Egypt’s Al-Sisi Regime Is Still “Disappearing” Researchers Who Oppose Its Crimes

Last week it was announced that an Italian court will put Egyptian state security agents on trial for the 2016 kidnapping and murder of labor researcher Giulio Regeni. For years, Egypt's military regime has refused to cooperate with the investigation — and in recent months it has continued to “disappear” researchers who defend workers’ and women’s rights.

Ahmed Samir Abdelhay Ali, a graduate student and researcher, is currently being held in indefinite pretrial detention in Cairo. (Facebook)

It is three months since reproductive rights researcher Ahmed Samir Abdelhay Ali presented himself at the fifth district police station in central Cairo. He is still yet to be freed.

Samir, a twenty-nine-year-old graduate student at Vienna’s Central European University, had traveled from the Austrian capital to Egypt for his school’s Christmas break, where he was stopped and interrogated by airport police at Sharm El Sheikh International Airport. According to sources close to the case, this was a frequent occurrence. But five weeks later, masked troops from the SWAT-like Central Security Forces entered Samir’s home without a warrant at 2 AM.

The officers searched the Samir family home, made copies of their identification cards, and took footage from two building security cameras. Samir was instructed to present himself to the National Security Police at the Fifth Settlement police station in Cairo. On February 1, Samir appeared at the station accompanied by his father, who waited while his son was taken into the back, according to Samir’s partner, Souheila Yildiz. “He entered and he never came out,” says Yildiz.

On February 6, the Supreme State Security Prosecution (SSSP) charged Samir with joining a “terrorist organization” as well as spreading false news and data online. On February 23, another charge was added: funding a terrorist organization — although no particular group was specified. Samir, a native of Cairo, has been a master’s student in sociology and social anthropology since fall 2019, and is also a researcher with the Regional Centre for Rights and Freedoms investigating reproductive rights in Egypt.

The SSSP, the government body that leveled charges against the young researcher, is a special branch of the public prosecution meant to prosecute crimes related to state security. Its record is rather murkier. A December 2019 report by Amnesty International found that the SSSP “functions as a tool of repression by misusing recently enacted counter-terrorism legislation to detain individuals for acts that should not even be criminalized, such as peacefully expressing critical views of the authorities, engaging in human rights work or waving a rainbow flag.”

Repressive Force

Samir’s own academic work focuses on women’s rights in Egypt — specifically, the history of reproductive rights and current policies impacting access to reproductive health care. Rawda Elaskary, a close friend of Samir’s and a fellow student at Central European University, said that Samir may have been targeted for posting criticism of Egypt’s authoritarian government under President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi. Samir was particularly vocal about gender and LGBT rights under the Sisi regime. He made a widely watched video after Sarah Hegazi, a queer feminist activist and a friend of Samir’s who had been similarly imprisoned in 2017, killed herself in June 2020. He criticized the government’s role in her death.

Amnesty International also found that “the growing role of the SSSP, along with the related use of a special police force, the National Security Agency, and special courts, pointed to the emergence of what can be described as a “parallel justice system,” existing “in a context where a state of emergency is renewed continuously by President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi.”

Instead, Samir was interrogated by the National Security Police without any legal counsel present. Interrogators beat on his body and face while they pressured him to confess to crimes, according to his testimony before the SSSP on February 23. Samir also testified that he was being held in solitary confinement in an extremely cold cell and was not allowed any winter clothes. Samir’s family repeatedly attempted to contact the prosecutor, demanding his release and more detailed information about his detention. They have received no response.

“All of Ahmed’s friends and family are very scared,” says Elaskary. “The National Security Police are very notorious for torturing people during detention, so just being in a situation where we do not know where he is and that the only info we have is that he is being detained by the worst police in the country is very overwhelming.”

It was at this February 23 hearing that the prosecutor raised the additional charge that Samir had funded a terrorist organization. Samir responded to the prosecutor, laughing and saying: “Sir, I live on a scholarship. I couldn’t even afford a direct flight to come to Cairo — I had to take the twelve-hour one,” according to Yildiz.

Samir was held in solitary confinement for one month, until he was released into a larger prison population on March 2. The SSSP has provided no evidence or information about why Samir is suspected of terrorism or detailed which terrorist group he is suspected of joining and funding. On March 8, Samir was allowed a twenty-minute visit from his mother, but still has not had access to legal representation. On March 16, his pretrial detention was extended once more without legal representation. Samir and his lawyers were not allowed to attend any of the prosecution hearings. This is consistent with Amnesty International’s investigation of 138 similar cases which found that “the SSSP systematically violates the right to effective legal representation.”

Troubling Parallels

Samir’s detention also falls into a pattern of the National Security Police, acting on orders from the Sisi regime, of arresting and torturing Egyptian students and researchers studying abroad who are openly critical of the current Egyptian government. This includes Patrick Zaki, an Egyptian Copt graduate student in Bologna, Italy, who, like Samir, conducted research on gender and reproductive rights in Egypt, and was arrested by the National Security Police on February 7, 2020.

In 2018 Walid Salem, sometimes referred to as Walid al-Shobaki, an Egyptian national and PhD student at the University of Washington, was arrested on the same charges as Samir: “spreading false news” and “belonging to a terrorist group.” Both Zaki and Salem have been held in indefinite detention by the Egyptian government, with no indication that they will ever receive a trial.

And in 2016, Italian graduate student Giulio Regeni was kidnapped, tortured, and murdered by four Egyptian security officials, according to an indictment made by Italian prosecutors. The Egyptian court system has since rejected Italian prosecutors’ findings that Regeni, a twenty-eight-year-old University of Cambridge student conducting doctoral research on independent trade unions, was murdered and left in a ditch on the side of a road in Cairo. On April 29, it was announced that an Italian court will hold a trial for the Egyptian officers accused of Regeni’s “aggravated kidnapping.” The Egyptian state has refused to recognize the Italian legal process or comply with requests to extradite the accused officers.

Amnesty International writes that Samir has “been denied contact with his family, raising concerns about his wellbeing and health amid COVID-19 outbreaks in Egypt’s overcrowded and unhygienic prisons.” They have deemed Samir a “prisoner of conscience” and call for his immediate and unconditional release. Amnesty Austria has issued a petition asking for his immediate release.

“We are deeply concerned that his continued disappearance will put [Samir] at risk of torture, ill-treatment, and prolonged arbitrary detention,” writes the Egyptian Front for Human Rights.

Samir’s friends and colleagues at Central European University protested outside the Egyptian embassy in Vienna on Friday, February 19. Prominent academics across the world — including Judith Butler, Wendy Brown, Eyal Weitzman, and Nancy Fraser — have signed a letter calling for Samir’s release. On April 10, 2021, there was an international day of action calling for his release. Protestors in Vienna, Berlin, New York, Sweden, and Argentina all simultaneously demonstrated for his freedom.

The Egyptian government has released no information about Samir’s detention, despite multiple inquiries from his family. Samir is currently being held in indefinite pretrial detention in Cairo.