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Guilty by association: Egypt's alarming trend of arresting activists’ relatives

Guilty by association: Egypt's alarming trend of arresting activists’ relatives

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إقرأ باللغة العربية:

البعيد عن العين ليس بعيداً عن اليد… استمرار القبض على أسر النشطاء المصريين المغتربين


"My father has been apprehended in the Nahya al-Balad area of Giza, promptly detained by a group dressed in civilian clothing. If anyone is able to assist, kindly reach out to me. It's important to note that my father has never had any involvement in politics, and he cannot endure humiliation." With these words, Egyptian journalist and refugee rights activist Ahmed Gamal Ziada revealed his father's arrest in the "Nahya" locality of Giza by security personnel dressed in plainclothes on Tuesday, August 22nd.

24 hours after his father, Gamal AbdelHamid Ziada, went missing, he appeared before the Supreme State Security Prosecution (SSSP), facing charges in case number 2064 of 2023. These charges include allegations of abusing social media platforms, disseminating false information, and joining a prohibited group. Subsequently, he was remanded for a 15-day period pending investigations.

The arrest of Ziadah's father occurred four days after the publication of a report titled "The Struggle for Gold Over Migrant Workers' Lives" on the Refugees Platform in Egypt, which is under Ahmed Gamal Ziada's supervision. This report featured testimonials detailing incidents involving what was described as "military forces" using excessive force against refugees and migrant workers employed by illegal gold prospectors in the "Salah" mine in the Shalateen region.

Ahmed Gamal Ziada, an Egyptian journalist, had previously undergone arrest and detainment for nearly a year and a half in connection to the 2015 events at Al-Azhar University. These charges stemmed from his journalistic work within the Yaqin network, where he documented clashes between university students and the police. Even though he was exonerated, he encountered another arrest in January 2019 at Cairo Airport upon his return from a study trip to Tunisia. This time, he faced allegations of spreading false news with the potential to disrupt security and public peace, attributed to the goals of a terrorist organization. He was released after a two-month period of pre-trial detention in March 2019. Following this, he followed the path of numerous Egyptian journalists, human rights activists, and political figures, embarking on an extensive educational journey to Europe. During this period, he launched the independent journalistic platform "Third Angle".

Raseef22 contacted Ahmed Gamal Ziada to find out more details about the circumstances of his father's arrest and potential past harassment faced by his family due to his journalistic work. However, he opted not to comment.

In the aftermath of Egypt's political transformations in 2013, left-wing journalists and activists became targets of heightened security measures. Detaining their family members became a common tactic to exert pressure on them, especially if they lived abroad

Utilizing his social media accounts, Ziada implored the Journalists Syndicate to intervene and provide assistance for his father. He also conveyed his family's appeal to President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, asserting, "I, Ahmed Gamal Ziada, a member of the General Assembly of the Egyptian Journalists Syndicate, along with my family, appeal to President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi to intervene and secure the swift release of my father, given that he has no association with politics whatsoever. This request is in accordance with the national dialogue that the president called for, aimed at resolving citizens' concerns without subjecting them to unknown circumstances lacking any legal justification." This plea was made hours prior to his father's appearance before the Supreme State Security Prosecution.

In a series of separate tweets on his Twitter account (now known as "X"), Ziada conveyed, "My father runs a clothing workshop, and his Facebook page only promotes his craft, serving as a platform to showcase his work. His page is also private and does not publish general news and refrains from maintaining profiles on social media. He has no accounts following him on social media other than a handful of close friends and family members. He has never participated in any form of political engagement. The entire Nahya community can vouch for this."

Despite the commencement of national dialogue sessions called for by President Sisi, the discussions held among various political forces at the time did not address this practice or the arrest of the relatives of potential presidential contender Ahmed Tantawi

The charges leveled against Ahmed Gamal Ziada's father, which encompass the misuse of social media and the dissemination of false information, are based on amendments made to the Penal Code. These allegations, coupled with clauses from the "Cybercrime Law", encompass a range of provisions that local and international human rights and legal reports perceive as constricting the sphere of freedom of expression and publication.

In a post resembling a formal statement, Ziada expressed, "If this incident (his father's arrest) is linked to my works, it's important to underscore that I have always maintained a strictly professional journalistic role. Furthermore, the focus of the case should be on me, not my father, particularly considering that previous accusations by the prosecution of me spreading misinformation could not be substantiated or proven by anyone. I strongly believe that the ongoing developments are nothing but an endeavor to suppress journalistic work, because it is essentially an unethical targeting of my family".

Not an isolated occurrence

Ziada isn't the sole journalist or analyst whose family members have faced apprehension by security forces. In the aftermath of Egypt's political transformations in 2013 and the declaration of a "war on terrorism", activists and journalists aligned with left-wing and liberal ideologies, unaffiliated with Islamic factions, found themselves in the crosshairs as they became targets of heightened security measures. The detention of relatives of dissenters, journalists, human rights researchers, and legal experts became an entrenched tactic to apply pressure on them, particularly when those detained reside outside of the country or their direct detainment could potentially cast the authorities in an unfavorable light. A prime example lies with parliamentarian Ahmed Tantawi, who was targeted during that time. As a prospective candidate in the upcoming presidential elections, his associate and office manager, Hossam Mones, was apprehended by security forces on charges of affiliating with the "Hope Cell".

The same scenario unfolded once again in May of the previous year when he declared his bid for the upcoming presidential elections. His maternal uncle, named Mohamed Sayed Abdel Kader, was apprehended from his residence in Kafr El Sheikh Governorate. Echoing the same charges, he was accused of being part of a terrorist group with full knowledge of its objectives, engaging in financial support for the terrorist organization, and supplying it with funds to carry out its agenda. Additionally, he was charged with "unlawful possession of firecrackers without a permit". This led the Supreme State Security Prosecution to order the provisional detention of Abdel Kader for the duration of pending investigations. Following a week in custody, he was subsequently granted release upon posting bail of 5,000 Egyptian pounds. During the same time frame, his uncle and several of his acquaintances were also detained, only to be released shortly afterward. These events fueled a political imbroglio, especially since the timing coincided with the commencement of the national dialogue, convened at the behest of President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi in 2022.

"Enduring my own arrest a thousand times over would have been easier than them touching a single hair on my son's head", with these words, journalist Magdy Shendy described his sentiments after the arrest of his son, a student at the Faculty of Music, in 2019

This narrative was preceded by the detainment of Kamal El-Balshy, the younger sibling of the incumbent head of the Egyptian Journalists Syndicate, Khaled El-Balshy, who also occupies the role of Editor-in-Chief for the recently unblocked "Darb" website.

According to a report entitled "“Imprisonment and abuse”.. The legacy of the families and relatives of Egyptian dissidents living abroad and at home", published by the Association for Freedom of Thought and Expression, Kamal El-Balshy was apprehended at a checkpoint within Cairo in September 2020. Notably, this detention unfolded despite his non-participation in any form of political activism, as he was employed within the tourism sector in a resort town, and his apprehension occurred while he was within Cairo, subsequent to the suspension of operations in Marsa Alam due to the COVID-19 preventive measures.

The case of Kamal El-Balshy was incorporated into Case No. 880 of 2020, designated within the Supreme State Security, known in the media as the "Second Events of September 20". He faced an array of charges, including the dissemination of false information, membership within a banned group with full awareness of its objectives, and the inappropriate use of social media channels. He remained in custody for eight months in pretrial detention, ultimately being released without trial in May 2021.

Fathers and sons.. All are susceptible to the vagaries of negotiation

"Enduring my own arrest a thousand times over would have been easier than them touching a single hair on my son's head", with these words, journalist Magdy Shendy described his emotional agony and helplessness, after the arrest of his son, Omar, a student at the Faculty of Music, in September 2019.

Shendy tells Raseef22 that security personnel raided his residence with the intent to apprehend him; however, they did not find him and decided to detain his son instead, charging him with disseminating and publishing false information. Acting on the directive of the Supreme State Security Prosecution, Omar was confined for a period of 15 days, pending the outcome of ongoing investigations. Ultimately, he was released during the ensuing session for case renewal.

Shendy wrote a series of letters directed to his son, describing his anguish and his inability to alleviate his son's suffering – a role that his son would usually perform for him during moments of personal distress, the latest of which was the cancellation of a seminar of his at the previous book fair, an unfortunate consequence of the arrest incident, he informs Raseef22.

September 2019 witnessed a notable expansion of this approach. Following the call by contractor and actor Mohamed Ali for protest rallies against what he labeled as corruption in the construction sector of the nation, authorities arrested numerous opponents, activists, and journalists and took them into custody. Among them were individuals already subjected to precautionary measures, including Alaa Abdel Fattah and his lawyer, Mohamed El-Baqer, the latter having been recently released. For those whom authorities couldn't directly apprehend, they instead targeted their relatives. Activist Wael Ghonim's brother, Hazem Ghonim, was detained after Wael resumed commenting on the political situation in Egypt. His brother faced various charges, including joining a terrorist group in Case No. 1338 of 2019 within the jurisdiction of the Supreme State Security Court. He was subsequently released after his brother publicly apologized and pledged – through a series of Facebook videos – to refrain from making any further negative comments on Egypt's domestic political affairs. Hazem was released from custody on December 18, 2019.

Gamal Eid: "Regrettably, the judicial system is exploited to turn families from hostages into accused individuals by utilizing pretrial detention without evidence, adding another stain to the fragile cloak of justice, negatively affecting all of Egypt"

From hostages to accused suspects

For his part, prominent human rights advocate Gamal Eid noted that the arrest of the relatives of dissenters, whether abroad or fugitive, "is not a novel phenomenon introduced by the current regime. This practice has been ongoing since the Mubarak era, albeit it escalated significantly in recent times. Using the relatives of opponents and critics as leverage is a well-known tactic, either to pressure them into turning themselves in, to silence them, and even exact revenge upon them."

Eid added, "Regrettably, the judicial system is exploited to transform families from hostages into accused individuals through the weapon of pretrial detention without evidence. This adds another stain to the fragile cloak of justice, which represents one of the biggest calamities for Egyptian society, where everyone suffers, including the authorities and the opposition alike."

Elham Aidarus: The National Dialogue's Human Rights Committee was set to address 7 topics, including torture, pretrial detention, and prison conditions. But only 3 topics were discussed: discrimination, the information circulation law, and academic freedoms

In April 2021, the Geneva Council for Rights and Freedoms issued a report titled "Relatives of Dissidents: Victims of Fear and Extortion", documenting 28 cases of security prosecution against relatives of dissidents, politicians, and journalists abroad over the course of three years. Among those targeted were the father of Muslim Brotherhood journalist Abdullah Al-Sharif, the siblings of activist Ghada Naguib, the siblings of journalist Moataz Matar, and also relatives of activist Mohamed Soltan, , in retaliation for filing a lawsuit against former Prime Minister Hazem El-Beblawi in the United States. It's worth noting that all these names are associated with the Muslim Brotherhood, an organization classified as terrorist according to Egyptian laws.

The report highlighted that some individuals under detention were compelled to record videos disassociating themselves from their dissenting relatives. Moreover, a number of relatives of the dissidents were prohibited from traveling abroad to prevent the loss of this leverage tool.


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