Anatomy of a State Security Case
|Wednesday, December 19,2007 06:24|
On April 19, 2006, Egyptian and international media reported that authorities had just arrested members of an extremist armed group in Cairo that was alleged to have been plotting terrorist attacks. Among the headlines were “Egypt foils terror bombing attempt” and “Egypt says terror group broken up.”1 The Egyptian Interior Ministry had announced that day that State Security Investigations (SSI),2 Egypt’s domestic intelligence agency, had arrested 22 suspects who they alleged had been plotting to bomb civilian targets in and around Cairo, including gas pipelines and tourist sites, and to kill Muslim and Christian religious figures. The Interior Ministry said the group was called al-Taifa al-Mansura, “The Victorious Sect.”
Five days later, on April 24, a string of bombings in Dahab, in the Sinai Peninsula, killed 18 people—the first bombing attack in Egypt since 2005 and the only such attack in 2006. (At this writing, there had been no major bombing attacks in Egypt since the Dahab attack.) Unsurprisingly, some journalists connected the April 19 announcement with the subsequent Dahab bombings, suggesting that the group arrested might be connected to the bombings.3 Some observers also offered deeper analyses of the Victorious Sect arrests based on information provided in the interior ministry statement, suggesting that new strains of “Salafi Jihadism” were on the rise in Egypt and that the threat of terrorism in Egypt was growing.4
The facts about the arrests, however, tell another story.
In June and July 2007, Human Rights Watch investigated the cases of the 22 men referred to as the Victorious Sect. We investigated these cases because of their high profile, caused by the Interior Ministry’s public announcement of the arrests, and because many Egyptian attorneys and civil society leaders suggested that the Interior Ministry’s allegations against the men were untrue.
Human Rights Watch was unable to interview in depth any of the 22 alleged members of the Victorious Sect. The majority of the men were still in custody at the time of our investigation, and most of the 12 who are known to have been released since 2006 are either unavailable for interviewing or have declined to speak to us for fear of endangering themselves or their co-defendants. However, Human Rights Watch did interview other former prisoners who had been held for considerable periods with the 22 detainees, and obtained an account of the detainees’ experience from one of the released detainees. We also interviewed the attorneys for the 22 men, who saw them during legal proceedings, and several family members who visited the men, as well as neighbors, activists, and observers familiar with their cases, and numerous other attorneys who represent SSI detainees. (Notably, several of the men’s family members declined to talk to us because they feared that doing so would make it less likely the men would be released.) Lastly, we attempted without success to meet with officials from the Interior Ministry and Foreign Ministry to discuss the cases; letters requesting information from the Interior Ministry received no reply (see appendix).
Our investigation gives reason to be deeply skeptical about the allegations made against the 22 men. Beyond coerced confessions, there appears to be no compelling evidence to support the government’s dramatic claims. Indeed, it appears that SSI may have fabricated the allegations made against at least some and possibly all of them. The very name given to the group—“Victorious Sect”—may have been invented by SSI officers. Moreover, whether or not the original arrests were justified, it is clear that there are currently no legal grounds for the continued detention of the 10 men of the 22 who are believed to remain in custody. The State Security prosecution office has declined to refer any of the cases to court and in 2006 issued orders that all of the men should be released.
The underlying facts of these cases are also disturbing. To begin with, the 22 men were not arrested in late April 2006, when their detention was announced. Rather, they were detained weeks earlier, in February and March 2006, and held incommunicado in various SSI facilities around Cairo, including Lazoghli, SSI headquarters; the Gaber Ibn Hayan SSI facility in Giza; and the Nasr City SSI facility—none of which are legally authorized places of detention. Some of the men had been detained for over two months before the April announcement.
Attorneys and families believe that the 22 men may have been targeted for arrest because they were more devout Muslims than other mainstream Egyptian youth, and because authorities thought they could take signs of their religiousness—for instance, that some of them had organized theological discussion groups—and transform these signs into proof of more suspicious activity.
Former detainees held with the 22 men, as well as their attorneys and family members, have provided information indicating that most or possibly all of the 22 men were tortured by SSI officials during the weeks they were held in custody before the April 19 announcement. A former detainee who heard a number of the men being interrogated at a SSI facility in Giza described the scene:
Another former detainee, held with the group in prison, said that “they told us a lot about the torture they suffered” in the Giza facility. In particular:
In addition, in November 2007 Human Rights Watch received information from one of the Victorious Sect detainees who was released in 2007. The detainee claimed that he and other detainees among the 22 were tortured and mistreated at the Lazoughli facility in early 2006, after the men were arrested in February and March:
Attorneys, former detainees, and other sources also indicated that many of the 22 men, while at the Giza facility and at Lazoghli (SSI headquarters), were handcuffed and blindfolded at almost all times during their detention, and described various ill effects on detainees’ mental health, arising both from physical torture and from constant blindfolding.
Former detainees asserted that the apparent purpose of the torture was to coerce the men to confess to the plots that were later described in the April 19 announcement. As one of the former detainees who was held with the group said:
The released Victorious Sect detainee quoted above said that several detainees in March and April 2006 “confessed” to criminal acts they had not committed. The detainee said that one detainee held with him falsely admitted “that he was a terrorist,” just after he was shocked with electricity to his penis.
Despite obtaining “confessions,” Egyptian authorities abandoned their prosecution of the men several months after the April 2006 announcement. In August and September 2006, the State Security prosecution office declined to refer any the cases to court, as noted above, and issued orders that all of the men should be released. But most of the men were not released at that point. The Interior Ministry made no public announcement about the mid-2007 release orders, and SSI officers appear to have obtained new detention orders for most of the men (a legal maneuver based on the Emergency Law, not uncommon in Egypt) and transferred them back to prison. Although several were later released in mid and late 2007, at least ten remained in custody as of late 2007.
The purpose of this report is not just to describe the experience of this particular group of men at the hands of the SSI. Rather, it is a case study offered to illustrate how SSI operates across Egypt more generally. Based on our research into SSI operations over the last five years and our extensive interviews with attorneys for other detainees, there is a strong basis to conclude that abuses similar to those suffered by this group of 22 men have occurred in other cases.
Moreover, there is every reason to believe that similar abuses will occur in the future. Numerous observers told Human Rights Watch that SSI in recent years has focused increasingly on young men, and apparent Salafists (devout Muslims) in particular, often arresting and interrogating them without legitimate legal grounds.
Ahmad Saif al-Islam, an attorney who regularly represents families of individuals in SSI custody, explained that SSI routinely arrests or summons Salafists for interrogation. He said: “The police round up random people, then refer people to State Security. . . . [or] sometimes they [SSI] target the Salafists.” According to Saif al-Islam as well as other attorneys, SSI officers typically press suspects to name other men for them to arrest:
Observers also said that SSI routinely coerces detainees into becoming informants.
SSI officers who engage in abuse are rarely held to account. A top Egyptian Interior Ministry official, in meetings with Human Rights Watch in February 2004 and February 2005, stated that the government has undertaken no criminal investigations or disciplinary measures in response to allegations of torture and ill-treatment by SSI officers since 1986.5
Egyptian attorneys and human rights activists tell Human Rights Watch that SSI officers continue to operate with impunity across Egypt and are only rarely held accountable for their abusive practices.
This report is meant to draw attention to that impunity. A set of recommendations to the Egyptian government is provided at the end of this report.
1 See Middle East News Agency (Egypt), “Egypt Foreign Ministry reports foiling of terror plot,” April 19, 2006; “Egypt foils terror bombing attempt ,” Xinhua, April 19, 2006; Challiss McDonough, “Egypt Says Terror Group Broken Up,” Voice of America, April 19, 2006; Jonathan Wright, “Egypt says arrests group planning bombings,” Reuters, April 19, 2006; Associated Press, “Egypt arrests 22 on suspicion of plotting terrorist attacks,” April 19, 2006; National Public Radio (US), “Militant Bombing Plot Foiled, Egyptians Say,” broadcast April 19, 2006; Heba Saleh, “Egypt seizes group accused of plot to bomb tourist sites,” Financial Times (UK), April 20, 2006.
2 State Security Investigations (SSI), or Mabahith Amn al-Dawla, is often referred to by Egyptians as “SSI,” or simply as “State Security.”
3 See, for instance, Bryan Bender, “Attacks Signal Stepped-Up Qaeda Effort,” Boston Globe, April 28, 2006.
4 Murad Al-shishani, “Egypt Breaks-up al-Ta"efa al-Mansoura Jihadist Group,” Jamestown Foundation Terrorism Focus, Volume 3, Issue 16, April 25, 2006, available at http://jamestown.org/terrorism/news/article.php?articleid=2369971 (accessed October 15, 2007); Ely Karmon, “Egypt as a New Front of al-Qaeda,” International Institute for Counter-terrorism, May 5, 2006, available at http://www.ict.org.il/apage/5179.php (accessed July 15, 2007). The term “Salafi Jihadism” should not be confused with the term “Salafism” which refers to a particular conservative Islamist ideology. See footnote 7.
5 The meetings were with Gen Ahmad `Umar Abu al-Sa`ud, a member of the cabinet of Minister of Interior Habib al-`Adli, on February 28, 2004, and February 22, 2005, in Cairo.
Anatomy of a State Security Case
The “Victorious Sect” Arrests