IRAQ. Abduction and disappearance: Powerful weapons to intimidate protests activists

On February 22, 2020, at around 8 p.m., the young protester “Muhammad Ali” (a pseudonym) was waiting alone near Kahramana square in central Baghdad, for a taxi to take him to New Baghdad in the south-east of the capital, where he will continue his way home on Palestine Street, but the vehicle he took moved him to another world that changed his life forever.

 

  •  Ahmed Hasan, Iraqi journalist resident at the MDJ (Maison des journalistes). Translated by Walaa Rayya

The cold and the darkness surrounded the place near the Chevrolet Car Company office, which is about several kilometers from Tahrir Square, the center of the popular protests when a white Kia car with four passengers in it stopped, they were unsuspicious. Muhammad slipped in it quickly as he exchanged greetings with them before silence prevailed.

A few minutes later, the car changed its way and was headed towards Abu Nawas Street on the Tigris River, when one of the passengers pointed his gun with a silencer placed under his jacket at Muhammad and said “Shut up if you want to live.” With these words, his kidnapping journey had begun and ended with a troubled life, isolation, paranoia, and great fear.

Muhammad (23 years) has been unemployed and was seeking work since graduating from the University of Baghdad’s Faculty of Political Science in the summer of 2019. Amid the wave of protests demanding reform in October 2019, he quickly became involved in supporting the protest movement and contributed to the establishment of the student sit-in tents on Saadoun Street leading to Tahrir Square. For months, he has worked passionately in fundraising to provide essential supplies of food, bedding, medicines, and face masks against deadly gas bombs.

“Hopes of ending corruption and reforming the political system were filling his soul before it all ended the moment he rode that white car that carried darkness into his world and turned his dreams into nightmares,” mentions one of his friends.

In early February 2020, after only four months of protests, the National Centre for Human Rights in Iraq reported the abduction of 72 people (22 of them was released.) , as well as 49 assassination attempts of 22 activists, journalists and bloggers. But the numbers escalated in the subsequent months.

Fadel al-Graoui, an OHCHR member, revealed, in early June 2021, what he termed the “numbers of missing persons,” and he said that all but 18 of the 76 disappeared persons have been identified.

Death alleys

With successive crackdowns of repression along with arrests and kidnappings, activists preferred not to ride in a car in areas near Al Tahrir Square that were known as “death alleys” and were turned into sites for masked gunmen who made it a field of abduction and murder away from the eyes of security agents and protesters.

Abbas, a twenty years old brown man and Tuk-tuk car owner, who for months has been transporting protesters from the protest center “Al Tahrir “ to the Kahramana square, says: “It was a necessary step for protection against targeting in Al Tahrir square, but armed groups linked to the power parties, for which the demonstrations were considered a danger, began to kidnap activists from Kahramana after tracking them carefully.”

During November and December 2019, at least 103 attempted killings and abductions took place in the streets of Al-Saadoun, Al-Nidal, and Abu Nawas, according to the testimony of 10 groups’ leaders, as well as the testimony of security agents of the Establishment Protection Service, which is responsible for inspecting those entering Tahrir Square.

For almost a year, the protesters, who were thousands in Tahrir Square or gathering around it, used to watch the death and fall of their comrades with live bullets, gas canisters, and sniping weapons. According to government numbers, more than 560 people were killed and over 20,000 were injured.

Identical abduction tales

On the night that Muhammad was kidnapped, Abbas had taken him on his bike with two of his companions (Wael and Maysara). In Kahramana, the three friends broke up, and Muhammad was alone for minutes, using his cell phone and waiting for a car to pick him up. Armed groups would have preferred “to hunt activists alone to facilitate their kidnapping with no witnesses,” Abbas says.

A year after his kidnapping, in a small room in the family home, Muhammad agreed to receive us with his father and sister and several preconditions: “No cameras, no phones, no recording devices.”

The young man kept looking at us for minutes as he tried to figure out our intentions while his father was talking about the difficult days they lived through then he said: ” That night they took me to an abandoned orchard in the Dawra area south of Baghdad, just near the oil refinery. They acted quietly, pulled my phone, and they did not blindfold me to pass through security checkpoints normally. At one checkpoint, they said they were affiliated with the National Security Service.”

“On the way, they told me that they were from the demonstrations room and they wanted to verify the sources of the funds that I collected to support the demonstrations, but after passing the presidential brigade checkpoint, at the exit of the “AL Tabikayen” bridge overlooking the presidential district, and before passing a crossroads leading to “Al-Zaafaraniya” and “ the new Baghdad”, they entered a dirt road that included a checkpoint in which two agents in military clothes stood next to a Toyota pickup, on which the flag of the Popular Mobilization was raised. The barrier was rapidly removed and the car was allowed to pass. After a few minutes, that seemed to me very long I was immersed in thinking about the fate that expected me. We ended up in an orchard.”

Muhammad says: “When we got there, the kidnappers beat me, and one of them grabbed my shirt and pulled me out of the car hard and I fell to the ground. There were four people with beards waiting for me while they were carrying batons. I woke up late at night and found myself locked in a small, windowless room with a filthy bathroom. The room was completely isolated, and I didn’t know when it was morning or night. The hours passed by slowly, interspersed with brief sessions of repeated questions, insults, and physical torture committed by men in their late thirties, all dressed in yellow shirts and green pants.”

Death threat, ransom, and conditional release

After eight days and no news about him, the security services that Muhammad’s family contacted had the same answer “Your son is not detained by us.” Muhammad’s father, who works as a government employee, received a message from the kidnappers via the Telegram application asking him to sign a white paper to prevent his son from participating in student sit-ins and collecting donations in exchange for his release and to not disclose to anyone any information about what he was exposed to.

Several days later, Muhammad came out, after a complicated release mechanism, which included the intervention of a Shiite cleric who lives in the Zaafaraniyah area, and act as a mediator between the families of the victims and the kidnappers and he received thousands of dollars in each operation.

We looked at the messages exchanged between Muhammad’s father and the mediator, in addition to voice calls and photos of the kidnapper with signs of torture on all parts of his body up to his face. The mediator received five thousand dollars in two payments. “Thank God my son survived and returned, but he became introverted. For weeks after his return, he refused to meet his friends and even his brothers.” Muhammad’s father says.

The protests stopped, but the kidnappings didn’t

At the peak of the demonstrations between October 2019 and January 2020, hundreds of activists were subjected to arrest, kidnapping and torture, and these attempts continued after the protests declined and stopped in some areas with the formation of the new government. Jaafar al-Khasib (a pseudonym), is one of the Basra activists, who preferred to change his name to avoid tracking him. In October 2020, he fled to Sulaymaniyah in Kurdistan Province and went to Turkey after a kidnapping attempt in central Basra, where he nearly lost his life.

The activist tells us the details of the kidnapping attempt: “It was in mid-September 2020, on Algeria Street, minutes after I left the house and while I was passing near a parked white Toyota pickup, I was surprised by a loud sound from its engine, I turned and saw someone pointing his gun at me. I was standing in front of one of the shops. Scared and without thinking, I entered the place screaming and jostling with the employees in it, while the sound of gunfire went up.”

“I was lucky because the shop had a back door overlooking a public street that I came out of and I went to a garage next door. I begged people to help me, one of them directed me into the bathrooms, I stayed there for about a quarter of an hour, I was almost paralyzed, and I didn’t know what to do, the death was stalking me. They told me then that the gunmen had fled after one of the workers had been shot in the left leg.” The activist says.

The group that chased Al-Khasib was composed of three persons. They were planning to kidnap him, not kill him.

Hours after the incident, the local police inspected the place and the home of al-Khasib family and conducted a formal investigation after the owner of the shop reported the incident. The activist submitted his statement to the investigating officer who blamed him for his participation in organizing the demonstrations and held him responsible for what happened.

“He also said that my family was suffering because of me, and he told me clearly that the police could not protect me and it will best for me to leave Basra quickly. Then he whispered in my ear a name of a well-known figure in Basra who has been pursuing activists and protesters.” He explains.

Homicide for treason

Throughout the months of documenting the kidnappings, activists informed us that between September and October 2020, many of them received information about the “intentions” of a specific group to execute activists in the demonstrations and that they had “fatwas” legalizing the murder of “traitors” working for America, Britain and the Gulf countries.

In the same period, journalists received information from security parties close to the Prime Minister’s office, that there is a list of about 70 names of journalists and activists threatened with death by armed groups close to the parties in power. The charges are “communicating with countries hostile to the resistance factions”.

Security services, which were unable to protect protesters from armed factions, “believe that the protests are a conspiracy to threaten their existence.” It seems that they preferred not to be a partner in the crime, so they leaked the names of activists and journalists who are threatened with kidnapping or murder.”

This information was leaked days after four of Basra’s most prominent activists were subjected to assassination attempts, Reham Yaqoub (she was murdered on August 19) and “Tahseen al-Shahmani” (he was murdered on August 14), while both Ludia Raymond and Abbas Subhi managed to escape.

291 assassination attempts

The kidnappings and assassinations that took place after the “October Movement” 2019 were not limited to Baghdad and Basra, but also included nine provinces, according to a document that mentioned the names and dates of the assassinations and showed that most of the operations took place between four o’clock and eleven in the evening and were carried out with a variety of machine guns, including silencer weapons.

n officer in the National Security Service who was contacted several times before agreeing to meet with us in a cafe in central Baghdad, said, on the condition that he not be identified, that the assassinations took place based on “an organized action carried out by an armed group that was operating under the watchful eye of the Ministry of Interior and with the support of Shiite political parties.”

The document counted 291 attempted murders directly or after the abduction, as a result, 80 activists and demonstrators were dead, 122 others were injured, and 89 survived without injury, in Baghdad, Babylon, Karbala, Najaf, Diwaniya, Muthanna, Nasiriyah, Missan, and Basra.

The special room

The officer reveals a “Protest Suppression Chamber” was formed under the chairmanship of Interior Minister Yassin Elyasri: “When the demonstrations intensified, they formed the Chamber to confront it, for them the demonstrations were an organized and funded operation to target the authority and the influential parties that have armed groups.”

He states further: “Its meetings included representatives of the Ministry of Defense, the Intelligence Service, officers in the National Security, the Popular Mobilization Forces, and influential actors of the partie.”

The officer in the National Security identified the party concerned with suppressing the demonstrators and prosecuting the activists: “We knew that there was a special operations room called the “Dealing with the Demonstrations” room. It seems that elements of it were planted within the riot police, and they were the ones who were throwing live bullets and tear gas bombs to kill and intimidate the demonstrators.”

This information intersects with statements by Yahya Rasoul, spokesman for the Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces, about the involvement of elements of the Ministry of the Interior (the Forces of Order and Riot Control), in using live bullets and tear gas to kill demonstrators. He accused the government of Adel Abdul Mahdi of these crimes.

Nasiriyah: From a protest center to a kidnapping square

For more than a year, Nasiriyah remained the center of the largest protests in southern Iraq. Kidnapping and assassination attempts were taking place in it to force the participants to withdraw from it.

Activist Ali Mehdi Ajil, who was subjected to two assassination attempts, the first one was on 28 November 2020, says “I was driving to the town police station in Nasiriyah to release the protesters who were arrested following clashes as a result of the burning of sit-in tents in Al – Habubi Square. On Prophet Ibrahim Street, I saw a large motorcycle following me with three hooded men on board. I quickly headed to the hall intersection. I knew the bike was chasing me.

A few days earlier, masked men on a motorbike fired three bullets, also on Nabi Ibrahim Street, one of which hit the windshield of his car.

Ajil, who survived the two attempts, ruled out the involvement of the Sadrist movement’s “Saraya Al-Salam” in the attempts. He believed that an armed political party affected by the demonstrations “sought to take advantage of the dispute between the demonstrators and Saraya Al-Salam and carried out a campaign of assassinations to sow discord and push the demonstrators to accuse the Sadrists who attacked the sit-in square and burned the tents after Al-Sadr called for an end to the sit-ins.”

The story of disappeared Sajjad

About months after the spread of the Coronavirus, which affected the momentum of the demonstrations, but did not end the sit-ins in Baghdad and Nazareth in particular, and the formation of the new government, the demonstrations ended.

On September 19, 2020, the young activist Sajjad Al-Iraqi was kidnapped in Nasiriyah, and his fate is still unknown.

Hajji Basem Falih, who was with the Iraqi during the kidnapping attempt and became a witness to the operation, said: “We were five persons in the car, heading to visit a friend who was injured in the protests. We discovered that two cars were chasing us, so we stopped. Four armed men wearing masks got out and asked us to remain silent and not move And they asked Sajjad to come down and go with them.”

In a quick quarrel that happened during the kidnapping attempt, the witness recognized one of the kidnappers by his voice, Idris Al-Ibrahimi.

According to Hajji Basem, Idris Al-Ibrahimi is an important figure who belongs to the Badr Organization led by Hadi Al-Amiri. He is a Dhi Qar Governorate resident and works as an employee of the Prisoners and Martyrs Foundation. He was formerly a prominent fighter in the Popular Mobilization Forces.

The witness called Idris Al-Ibrahimi for help, by his nickname: “Haji Abu Zahraa, please leave Sajjad.”

That did not work, and Ibrahimi became irritated and told the witness to remain silent, he broke the side window of the car with his pistol, while another gunman, who was carrying a pistol with a silencer, forcibly dragged Sajjad from the back seat and put him in the kidnappers’ car before returning and shooting Hajji Bassem because he identified Ibrahimi, but he miraculously survived after being transferred to Nasiriyah Hospital for treatment for a severe injury.

The incident sparked a wave of outrage among activists and forced the government to force the Counter-terrorism Service to search for Sajjad, to release him, and arrest the kidnappers after unsuccessful attempts to communicate with parties to which the kidnappers belong, but it completely failed and Sajjad remained disappeared, while the security services kept secret the identities of the kidnappers and the details of the operation.

Sajjad’s mother says that she knows the actors involved in the kidnapping of her son, and they are affiliated with an influential party: “There is no investigation. The case has been neglected and put on hold, so there is nothing new and the security services did not inform us of anything. Rather, we are the ones who provide them with information. The kidnappers names are recognized. Four witnesses have conclusive evidence that a person was involved in snitching on Sajjad and he has disappeared after the incident.”

Nine months after the incident and dozens of promises made to Sajjad’s mother by senior officials, the mother does not hide her despair of knowing the fate of her son, “I don’t know if he is dead or alive, nothing is more difficult than that.”

Endless wait

For nearly a year, activists have been waiting for the results of a fact-finding committee to uncover those involved in the killing and kidnapping of protesters, and the investigation committees that were formed after each operation did not identify the persons or parties involved. It’s an endless waiting to forget the causes, as activists see.

With the silence of the government, voices emerged among protesters pointing fingers directly at power parties and armed factions associated with the Popular Mobilization Forces. They note that factional media – specifically Kataeb Hezbollah and Asaeb Ahl Hak – shared statements, comments, and writings that attacked the protests and questioned activists’ motives, accusing them of employment, treason and receiving money from abroad.

Stalking Activists’ Families

Many activist homes have been attacked with firearms and sound packets, like the house of activist Hussein Al – Ghrabi in Dhi Qar, while other have received threatening messages through their phones or contact with their relatives.

Activist Ali Mahdi Ajeel confirms that the armed groups do not hesitate to do anything to stop the protests. “They hung a hanging and bloodied baby doll on the door of my house. It was a clear message that they know me, they know my house and the children, and they can kill anyone if I don’t withdraw.”

Malik al-Tayeb, whose brother, a prominent activist in Diwaniyah, Thaer al-Tayeb, was assassinated in mid-December 2019, says: “A while ago, while I was my car returning from work, near Al-Hussein Hospital, a motorcycle driven by a masked person followed me and he asked me to stop. He asked me to drop the lawsuit about revealing my brother’s killers because that’s a enormous risk to my life. He said his words and sped off. I tried tracking him down, but he went into the narrow alleyways and disappeared. ”

Will the killers be held accountable?

Even after the arrest of several members of the “death gang” in Basra accused of carrying out a series of killings, including the assassination of journalist Ahmed Abd Al-Samad and his colleague, the photographer Safa Ghali in January 2020, prominent activists question the accountability of those involved and believe that impunity will continue to prevail.

But a member of the Parliamentary Security and Defense Committee and representative of Basra, Bader Al-Ziyadi, shows some hope, and sees that the arrests of some members of the “death gang” as “a message of reassurance to the people of Basra that the security services can arrest the criminals, even after a while.”

He didn’t hide the fact that some security commanders requested to move the accused from Basra to Baghdad “so that there will be no pressure on the security services and no change of testimony under any internal influence or outside interference”.

Al-Ziyadi, who expressed his hope that the investigations will show “more and greater results about the motives behind these assassinations, and the nature of their members’ affiliations,” says that “the Parliamentary Security Committee will open the file and obtain accurate information from the security services to solve the murders”.

Yahya Rasoul asked to give chance to the intelligence effort to complete the investigations.

The head of the Supreme Judicial Council and Al-Kazemi’s office also rejected the claim of Adel Abdul-Mahdi’s government that there was a “third party” involved: “This is fake information and has nothing to do with the truth. There are two parties, the security forces, and the demonstrators.”

In November 2019, the former Defense Minister, Najah Al-Shammari, announced the presence of a third party accused of killing protesters.

“We are fighting a losing battle”

Under a powerless government that has been infiltrated by political groups with armed wings, Tishreen movement activists are almost unanimous in the impossibility of holding those involved in the kidnappings and assassinations accountable, and they doubt that the results will lead to effective detentions and trials and they mentioned the failure of the agencies to arrest suspects living in Iraq, and others will get out and this will be justified by the absence of evidence.

A renowned journalist in Basra, who refused to answer our questions many times, before accepting on condition that nothing indicating his identity be revealed: “We do not speak because we fear death, we do not trust the security services, they are infiltrated and helpless, and the militias have the final say. They arrested a few people here who are just tools while all the Basra agencies were unable to arrest the head of the group who was present in Basra. . And who says that these persons will be tried, there is pressure, and we may wake up one day and hear about their release due to insufficient evidence or their escape! We are in a losing battle.”

The despair over the possibility of achieving change through the elections and holding the perpetrators accountable pushed the “National House”, one of the forces emanating from the Tishreen movement, to announce its withdrawal, along with other Tishreen forces, from participating in the elections. Hussein Al-Ghurabi, one of the founders of “National House”, says: “It is useless under the government’s inability in front of the power of the militias and their weapons… How can I compete with them while they have all the cards in their hands?”

Abdul Qahar al-Samarrai, a member of Parliament, agrees with activists’ opinions on the government’s failure to identify the culprits: “Replacing Abdul-Mahdi’s government with this government was useless.”

He adds: “what the demonstrators were hoping for was not done by this government, so they are more resentful today than yesterday… and the forces that operate outside the state are increasing the street tension.”

He further states that “restoring confidence to the angry people comes from revealing the identities of the criminals, and this is a priority for the government, otherwise it will be described as its predecessors.”

The disappeared son and the murdered father

On March 10, 2021, Jaseb Hattab Al-Heliji,  father of the kidnapped lawyer Ali Jasp, was assassinated in the city of Amar, Missan province, hours after his participation in the commemoration ceremony of the murder of t Abdul Quddus Qassem, a prominent activist in Missan.

Jaseb is an old man known for his participation in the March protests and his activity on social media, after the kidnapping of his son, who was a lawyer and a civic activist, on October 8, 2019, in front of the Al Rawi Mosque in central Amara. Since then, he has been disappeared.

According to a relative of Jaseb, he was killed in Al-Amara, Al-Fiqa’i Al-Khaid, after he paid his respect to the Abd Al-Kuddus family.

Hours later, the police announced that they had arrested the culprit, “Hussein Abbas,” and that the motive was a clan dispute. Meanwhile, the Supreme Judicial Council reported that “the accused stated in his confessions that the victim (who is his uncle’s husband) was accusing him of kidnapping his son, which led to disputes and he filed a complaint against him. The pressures he was subjected to prompt him to kill the victim.”

However, the Jaseb family seemed unconvinced and demanded to reveal the identity of the entity who pushed the perpetrator to commit the murder and the one behind the abduction of their son Ali.

For about a year and a half, Jaseb has been trying to raise the disappearance issue, he participated in protests, raised a picture of his kidnapped son and his orphaned grandchildren, and demanded to reveal the fate of his son.

“Despite evidence in telephone calls and text messages, persons accused of kidnapping have been called as witnesses, not as defendants,” said Jaseb in a video.

Jaseb’s wait to know the fate of his gone son ended with his death, but his two grandchildren will grow up in a circle of waiting and revenge without a father or grandfather, while Sajjad’s mother will burn her remaining days between the pain of losing him and the hope of seeing him. She says: “I want to know his fate, whether he is alive or dead. His burial place. We do not deserve all this torment.”

Ahmed Hassan. © Karzan Hameed. 2021.

Ahmed Hassan © Karzan Hameed. 2021.

Ahmed Hassan, journaliste irakien résident de la MDJ

Contact : ahm_198950@yahoo.com

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Everything France has given me

Paris, April 29, 2019. It was raining, passers-by were looking for shelter while running. No one noticed a wet bird. I looked at this bird while thinking about myself : the confusion of ignorance, the fear, the anguish provoked by the unknown… I was wondering, Meiirbek, why are you in France ? 

I kept wondering : Meiirbek, if you decided to remain silent in Kazakhstan, would you still have a peaceful and prosperous life over there ? Maybe. But I would not find peace deep in my heart. I could not stay silent so I started shouting: Liberty, Liberty ! But I received  threats instead. 

In Paris, all alone in my little room at the Maison des journalistes, whenever I cook or lay in my bed, I have my answer. Meiirbek, if you were in Kazakhstan you would be in prison, France gave you Liberty. 

France is my third homeland. It is true that France is not perfect. There are many problems that need to be solved. But at least in France, these problems are not hidden.

Meiirbek SAILANBEK

Besides in France, we as refugees, just like birds all soaked by the rain, have the same rights as French citizens. We can live in equality. Whether at work, in the field of education or displacement, we are granted the same rights (officially and politically at least). Therefore France gave me Equality. 

When we birds are shaking under the rain, a soft and warm hand reaches toward me. It wipes the water off my body and offers me  shelter… Thus I would like to thank you, professors, because in addition to teaching us French, you also teach us Fraternity.

I remember your smile well every time. Whenever I was facing difficulty, I remember the smile of my teachers and their encouragement such as “That’s okay Meiirbek, you can do it !”

So what has France given me ? Liberty, Equality, Fraternity. 

Thank you very much. 

 

Meiirbek SAILANBEK Kazakh journalist and former resident at the MDJ

  •  Translated from the French by Léna Jghima, trainee at Maison des journalistes (MDJ). You can read the original version HERE.

 

 

 

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Exile and Journalism in a Global Pandemic: Voices from the MDJ

After a three month-long state-mandated lockdown, a historian interviewed the staff members and exiled media professionals who respectively work and live at the Maison des Journalistes regarding the impact of the covid19 pandemic on their lives. While the personnel talked about their current preoccupations vis-à-vis asylum applications and press freedom in professional terms, the asylum-seeking journalists shared their own experiences of exile and journalism from a much more intimate perspective.

The association Maison des Journalistes (“House of Journalists” – from now on MDJ) promotes three connected missions: 1) welcoming and supporting asylum-seeking media professionals in France by providing them with free accommodation in Paris; 2) fostering a healthy, free, and diverse digital public sphere encouraging exiled journalists’ professional activity; 3) spreading awareness of press freedom violation in the world among the youth through public events in schools, universities, and prisons.

I started an internship at the MDJ on June 8, 2020. Only one week before my arrival, the personnel had come back to the office for the first time since March 13, 2020. During the previous long months of state-mandated lockdown, the working operations had changed: remote working had become the rule and the members of the staff could not assist journalists through in-person meetings.

The fourteen exiled journalists the MDJ welcomes and provide with living accommodations and legal support were slowly rediscovering the liberty of leaving their rooms, returning to French language or journalism classes, and walk through Paris without restrictions. [Editor’s Note: Journalists could freely move within the residence, though they were recommended to practice social distancing and spend most of their time in their rooms]

My internship, thus, began in a very particular moment of the association’s life. The personnel were in the process of adapting all activities to the sanitary norms required by the covid19 pandemic.

I am an historian and as such I am interested in change over time, in the search for evidence, and in the analysis of continuities and discontinuities around a specific event or question. As I gradually settled in the MDJ, I started asking myself whether since the outbreak of the pandemic the people who work and live at the MDJ have experienced profound changes in the way they interpret and interact with what surrounds them or not. More specifically, do the MDJ’s staff and journalists think differently of the MDJ as both association and residence as well as of the broad notions of journalism and exile? If so, why?

To find answers to my questions, in the period from June 22 to July 6 I interviewed three of the seven staff members and five of the fourteen exiled journalists who respectively work and live at the MDJ. While I asked the same questions to all interviewees, in the end each conversation was different in terms of intensity, duration, location, level of formality, language (English, French), means of communication (written, oral) and collection of data (note taking, sound recording). I evaluated that, as my priority was to put my interlocutor at ease, I needed to adapt the interview format to each person’s rhythm and personality.

No matter their position or background, all interviewees said that, on a logistical level, the lockdown brought about challenges that still endure. The waiting time for an asylum procedure has significantly increased because the French Office for Refugee and Stateless People’s buildings closed during the lockdown and are currently facing a backlog; exiled journalists’ search for jobs and affordable accommodations has become more difficult as a result of the current economic crisis, which affects the association’s funding too; the MDJ and its partners had to postpone or cancel all public meetings, conferences, and debates for safety reasons. The Summer break too contributes to such a climate of wait, suspension, and uncertainty, as in France schools, universities, and most public offices usually either close or reduce their operations in July and August.

In interviews, the staff members highlighted the new challenges they face professionally, while exiled journalists lingered instead on how they experienced the health crisis and its effect on their life from a much more intimate perspective.

On the one hand, the Director Darline Cothière, the Partnership & Fundraiser Officer Camille Peyssard-Miqueau, and the Social Inclusion Officer Antonin Tort are all concerned with the financial crisis and its negative effect on the funding of the MDJ.

As the MDJ’s principal sponsors – mostly French medias – suffer a deterioration of their finances, one of the main preoccupations of the association is to develop new partnerships and initiatives that will contribute to the economic support of the MDJ.

Resident journalists did not place the financial crisis at the core of their concerns. The lockdown disrupted their quotidian lives. What they experienced as a major change in their lives is their habits in France and in the MDJ residence.  Each journalist had to deal with new inquietudes and loss of references.

The Director Darline Cothière interpreted exilees’ individual condition in terms of either resilience or fragility, depending on each person’s aptitudes and life trajectories.

Individually, the lockdown has made all of us weaker: each person as a result of their own capacities and life trajectory. Now, exiled journalists are characterized by resilience. […] For them, the health crisis has not been a repression, rather one more difficult experience to handle. Some journalists, nevertheless, lived this challenge with much concern and anxiety, which is legitimate. Why? They already face wait and live a transition period from their past life to their future life. Uncertainty plays an important role in their anxiety and frustration: uncertainty about their refugee status, the pandemic like us all, but also welfare benefits, family reunification, and the search for jobs.

The journalists found themselves locked in the residence for months. They confronted each other’s anxieties, frustrations, and expectations regarding the MDJ’s response to the health crisis.

As a Kurdish exiled photographer from Iraq, Karzan obtained his political refugee status in France in 2019.

A few journalists felt abandoned during that period. According to the Director, such a reaction is natural and made of the MDJ a microcosm of society:

There was a group effect. All the individual frustrations contributed to creating a climate of generalized concern. Those who were not afraid too became anxious. The MDJ, just like society, developed a movement of collective revindication and questioned the institutions’ legitimacy. Such a crisis uncovered that some journalists had a certain view of the MDJ that did not correspond to its real missions. […] During the lockdown, the journalists shared the same place and talked about their own frustrations and expectations. In these confrontations, fake information on the MDJ started circulating like fake news! This episode gave us the opportunity to identify a communication problem between the personnel and the journalists, and thus to elaborate new solutions: to inform journalists on the powers and missions of the MDJ, to organize workshops and regular meetings. The lockdown was but an opportunity to identify a problem and strengthen communication.

Representation of exile by the Mexican exiled cartoonist Boligán.

The first thing that struck me about exiled journalists’ responses to my questions was that they kept telling me about their life before the exile or connected their present condition with previous experiences they had in their home country.

When talking about his understanding of the lockdown as a distortion of the intertwining of space and time, Mohammed explained:

My understanding of time and space comes from my experience. Not my experience of the past lockdown, but of the besiegement of Douma, my city. You know when they say that the eye needs to look at a distant object as to be stimulated and feel comfortable. I didn’t see a distant object for 7 years in Syria. The sight in Syria is exhausting for the eye. Kidnapping, bombing, arresting, jihad allowed only a close sight. For 7 years they tried all weapons you can imagine on us, and after 7 years when this same space was still a target of attacks the time was still not running. When I left Syria in 2018 I felt like it was 2012, there had been no passing of time. I left Syria and arrived in Turkey. In Turkey, I saw for the first time people paying by touch. For me it was the first time in 8 years to see more than 800 people gathering in a place. In the train station in Turkey, there were 500 people arriving and leaving, and I realized that the world is so much connected for the first time. The lockdown is somehow connected to that experience of besiegement. It’s very different too: the whole world was in lockdown at the same time. The only aspect of the current crisis to hurt me has been the inequality of the virus: the virus affects some people much more than others. Just like the war in Syria. This idea of space/time of mine comes from the besiegement of my city.

Mamadou had a similar attitude:

I experienced Ebola in Guinea Conakry, my country. Ebola was not contained in my country because of the bad quality of health services. However, a vaccine has been found and there have been reliable treatments in addition to the vaccine. Moreover, it was an epidemic, not a pandemic. This is the main difference compared to the coronavirus.

Drawing on fakenews and Covid19 by the French cartoonist Plantu. Exhibition organized by the City of Paris in occasion of "Un été particulier".

The second thing that struck me is that all the journalists expressed an ardor for journalism that far exceeded professional fulfillment.  For them, journalism is not just a profession, it is a life mission. Mamadou explained why he chose not to publish articles during the lockdown and what has concerned him the most since the outbreak of the pandemic:

A journalist is by definition someone who adapts to a new situation. With the health crisis I realized that journalists had the great responsibility of keeping the readership informed on what was going on in the world. Many journalists decided to report the brute data on the thousands of daily positive cases and deaths, and by doing so they contributed to giving articles a certain quality and thus to actively contributing to such a climate of anxiety. I did not write much because I saw that the news with the brute data on deaths added sadness and anxiety. Moreover, I realized that the fake news circulated a lot: there was a proliferation of fake information in countries like mine where the leadership does not give journalists the permission to get access to the information on the pandemic. This situation challenged journalists all over the world, not just in Guinea Conakry. It was one of the most important challenges faced by press freedom. Journalists could not freely go on the field to verify the quality of sources; they could not act as first-hand witnesses. I thus decided to engage myself in spreading awareness of the quality of the news rather than in the writing of articles.

Other journalists as well evoked fake news, lack of transparency, and journalists’ responsibilities in the current health crisis. Mohammed said:

During the lockdown fake news and tabloid news circulated more than before. For example, a friend of mine sent me a video of a supposedly coronavirus-infected person leaking a handrail in the metro. But of course there was no proof that this person did that during the pandemic, or that he was actually sick. In Syria, this kind of issues literally kills people. Do you know what happens if someone says that tomorrow there is no sugar or toilet paper in the stores in my city in Syria?

Maiirbek (Kazakh investigative reporter on Chinese concentration camps):

Because of the pandemic situation, I interacted less frequently with sources in China and Kazakhstan.

And an Egyptian video journalist who asked me to remain anonymous confessed to me:

I have been much worried for my family because there is no transparence and press freedom in Egypt, and you cannot know how the situation develops. I always contact my relatives and tell them to stay at home, while in Egypt the medias say that everything is fine. In Africa, in Egypt the situation is very critical because there are no developed hospitals. I am still much concerned. The situation gets worse, and the epidemic propagates.

Bilal is a Turkish caricaturist in exile as a result of his criticism of President Erdogan’s policy.

On the other hand, the five exiled journalists I interviewed were more willing to share their personal perspectives on the pandemic and its impact on the present and the future.

Mohammed (Syrian photojournalist at EPA.eu) described his perception of the lockdown in terms of space and time.

What makes speed is the intertwining of time and space. When space is static for a long period, time stops: speed decreases to almost zero.

“Lockdown: you lock your spirit in the down”, Mohammed told me.

What happened during the lockdown is that the stopping of time brought about weaknesses and an overall sense of depression at the MDJ:

During the lockdown, the 2h/day I spent with the other journalists were very sick, because of the difficult time. Journalists wouldn’t go to the gym, school, etc. and had a very negative attitude. By now, I am more aware about the limits and fragilities of anyone (including me). Another problem is that many people who had been in conflict areas have an attitude that relativizes the pandemic, like “we suffered a lot in our life, we don’t care about coronavirus”. When I talk to my friends in Syria, they don’t care. They say: “we will die, finally”.

Beyond the overall feelings of hopelessness, exiled journalists perceived and reacted to the lockdown in different ways. For example, both Adam (Chadian free-lance journalist) and Mamadou (free-lance journalist from Guinea Conakry) told me that, when the French government established the lockdown, the fourteen journalists abruptly distanced themselves, each isolating in their room. “This big family brutally distanced itself”, Mamadou said.

Yet, isolation had different meanings for the two. Adam faced unbearable boredom and learned to be patient.

Mamadou, conversely, told me that he and other journalists experienced a deep lack of self-confidence as from one day to the other their advisors (professional, legal, academic) were not available to support them. As his university professors could not instruct him in person on his thesis, Mamadou was forced to work on his own. This gave him the opportunity to gain self-confidence and a renewed sense of responsibility:

We used to see people, have open doors. I loved to stop by the personnel’s offices and say “hello” every morning. We found ourselves without any service, which gave us new responsibilities. […] Among journalists, before the lockdown, we didn’t need each other. The lockdown solidified solidarity. We helped each other with our new responsibilities, for example I helped a fellow journalist write e-mails in French. […] I feel like I am more independent than before because I work on my own and don’t need the approval or advice of my professors. I learned that I can be alone and work confidently.

Both Adam and Mamadou felt “united from a distance”, in Adam’s words, but in such a distance each found different teachings.

Mohammed’s experience of the lockdown was still different and corresponded to what the Director of the MDJ calls the “resilience” of political refugees:

Being in exile, which I really don’t wish you to try, but imagine, in exile, everything is painful, and all suffering means nothing to me. It’s like a knife stabbed in your heart, you don’t care if a bee comes to bite you. You’ll have this poker face without any feeling, all your thought will be on your country. Exile is like a knife that prevents any needle to stab in you. It’s just a poker feeling, a poker face in the heart. If you drink coffee and you drink tea after, you won’t feel the taste of tea because the taste of coffee is too strong. For me the pandemic is a needle, because the government is on your side, people are on your side, there is a common enemy to fight. But I am always discriminated: I am accused to be affiliated with ISIS, I can’t speak French but people only speak in French to me, even the refugees here discriminate the refugees and only respect the French. In Arabic exile has a very bad meaning. It comes from the verb “push someone to leave”, the idea is of “forced displacement”. If you say it in Arabic you should cry.

Whereas the staff members talked to me only in professional terms, these answers suggest that exiled journalists did not distinguish between their professional and personal understandings of both the pandemic and the lockdown.

During the lockdown, Mamadou got upset about police controls on the mobility of people. The French state mandated that people could leave their home only for 1h/day within 1 km from their home and hold a signed self-certification that reported the exact time and reasons for the leaving. Exiles, Mamadou told me, are afraid of being asked for documents by the police each time they leave their shelter. The usual worry about being inspected, during the lockdown, became a constant fear for him. The police could ask anybody for documentation at any time, not in response to a particular instance. Such a climate of surveillance was a source of wide-spread anxiety among political refugees like Mamadou.

The following passage by Mohammed best exemplifies how exiled journalists made recurrent references to life before exile and journalism as a life mission. In midst of the lockdown, in mid-April, his press agency appointed him to take a picture of the 8 pm collective clapping, a daily ritual for people in France to show their gratitude for hospital workers from their window. That day, Mohammed was invested by similar feelings to those he experienced as a photojournalist in Syria:

Taking a picture is not just about the frame, the angle or perspective. I should care about the lightness and the time (and time and lightness are also connected). Once I had to take a picture of the 8pm clapping that included the Eiffel Tour. This reminded me of my time in Syria, when I took pictures during the suspension of the curfew, when I waited for safety moments to take pictures and go out from my shelters. Sometimes I just had one minute or just 40 seconds. I didn’t know where the bomb would come from, or my safety. I didn’t know how to take pictures, and from what angle, and with what lightness, because the rest of the day I was all the time in the shelter. I needed to build my time in the very short safety time. I was in the shelter, I received Whatsapp messages on what was going on, and then I would go out and take a picture of a bird, and then I would start hearing the noise of bombs and run to my shelter. So what happened during the lockdown was that I was assigned to take pictures of people who were clapping at 8pm, and I wanted to put the Eiffel Tower in the background. The clapping lasted only a few minutes, if not seconds. I had to go and take a picture. I found a woman on a balcony and I had the feeling that she would clap. I was afraid of taking pictures because I felt the pressure of the deadline. In one minute, I was able to take more than 300 takes, of which 5 good shots. It reminded me of when I was in Syria. I was back to the MDJ feeling just like when I went back to my shelter in Syria.

The exiled journalists that I interviewed do not envisage exile and journalism differently than they did before the outbreak of the pandemic and the lockdown. Rather, the crisis gave them the possibility to better understand their own identity of exiles as well as to confirm the importance of their action as journalists.

Picture by Mohammed of 8pm clapping with the Eiffel Tower in the background. April 2020. Courtesy of EPA-EFE/MOHAMMED BADRA.

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Chronicles from Egypt 3/4 – Searching for Justice

“Everyone has the right to life, liberty and security of person” the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948), Art. 3 recites.

This appears not to be the case in today’s Egypt, where reinforced security measures have increasingly been constricting Egyptian citizens’ life, liberty and security in the last years.

The government’s reaction to the wave of protests on September 20th, 2019 does not but confirm the presence of a policy of total repression under President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi’s rule.

Equally, the measures adopted to prevent any popular mobilization on the occasion of the anniversary of the Egyptian Revolution on January 25th, 2020 is highly indicative of the imposition of a state of total fear in the country.

A closer look into some everyday life stories of Egyptians cannot leave us indifferent.

Rather, it signals a worrying oppression leading to a deterioration, if not complete neglect, of human rights under what Project on the Middle East Democracy (POMED)’s Deputy Director for Policy, Andrew Miller, has called “the most repressive government in modern Egyptian history”.

Among the several stories that could clearly illustrate this scenario, we chose to present in a series of episodes the example of Hossam, who prefers to remain anonymous for security reasons. His vicissitudes since September 2019 stimulate a number of reflections on the current situation in a country that strongly prioritizes its national security but where citizens can hardly feel secure.

Episode 3 – Searching for justice: lawyers and human rights organizations at work

Let us go back to the tense moments following Hossam’s disappearance.

Suddenly, his family and friends found themselves into an unprecedented situation that required careful consideration. What were the best steps to take? Which were the most suitable people to reach out? Which organizations could help following his case? Who could be trusted?

With all these questions in mind and no time to waste, Hossam’s beloved ones quickly mobilized in his desperate search.

In reason of the distressing events of those days, major local human rights organizations were extremely responsive. Their Facebook pages were filled with documents explaining the most recommended procedures. Similar information were circulating through WhatsApp accompanied with phone numbers of trustworthy lawyers. A network of knowledgeable people were mobilizing to offer as much help as possible. Despite the unfavorable context, people falling into the unfortunate possibility of knowing anyone victim of enforced disappearance were not alone.

Few days after going to the local police station, Hossam’s family received the confirmation of what they had suspected from the very beginning. Hossam’s name appeared in the official list of people taken by the National Security near Tahrir Square on Saturday.

From that moment, the regular life of a tranquil family living in the Cairo countryside was turned ups and down. They had no choice but to start reach out lawyers, human rights organizations, local authorities in an attempt to bring Hossam safe back home.

Ahlam Almuetaqala (Dreams of the Detainee) Créateur: Inji Efflatoun Lieu: Egypt

The Egyptian fight against terrorism in court

After Al-Sisi takeover in 2013, fighting terrorism has represented the focal point in the official state discourse, progressively used after 2015 and further reinforced after last September protests. A comparative observation of the most recurrent charges suggests the arbitrary nature of legal justifications for the most recent detentions.

In addition to the accusation of “joining terrorist groups”, the charges of “spreading false news”, “misuse of social media” and “undermining national security” are persistently used. Under these very broad statements, it is evident that anyone could easily fall into the category of people to detain, as it was the case for Hossam.

As reported by Amnesty international in the weeks following the outbreak of protests, “The protesters and those arrested –who all face terrorism-related charges- have an extremely diverse range of age, socio-economic, gender and religious backgrounds, including non-political backgrounds”.

Human rights organizations have been pursuing several paths to review the penal code in order to bring more clarity to the reasons for detention in Egypt.

On December 14th and 15th, the National Council for Human Rights (NCHR) called for “the need to update and activate amendments”, especially with regards to pre-trial detention, but in vain. Rather, during the first months of 2020, the government proposed new legislative amendments to further toughen what human rights groups call the “draconian” 2015 anti-terrorism law. In fact, On February 10th, Egyptian parliament approved amendments to the anti-terrorism law, broadening the definition of terrorist activities and terrorist financing as well as imposing harsher sentences for terrorism-related crimes.

Lawyers and human rights organization at work: a strenuous struggle

In a country where the rule of law seems a mere abstraction, lawyers and human rights organizations could naturally be deluded. Nonetheless, many believers in the need for justice do not give up.

Remarkably, the weeks following the wave of arrests saw a well-orchestrated coordination of lawyers, human rights organizations, journalists, academics and activists denouncing that reality.

Numerous statements bringing light to the alarming application of law in Egypt were released. In October, NCHR called the last wave of arrest of people on the street unconstitutional. As a reaction, security forces mobilized all media outlets to criticize the council and his President, Mohamed Fayek, declaring that “he lacks knowledge of his own country’s laws”.

Although recurring to legal instruments to bring justice has proved to be extremely challenging, several lawyers continued their valorous struggle.

They were incessantly monitoring the situation, releasing essential information and taking action. Most importantly, they have put themselves at complete disposal of the community in need, sacrificing vital hours of sleep and any kind of personal life. A look into the Twitter and Facebook accounts of major lawyers reveals weeks of uninterrupted work, with posts published every hour, day and night.

Not only has that urgent scenario put a serious strain on lawyers’ psychological health, but it has also implied dangers for their safety.

Generally, an Egyptian lawyer defending sensitive causes can put his or her own life at risk. Remarkably, Ibrahim Metlawy, a lawyer working on the case of Italian PhD student Giulio Regeni murdered in Egypt during his field research, was arrested, detained and tortured in September 2017.

Last September scenario further proved the current criminalization of human rights. Not only detention and torture, but also harassment and threats are recurrently adopted to discourage this activity. Among others, Human right lawyer and executive director of the Arabic Network for Human Rights Information (ANHRI) Gamal Eid was assaulted by a dozen of armed men who he suspected were police officers as reported by BBC on December 30th, 2019.

Gamal Eid posted a picture of himself covered in paint after the alleged attack-BBC

In their report “Human rights behind bars in Egypt”, EuroMed Rights monitors current human right defenders at risk showing the innumerous faces of those who have been targeted. In addition to detention, the Egyptian state frequently recurs to police probation, travel ban, asset freeze.

Lawyers and human rights defenders represent a vital component of the Egyptian community in search for justice. With their knowledge, strenuous work and unstoppable commitment, they have been assisting thousands of people in their journey through detention, while putting themselves at risk.

However, people’s confidence in the power of law to bring justice in cases of arbitrary detention has been challenged to the point of exhaustion. Without doubt, what remains in the mind of victims of injustice is the need of change while continuing “wrestling with the darkness” (نصارع الظلام) as framed by Egyptian revolutionary musician and poet Ali Talibab.

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Chronicles from Egypt 2/4 – « Systematic torture and abuses in Egyptian prisons »

“Everyone has the right to life, liberty and security of person” the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948), Art. 3 recites.

This appears not to be the case in today’s Egypt, where reinforced security measures have increasingly been constricting Egyptian citizens’ life, liberty and security in the last years.

The government’s reaction to the wave of protests on September 20th, 2019 does not but confirm the presence of a policy of total repression under President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi’s rule.

Equally, the measures adopted to prevent any popular mobilization on the occasion of the anniversary of the Egyptian Revolution on January 25th, 2020 is highly indicative of the imposition of a state of total fear in the country.

A closer look into some everyday life stories of Egyptians cannot leave us indifferent.

Rather, it signals a worrying oppression leading to a deterioration, if not complete neglect, of human rights under what Project on the Middle East Democracy (POMED)’s Deputy Director for Policy, Andrew Miller, has called “the most repressive government in modern Egyptian history”.

Among the several stories that could clearly illustrate this scenario, we chose to present in a series of episodes the example of Hossam, who prefers to remain anonymous for security reasons. His vicissitudes since September 2019 stimulate a number of reflections on the current situation in a country that strongly prioritizes its national security but where citizens can hardly feel secure.

 

Episode 2 – Beyond deprivation of liberty: systematic torture and abuses un Egyptian prisons

The first stage of Hossam’s experience in prison was everything but untroubled. After preliminary control procedures at a police station, Hossam was moved to Tora prison. Tora prison is a familiar name for most Egyptians.

Among prominent figures who suffered from what a multitude of reports describe as cruel and degrading punishments, Mohammed Morsi’s five-year detention in Tora Prison and his successive death in court has become emblematic. Consequently, Tora prison represents in the mind of people a place of ill-treatment, abuse and torture.At the same time of his arrival, a group of detainees started a hunger strike to protest against torture.

As a result, everyone underwent increased ill treatment, including those as Hossam who did not participate in it.“For five entire days, for five entire days”, his brother keeps repeating, “Hossam could not see the light”. Predictably, he was not able to avoid torture. Detainees in Tora prison and he had to bear daily humiliation involving both verbal and physical violence.

Hossam’s experience as a prisoner did not come to an end there. After his first appearance in front of the “Niqab Amn al-Dawla”, the State Security Syndicate, he was charged with accusations of joining “terrorist organizations”. Abu Zaabal prison was therefore waiting for him.

During his 43-day imprisonment in Abu Zaabal Prison, the family could only visit him twice.

Policemen and people walk in front of the main gate of Tora prison in Cairo © HCR

Save Egyptian Detainees

Since President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi’s presidency, it is no secret that the crackdown on activists, bloggers, journalists, and researchers has reached an alarming peak.

It has become a common practice to silence opposition through enforced disappearance, assault and detention of people challenging the official state discourse. In its biannual report on detention in Egypt, the Detention Watch Project found 932 enforced disappearances, 638 arbitrary detentions, 320 equivocal killings from the first half of 2019. Notably, journalists have been among the most targeted categories. The International Press Institute (IPI) reported in December 2019 that 61 journalists were imprisoned and 25 arrested only during the three preceding months.

© CPJ - statistics - journalists attacked in Egypt since 1992

Furthermore, the September protests triggered a further escalation of governmental repression. The campaign launched on Twitter in November 2019 under the hashtag #SaveEgyptianDetainees confirms a deploring increase in arbitrary detention. As in the case of Hossam, several people were taken from the streets, leading to a registered number of 4321 detainees only in the weeks between September 20th and October 21st, 2019 according to The Egyptian Commission for Rights and Freedoms – ECFR.

Data on number of detainees from The Egyptian Commission for Rights and Freedoms © ECRF

Throughout that period, thousands of common citizens had to go through the experience of detention. Only after an exhausting waiting period with little information and extreme uncertainty, some of them were progressively released. As Cairo-based journalist for the Wall Street Journal, Amira el-Fekki, explains on December, 4th, 2019: “While Egyptian authorities have continued to release hundreds of detainees since September 20 events, critics are kept in jail over vague charges”.

The threat of detention has been taking its extreme form, leading to a widespread awareness of the predominance of “Dhulm”, injustice, in the current Egyptian state.

Systematic torture in Egyptian prisons. If “Dhulm” is a recurrent thought in the minds of thousands of Egyptians, “Ta’azib”, torture, has similarly acquired a prominent status in the Egyptian Arabic vocabulary.

Illutsration prison Tora Egypt – © @yssinmhmd

Detention in Egypt does not limit itself to deprivation of liberty. Since President Gamal Abdel Nasser’s times, prisons were associated with ill treatment, abuses and, above all, torture.Yet, under the presidency of Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, the State Security’s methods seem becoming exponentially brutal. “This is accurate, but outdated. Prisons today are much worse than this”, an Egyptian activist now living abroad exclaims. He was attending the screening of the movie inspired by true events on torture in Egypt “el Hatk” (The Assault) directed by Mohamed el Bahrawi.

This perceived increase in brutality of the practices adopted to silence opposition is also confirmed by official studies carried out by international organizations. In June 2017, the UN Committee against Torture stated that a study of current situation leads to “the inescapable conclusion that torture is a systematic practice in Egypt”.

The numerous testimonies of former prisoners equally send an alarming message.In the article “Thinking with Alaa” by independent Egyptian online newspaper Mada Masr, prominent human rights activist Alaa Abdel Fattah openly denounces its deploring conditions since the last of his numerous detentions in prison. In addition to the inevitable endurance of torture, during his imprisonment he was denied any basic needs such as access to reading materials, sunlight or clean water.

While the government has recurrently attempted to show a positive image of Egyptian prisons by organizing pre-scheduled visits for journalists and officials such as the open visit to Tora Prison last November, an independent research on the topic suggests a complete different reality.

International reaction On November 14th, 2019, Al Monitor reports that co-founder of April 6th movement and journalist Israa Abdelfattah would start a thirst strike. She was seeking to open an official investigation on complaints about her endurance of torture under custody. In a state where calls for a fair and transparent application of the rule of law are futile, people have been left with no other means but to recur to extreme gestures to make their cause being heard.It is here natural to wonder about the international reaction towards a country that has been manifestly violating fundamental human rights universally protected by international conventions.

In February 2020, six human rights NGOs requested in a joint letter to the European Council “to lead a comprehensive review of the European Union’s relations with Egypt” in reason of the sustained crackdown on human rights in the country.While numerous international organizations such as Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, Reporters without Borders, Committee to Protect Journalists and much more constantly denounce the alarming reality in current Egypt, states have often turned a blind-eye on the subject.

Even in front of prominent cases that have received extended media coverage and are directly related to other countries, governments have taken little or no action. The most recent case of Egyptian Patrick Zaki George studying in Italy and arrested at his arrival at Cairo Airport on February 7th, sparked a civil society outcry accompanied with some statements by politicians such as president of the European Parliament David Sassoli.However, we cannot observe any concrete steps to effectively re-discuss diplomatic and economic relations with Egypt.

Among others, business between Italy and Egypt is even increasing. Panarab newspaper al-Araby al-Jadid reported few days later that event the possibility of imminent agreement on armament between Cairo and Rome of 9 billiard euros.

Cases where the victims of the Egyptian repressive system are not only Egyptian citizens are recurrent, from the mysterious disappearance, torture and murder of Italian PHD student Giulio Regeni in 2016 to the death in prison of American-Egyptian Mustafa Kassem on January 13.The question is whether the international community will ever actively listen to and not merely pretend to hear the voices of thousands of people suffering from injustice in Egypt. Those voices screaming out loud the inhumanity of prison in Egypt, as expressed in Ramy Essam’s powerful song “Fe segn bel Alwan” (Colourful Prison).“Oh state of forlorn people, shame on your ideasGlory to prisoners as long as you are hypocrites”.

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Chronicles from Egypt 1/4 – “Not only afraid to talk… Total state of fear un today Egypt »

“Everyone has the right to life, liberty and security of person” the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948), Art. 3 recites.

This appears not to be the case in today’s Egypt, where reinforced security measures have increasingly been constricting Egyptian citizens’ life, liberty and security in the last years.

The government’s reaction to the wave of protests on September 20th, 2019 does not but confirm the presence of a policy of total repression under President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi’s rule.

Equally, the measures adopted to prevent any popular mobilization on the occasion of the anniversary of the Egyptian Revolution on January 25th, 2020 is highly indicative of the imposition of a state of total fear in the country.

A closer look into some everyday life stories of Egyptians cannot leave us indifferent.

Rather, it signals a worrying oppression leading to a deterioration, if not complete neglect, of human rights under what Project on the Middle East Democracy (POMED)’s Deputy Director for Policy, Andrew Miller, has called “the most repressive government in modern Egyptian history”.

Among the several stories that could clearly illustrate this scenario, we chose to present in a series of episodes the example of Hossam, who prefers to remain anonymous for security reasons. His vicissitudes since September 2019 stimulate a number of reflections on the current situation in a country that strongly prioritizes its national security but where citizens can hardly feel secure.

 

Episode 1 – From a simple walk to detention

On Saturday, September 21, 2019, Hossam was walking in the street, near Tahrir Square. He just traveled all the way from 6th of October in order to deliver delicious home-made food kindly prepared by his 53 year-old mother for a foreign friend living in Cairo. 

He was supposed to be back home soon after that brief meeting. His mother was waiting at home, but the son did not show up. His elder brother now living abroad was trying to reach him, but to not avail. He had two phones, both of them mysteriously unreachable.

This is how the story of most Egyptians who get arrested begins.

Later, the family would know that he was kidnapped near Mohamed Mahmoud Street, one of the centers of the 2011 revolution widely renewed for its collection of graffiti filling the walls of the area at the time.  As the National Security Service brutally took him from the street and conducted him first to a police station and then to prison, Hossam suddenly turned from a free man walking in the street to a potential criminal confined in detention.

In the meanwhile, his family would have no official information on the reasons for his detention.

Talaat Harb Square. Downtown Cairo, December 2019. Photo by Veronica Merlo

Downtown Cairo transforms into a police state

This episode might not be surprising to any person who has recently lived in Cairo.

Visibly, “Wust el-Balad”, the downtown, and its surroundings have become sensitive areas under tight security control.

Plain clothes, police vehicles and soldiers perceptibly dominate the space around main streets, squares and bridges, as if the state would be either at war or ready to fight one. In a tweet from September 27th, 2019, BBC Arabic Correspondent in Egypt and Middle East, Sally Nabil, describes an unprecedented security deployment in the Egyptian capital and concludes: “Tahrir Square looks more like military barracks!”.

As I was living in Cairo at the time, I could myself witness a reality where “Egyptians are treated as criminals simply for peacefully expressing their opinions” in Naja Bounaim’s, Amnesty International North Africa Campaign Director, words.

Not only did people get used to be extremely cautious when speaking, but they equally feel vulnerable while simply walking or even staying in their own homes. In addition to “spot checks” of peoples’ phones, looking for content that might deem political, visits of people’s apartments from the “Mabaheth”, State Security Service Investigations, increased in frequency and degree of intrusion.

On a Sunday morning, I opened the door of my apartment in Mounira neighbourhood and I found myself in front of two people with civilian clothes accompanied by the “Bawab”, the doorman. After asking for the contract of the apartment, they did not hesitate to enter the rooms of my two flatmates and I. After a thorough search through our books, laptops and phones accompanied by precise questions on our identity, they proceeded to the nearby apartment.

Beyond urgent security measures: normalization of intrusion of people’s privacy

Undoubtedly, the September protests sparked by the publication of a series of videos by Egyptian former army contractor Mohamed Ali denouncing the corruption of the government from Spain provided the justification for the regime to take urgent actions. The measures adopted were conceived as part of the higher “battle against terrorism” which has been on the top of Al-Sisi’s agenda since his takeover in 2013.  The words from Al Sisi’s official account on Twitter on September 27th show the adoption of a reinforced discourse on the necessity for the nation to fight terrorism, a battle that, he states, “has not ended yet”.

While we could consider this exponential crackdown as a temporary reaction to the wave of protests on September 20th, 2019, the observation of the reality in Cairo in the following period tells us otherwise.

The aforementioned reinforced measures to preserve the country’s stability have uninterruptedly been in force in the last months, with only slight differences in degree of intensity depending on the week. As Egyptian Human Rights activist Mona Seif explains on a twit on October 13th, 2019 :  “Every week a new activist gets kidnapped from the street, from home, from work”.

Photo by New York Times in Egypt

In January 2020, the very same atmosphere of last September characterized by total control over people’s movements, words and life was re-newly manifest in the capital. On the anniversary of the 25th January revolution -now exclusively referred to as the traditional celebration of  “’Aid al Shurta”, “The Police Day”, in the official government’s discourse- downtown was unsurprisingly shut down. 

Cairo-based journalist for The Wall Street Journal, Amira el-Fekki, reported that day on Twitter: “In what is becoming a normalized assault on privacy, police searching people’s phones around downtown #Cairo, #Tahrir. Some restaurants aren’t delivering to that area today to avoid harassment of their delivery guys”.

In the article “Your guide to surviving downtown during the revolution anniversary crackdown” published by the independent online newspaper Mada Masr on January 21st, the testimonies of people describing their experiences of arbitrary arrests, raids and random searches suggest a repeated scenario of total control to which any Egyptian citizen can be subject.

Downtown between past and present

Without forgetting the extension of similar security measures to numerous cities all around Egypt, the scenario in downtown Cairo from where Hossam was kidnapped last September best exemplifies the current government’s policy of total control over the public and private space.

Paradoxically, a place historically associated with intellectual development, cultural exchange and artistic creativity, looks now like a police state. The principles of “Aysh, Hurriya wa Adala Ijtimaiya”, “Bread, Freedom and Social Justice”, circulating in that same area in 2011 have rapidly been substituted by an atmosphere of constant fear, where any activity, movement and word is under tight control.

The question remains whether the government’s repressive measures in a space that was once the symbol of Egyptian’s fight for freedom will succeed in redefining its past distinguished identity.

Zahrat al-Bustan, Local Cafë in Downtown Cairo with graffiti of prominent Egyptian figures. Photo by Veronica Merlo

For now, we can only silently observe the changing environment and society animating the area. A process of transformation where the concept of “the square” as formulated in the Egyptian revolution has merely become a memory, or rather “a story to tell in narrations”, as Egyptian rock band Cairokee warned in its famous revolutionary song “al Midan”, the Square.


O you the square, where were you long ago? […]

sometimes I am afraid that we become just a memory

we get away from you then the idea dies and fades away

and we go back to forget what happened

and you become a story to tell in narrations

يا يا الميدان كنت فين من زمان

ساعات بخاف نبقي ذكري

نبعد عنك تموت الفكرة

ونرجع تاني ننسي اللي فات

ونحكي عنك في الحكايات


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New balance from collapse of a weakened Iran

New balance from collapse of a weakened Iran The death of Iran’s terror chief, Major General Qassem Soleimani, the second most important figure of the regime, and Abu Mahdi Mohandis, the central figure of the Iran-backed Hashd al-Sha’abi paramilitary force in Iraq, has brought the strategic edifice of the Iranian regime crumbling down. The Iranian regime is facing a resilient uprising at home and in Iraq and Lebanon, countries it once called its “strategic depth.” The uprising in Iraq is expanding further, into more cities and provinces every day.

Over the past 20 years, Soleimani extended the regime’s strategy by building proxy forces all through the region, moved to hollow out state institutions in regional countries, and supplant them with Qods Force-supported terror organizations posing as political factions.

As leader of the Qods Force, he aimed to establish a “Shiite crescent” of Iranian influence extending to the Mediterranean Sea and encircling conservative Arab countries in the Gulf.

With an ideology rooted in medieval Islamic dogma, the Iranian regime is unable to respond to the cultural, economic, and political demands of the Iranian people in the 21st century.

Domestically, the regime has sought to control widespread popular dissatisfaction with brute repression and gross human rights violations. At the same time, it has fanned sectarian conflicts and wars while interfering in the internal affairs of regional countries.

This is how the regime survives – by maintaining the strategic depth that would spare it from fighting on its own streets. For this reason, regime insiders remember Soleimani as the guardian of the regime’s security. Foreign adventurism allowed Soleimani to deploy terror and repression inside Iran as well, creating an illusion of security. Soleimani’s death has put Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei in a precarious position as he is fending off intensifying, cyclical uprisings.

Khamenei rationalized his foreign warmongering by saying, « If we do not fight the enemy in the streets of Iraq and Syria, we must fight them in the streets of Kermanshah, Hamedan, Tehran and other cities of Iran.« 

Now, Khamenei’s nightmare has come true, and his war with the Iranian people over their legitimate demand for freedom and prosperity has come to the streets of Iran. Amidst policies of appeasement over the past decade, Western countries have closed their eyes to the terrorism and the militaristic policies of Iran’s religious dictatorship in order to pursue their own economic interests.

But these policies are now over. With the withdrawal of the US from the JCPoA treaty in 2017 and the application of articulated sanctions on Iran, Khamenei was left alone on the battlefield, opposite the Iranian people.

“Hard Revenge”

The recent military confrontation with the United States has shattered the solemnity of the regime both locally and globally, burying it along with the regime’s terrorist power. Early on Wednesday, January 08, 2020, the Iranian regime fired several rockets for ‘tough revenge’ and attacked the al-Assad base near Baghdad, where US troops are stationed.

In contradictory statements, the Revolutionary Guards announced the firing of dozens of missiles at Ein Al-Assad and US military bases in Erbil (Iraqi Kurdistan), which resulted in four Americans being killed and four others injured. Deliberate Error! But what is the reality? The regime’s claims were not backed up by any government, military or news sources.

Reuters news agency, however, said, “Iran is said to have intentionally fired missiles to the US forces in Iraq.

Iraqi Prime Minister, Adel Abdul Mahdi, also tweeted that the regime had already contacted him about the missile attacks. Obviously, he revealed this information to the US authorities. Therefore, the regime’s slogans about ‘hard revenge’ and its other threats were suddenly exposed as absurd, followed by the regime’s fear of US counterattacks.

The Iranian regime had thought that the US was without a plan for war. They had the ambition to embarrass Trump by attacking the US embassy and executing other acts of terrorism in advance of the US election.

Their likely goal was to remove him from office, force the lifting of sanctions, or inspire disaffection in his supporters. Instead, they shattered their own fragile body of power by setting the stage for the death of Qassem Soleimani.

Prior to this, the regime wanted to convince European countries that they were a regional power and that they should be considered in setting Middle East policy.

Now, the fragile awe of the regime has collapsed, and a new balance has been established between the Iranian people and the regime.

As a result of this new equilibrium, in a new wave of mid-January demonstrations pioneered by students after the downing of the Ukraine International Airlines Flight 752, slogans targeted the supreme leader himself. Protesters have started asking the commander in chief to resign.

« A little prince in the land of the Mullahs », a denunciation in a Comic Book version

Discover the interview with the author of this article, Raouf Massoumeh, who presents his book « A little prince in the Land of the mullahs ».

The story of his young brother, Ahmad Raouf Bachari Doust, arrested five years before – at the age of 16 – and who will be among the 30,000 political prisoners executed.

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