Aa Arab leaders met in Tunis on May 22 to convene the rescheduled Arab Summit, dozens of Gazans gathered before the Egyptian Representative Office to the PA to demand the release of relatives from Egyptian jails.
Even while they picketed the diplomatic mission, Israel’s “Operation Rainbow” was dragging on to its bloody end further south, claiming 48 lives and 45 homes on the pretext of sealing off alleged smuggling tunnels on the Gaza-Egypt border.
According to a Cairo-based human rights lawyer, some of the Palestinian detainees being held in Egypt had lost siblings in the carnage Rafah witnessed that week, and the Gaza demonstration was held in part to demand they be permitted to join the funerary processions.
That same day, 11 Palestinian prisoners and their fellow Egyptian detainees, all held in the desert near Alexandria, issued an appeal of their own directed to regional leaders at the Arab Summit and announced an open hunger strike.
“Knowing that we have not and will not commit any crimes against this country or other fellow Arab countries, we cannot comprehend any justification for our ongoing and illegitimate detainment,” read the text provided by the Arab Organization for Human Rights. “Nor do we understand whose interests this may serve.”
Eleven Palestinian detainees were arrested by Egyptian state security forces in northern Sinai between 2000 and 2003 during the current Palestinian uprising against the Israeli occupation. Forty-five Egyptians arrested during this same period were placed with them in one cell in Alexandria’s desert Al Gharbaniyat Prison.
While their specific charges vary, and may, as local human rights lawyers have stressed, be fabricated, all the Palestinian detainees were accused, in some way or another, of aiding or abetting the Intifada. Some were charged with smuggling weapons, others with collecting funds for the resistance, and others still with clandestinely crossing the Egypt-Gaza border. Some are reportedly wanted by Israel.
The Egyptians were incarcerated for participating in demonstrations and grassroots activism in support of the Intifada, as well as for their connections with the Palestinian detainees. Most of those arrested are from Arish, an area in northern Sinai that has close familial and cultural ties with the people of Gaza. Indeed, local lawyers emphasize that some of those detained are from families split between Arish and Rafah, and may therefore have been taken in merely for hosting their visiting Palestinian relatives.
Specific details on the conditions of arrest and charge are difficult to come by however, as Egypt’s draconian Emergency Law strips such detentions of transparency and due process. The 1958 law has been in place almost continuously since 1967 and suspends numerous civil liberties by enabling the authorities to – amongst other things -arrest suspects at will and detain them without trial, refer civilians to military or exceptional state security courts, and prohibit public demonstrations. The highly unpopular law was rammed through the People’s Assembly in February 2003, where the notorious MP Kamal Al Shazly reportedly justified its renewal by comparing it to post-September 11 anti-terrorist legislation in the United States.
Human Rights Watch has characterized the Emergency Law as “the real emergency in Egypt,” having sapped the energy of human rights organizations and activists in their pursuit of justice, or even the basic details of specific legal cases. The Arab Organization for Human Rights laments the fact that it has only received responses to 2.5 percent of all grievances presented to the Egyptian government in the last year, and none at all in the last nine months. Although the organization does not want to relinquish the case of the Palestinians and Egyptian inmates, senior researcher, Alaa Shalabi, fears it may have to.
The Egyptian Organization for Human Rights, which has a particular focus on Palestinian concerns, is attempting to address the wider context of Palestinian issues in Egypt. In addition to pressuring the authorities to release the 11 prisoners, the organization is tackling the Emergency Law itself. “Canceling the Emergency Law would result in the immediate release of all administrative detainees, Palestinian as well as Egyptian,” explains EOHR head Hafez Abu-Seada.
A drop in the ocean
A small minority of the Palestinians and Egyptians detained together in Al Gharbaniyat Prison were ruled guilty of their charges by state security courts and dealt sentences that have by now ended. The rest were detained on suspicion, and ruled innocent by the same courts. Subsequent rulings have called for the release of all prisoners, and for some detainees as many as five times over. But the Ministry of Interior has consistently extended their detention. Abu-Saeda calls this “the norm” in Egypt. Citing security concerns, the authorities release prisoners only on paper, and immediately “re-detain” them.
Frustration over their prolonged detention without specific charge or access to due process was part of the motivation for the detainees’ hunger strike that began on May 22, as well as the demonstration in Gaza, says Adel Mikki, lawyer with the Cairo-based Human Rights Association for the Assistance of Prisoners. The other major incentive was to protest their poor living conditions and lack of medical care.
Two of the Palestinians in detainment suffered multiple injuries from Israeli missile shrapnel, and one of them requires a cornea transplant due to shrapnel in his eye. Another, who according to a local lawyer was wanted by Israel and fled illegally into Egypt, suffers from Familial Mediterranean Fever. Another still has a hole in his lungs, two have slipped discs, one suffers from wounds caused by a bullet to the chest, and another has kidney problems requiring dialysis, and has reportedly collapsed on the prison floor in pain. The Egyptians detained with them also suffer serious ailments ranging from diabetes to liver disease to paralysis.
While several of the Palestinian prisoners reportedly traveled to Egypt specifically to receive medical care, others took advantage of their presence in the country to follow up on and treat long-term problems at facilities better than those available in Gaza. According to human rights lawyers in Cairo, however, their medical treatment was either cut short or severely neglected once they were detained by local authorities.
The fragile health of many of the prisoners has led Mikki to describe a prolonged hunger strike as “suicidal.” Diverting a potential public relations disaster, the Egyptian authorities forced an end to the strike around June 2 by breaking up the group and dispersing individuals to at least seven penal prisons around Egypt. Indeed, HRAAP lawyers were surprised to discover, after obtaining permits to visit two Palestinians and two Egyptians, at Al Gharbaniyat, that the detainees were “not present.”
Their unknown whereabouts has caused a delay in obtaining new permits to visit them, as well as additional concern for their safety. Whilst penal prisons generally provide better conditions than political detention centers, their continued separation from other inmates and denied access to lawyers or family members has made many in the human rights community concerned about persistent or escalated violations.
Egyptian prisons are notorious for their poor conditions. Human Rights Watch characterizes torture in Egypt as a “widespread and persistent phenomenon,” claiming that “security forces or police routinely torture or ill-treat detainees.”
But the overall situation in Egypt is as bad in scope as it is in quality. Some 16,000 detainees are estimated to be held at present, some of whom have been imprisoned for as long as 14 years. There are 34 prisons across the country, ten of which have been built in the last decade alone, to “absorb the rising number of arrests,” explains EOHR’s Abu-Seada.
A drop in the ocean of human rights violations, the future does not look bright for this group of 56 Palestinians and Egyptians. “Some of them have become depressed because they are following legal channels but have still not been released,” says Mikki. “All that concerns them is that there is no real reason for their detainment, and their only hope is that an appeal will be made which results in their release.”
These particular 11 detainees are not the only Palestinians currently held in Egyptian jails. Nor is the detainment of Palestinians in Egypt a new or rare phenomenon. Abu-Saeda says that the EOHR receives letters from Palestinian human rights organizations about Palestinians jailed in Egypt “all the time.”
Abdel Qader Yassin, a Palestinian writer and activist who lives in Cairo, remembers several mass arrests and deportations of Palestinians in recent history. When refugees crossed into Egypt in 1948, they were placed in “quarantine,” which Yassin describes as worse than detention, before being deported or transferred to the Qanatir East military camp.
He recalls two other large waves of detention and deportation, one in 1970 when the Rogers Plan was accepted, and the other in 1977 when Egyptian President Anwar Sadat made his visit to Israel. Not only were more Palestinians arrested and deported under Sadat than President Gamal Abdel Nasser, but they “had to pay for their own ticket,” jokes Yassin.
He describes Palestinians being jailed for the most trivial of reasons, and deportation being a common measure following release. “Palestinians are treated in Egypt like unwanted guests and are always on a waiting list for detention or deportation, even if they are ruled innocent,” says Yassin.
Many observers point out the inevitable political dimensions surrounding the arrest of Palestinians. Abu-Seada suspects that the arrest of Palestinians is usually connected to “political considerations regarding Egypt’s relationship with the Palestinian factions.”
In the case of the 11 detainees originally held in Al Gharbaniyat Prison, heightened concerns for security and stability near the border region may in part explain the government’s actions, says Emad Gad, senior researcher at the Al Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies. “The smuggling tunnel issue is a bothersome one that has created a crisis for the Egyptian government and its relations with the US and Israel,” he explains.
If a person is vaguely suspected of involvement that carries with it such diplomatic liability and might also be connected to Hamas –” the Palestinian counterpart to the outlawed Muslim Brotherhood – the government’s reaction is bound to be violent, says Gad. “While in the end these matters are criminal in nature, they are dealt with by political decisions and with consideration of Egypt’s relations with the factions.”
But human rights lawyers insist such considerations are beside the point.
“I’m not concerned with why someone is arrested, or what their ideas or affiliations are,” stresses Mikki of the HRAAP. “All I am concerned with is that they are a person with rights, and on that basis I defend them from humanitarian and legal perspectives.”
Others maintain that pan-Arab considerations should override any pandering to international pressures.
“In issues related to an occupation that violates the rights of people to self determination, we can’t be neutral or disengage from our Arab roots,” says Shalabi of AOHR, expressing his personal opinion.
“It’s not just a matter of their rights,” he asserts. “It is incumbent upon the Egyptian government to release these people, even if they have truly conducted operations to support the Palestinians, because this is an honor for them and for us.”