Libya with four other Copts on charges of missionary activities, led to anger among the country’s Egyptian community and raised questions about whether Egyptian expatriates in Libya, especially Copts, were being treated fairly.
Both Egyptian and Libyan officials claim that Atallah, who died in March after being detained for several weeks, died of natural causes. However, some members of his family said that he had died from torture during his detention.
Atallah, who was arrested in February, had been moved from Benghazi to Tripoli by the security apparatus in Libya to be questioned by the public prosecutor in Tripoli. As a result of his death, dozens of Egyptian Coptic protesters demonstrated outside the Libyan embassy in Cairo, carrying banners calling for compensation for Atallah’s family and the release of the other Copts arrested on the same charges.
The other four Copts detained with Atallah were later released. However, shortly before Atallah’s death, 48 other Egyptian Copts were arrested and detained on charges of practising missionary activities and attempting to convert Libyan Muslims to Christianity.
The detainees, who worked as traders in local markets, were said to be in possession of copies of the Bible and texts bearing images of Christ and the late Coptic Pope Shenouda III, and they were charged by the Libyan authorities with urging Libyan Muslims to convert to Christianity along with illegal entry into Libya.
A video and pictures posted online during their detention seemed to show that the men were subsequently treated in an inhumane way by the Libyan authorities. The images showed them with shaven heads squatting on the floor of a small room while one bearded man described how they had been arrested on charges of proselytising for Christianity.
A few days after the video material was made public, Al-Esheri announced that thanks to efforts exerted by the Egyptian consulate in Benghazi, 20 of the men had been released, with the rest being released a little while afterwards. Some of the men left to Egypt, while others preferred to stay and continue working in Libya.
The men were detained by the militia groups that are now active in Libya and that are not controlled by the Libyan authorities. A top Libyan official was quoted by the media during the detention as saying that the militias often acted with impunity, ran their own prison cells, and made arrests in the absence of state control and oversight.
At the same time, the Libyan government was depending on militias to serve as security forces because the country’s police had been in disarray since the revolution that ousted former Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi from power last year.
The arrests were the latest in a series of incidents in Libya targeting Christians.
The Coptic church in Benghazi was attacked in March. In December last year, two Egyptian Christians were killed and two others were injured when suspected Islamist extremists threw a homemade bomb at a Coptic-Orthodox church in western Libya.
Four missionaries from Egypt, South Africa, South Korea and Sweden were also arrested early this year in Benghazi on charges of printing and distributing materials that promoted Christianity.
Hundreds of thousands of Egyptians are now working in construction and other jobs in Libya. Hundreds are believed to have been killed in the crossfire during the country’s civil conflict, and many others lost their jobs. Despite all these problems, however, many Egyptian nationals have preferred to stay in Libya, including those previously detained.

DETAINEES IN YEMEN: Although most of the problems that have led to expatriates’ detention in Yemen are related to security issues, the latest case is related to a cultural tradition in Yemeni society: revenge.
Two Egyptians were kidnapped last month by a Yemeni family to put pressure on the Yemeni authorities to hand over the alleged killer of their son. The son had been killed earlier in Aden, and his alleged killer was arrested by the Yemeni authorities. However, the family wanted to avenge the death of their son directly by taking the law into their own hands.
In an attempt to release the two Egyptians kidnapped by the family, the Egyptian embassy in Yemen conducted high-level contacts with Yemeni officials and with the heads of the country’s tribes. While the contacts were described as positive, the families of the detainees were worried that they might not lead to the release of the detainees, though in fact they were released a few days later.
In February, another four Egyptians were detained on security charges in Yemen. Egyptian Foreign Minister Mohamed Kamel Amr contacted Yemeni counterpart Abu Bakr Al-Qurba over the issue, and the ministry followed up the case with the Egyptian embassy in Sanaa, even hiring lawyers to defend the four suspects in court.
Another four Egyptians were detained in Yemen in August last year on suspicion of belonging to Al-Qaeda. They were arrested among 14 other suspects, including nine foreigners, said to be Al-Qaeda militants suspected of plotting a series of attacks.
The Yemeni authorities said that the suspects were planning to target the army and civilian leaders, as well as the sites of foreign interests. Egypt’s Foreign Ministry monitored the investigations and stressed that the detainees should be returned to Egypt as soon as possible.
The suspects are thought to have been working in three groups, the biggest of which was allegedly intending to focus on fighting the army in the south of Yemen, an area that had until recently been under Al-Qaeda control, the ministry said.

A THIRD KIND OF DETAINEE: In addition to detainees imprisoned on criminal charges or for security reasons, a third group of detainees are those suspected of overstaying their visas, illegal immigrants and those who enter other states illegally on boats and by other means. These detainees are also mostly in the Arab states.
In these cases, the Foreign Ministry tries to attend the investigations if there are any, provide legal advice, contact the families and act to reduce or annul fines or arrange for their payment.
The best-known cases are in Saudi Arabia, where some Egyptians have been detained on suspicion of overstaying their visas.
Perhaps the most recent incident was the arrest of some 60 workers who had overstayed their work visas in Saudi Arabia and were detained in very difficult conditions with criminals in a jail in Jeddah in April. The issue was reported on by the media when the detainees complained of maltreatment and negligence by the embassy.
Some were detained for more than four months without proper food or medication, leading to the deterioration of the health of some and the decision by others to start a hunger strike to attract attention to their case.
While Al-Esheri said that some of these cases could take a long time to settle and require paying high fines that the detainees sometimes could not afford, he hailed the initiative of King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia who had given those who had overstayed their work, pilgrimage or other form of visa the deadline of 3 July to correct their situation.
“Many Egyptians who have overstayed their visas could benefit from that ultimatum to make their stay legal or to leave the kingdom before the date without paying a fine. However, after that the kingdom’s strict regulations will be applied,” he added.

FUTURE OUTLOOK: There are more than eight million Egyptians living outside the country today, with unofficial figures putting the number at ten million if illegal immigrants are counted. Thus, it is likely that tens or even hundreds of them will be detained for security reasons in the countries where they reside.
Many countries, especially Saudi Arabia, have been criticised for their treatment of Egyptians. Meanwhile, the Egyptian Foreign Ministry has been repeatedly criticised for its alleged failure to provide ample help for the detainees.
Tarek Zaghloul from the Egyptian Organisation for Human Rights said that the services that the embassies abroad offered were deficient. Zaghloul, whose work involves meeting or talking to detainees, called for more care and assistance to be given to detainees.
“The excuse that there are not enough funds — for hiring lawyers for instance — is not acceptable. Any citizen who faces a problem and resorts to an embassy should be listened to and efforts made to resolve the problem,” Zaghloul told the Weekly.
In their attempts to resolve the legal problems that citizens meet abroad, Egypt’s embassies have tried to pressure the detaining countries to treat the detainees according to the law and human rights principles and to give them the same treatment as its own citizens.
The ministry has also tried to establish a way of providing legal protection for Egyptian expatriates. “Up till now, there has not been a line in the embassies’ budgets for providing expatriates with legal protection or lawyers if needed. We are still waiting for the parliament to consent to the idea of establishing this. The disbanded People’s Assembly consented to the idea in principle. The next step should be to debate the project in a parliamentary session,” Al-Esheri said.
Once established, this principle would mean that Egypt would be able to ask reputable law firms to follow up cases in which Egyptian expatriates were involved, he added. The idea would be funded by levying a small fee on consular transactions abroad, and the money raised would be transferred to a fund that would pay for legal protection for expatriates or other projects that come up in the future to the benefit of expatriates.

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