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Activist 'disappeared' amid Egypt human rights review

Tom Allinson
November 14, 2019

After posting videos critical of the government, Radwa Mohamed told a fellow activist she was terrified as Egyptian authorities took her in. Charges against her came as Egypt defends its human rights record at the UN.

Police van on the road to Tahrir Square
File photo: Police block the road to Cairo's Tahrir Square during September protestsImage: Getty Images/AFP/K. Desouki

Radwa Mohamed, a 25-year-old Egyptian activist, has been arrested after she posted a video denouncing the regime and criticizing President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi's wife.

Mohamed Ali, whose own social media posts alleging government corruption kicked off rare protests recently, said Tuesday she had "disappeared."  Ali received and posted a recorded voice message in which Radwa Mohamed said she was about to be arrested.

In a series of videos posted to YouTube, Mohamed had called for the overthrow of President Abdel Fattah el-Sissi and criticized his wife, Intissar, for not taking a principled stand against her husband's policies, casting a rare spotlight on el-Sissi's family. 

Her whispered message to Ali, "Central Security are here…I'm terrified," sparked a social media campaign that saw the Arabic hashtag "Where is Radwa?" trend across Egypt.

The hashtag was quickly picked up in English, with many pointing to the Egyptian government's human rights record at the very moment it was being reviewed at the United Nations.

Suspicion of terror and fake news

The Egyptian group Arabic Network for Human Rights Information (ANHRI) tweeted that state prosecutors were holding Radwa for 15 days while they carry out an investigation into suspicion of membership in a terrorist group, broadcasting false news and misusing social media.

"She has nothing to do with terrorism or illegal groups," ANHRI Executive Director Gamal Eid told DW. "She hates the Muslim Brotherhood, but she is angry at poverty and the regime's false promises."

Her arrest came only a month after journalist and activist Esraa Abdel-Fattah was arrested on the same charges and beaten, according to her lawyer, sparking a similar social media campaign and drawing global condemnation. Terror charges in Egypt can carry a sentence of 15 years in prison.

Authorities brutally responded in September to rare protests against corruption and poor living conditions. Some 4,300 people were arrested, according to the Egyptian Commission for Rights and Freedoms, hundreds have been released.

But around 3,000 people, including prominent activists, lawyers, academics and opposition figures, remain locked-up in a country where 60,000 people have been imprisoned on political grounds since el-Sissi took power in 2014 and often face systematic torture, Human Rights Watch said.

Egypt's public prosecutor has acknowledged only 1,000 of the recent arrests.

Read more: Egypt: Activist Abdel-Fattah's arrest highlights plight of rights workers

Egyptian efforts to defend its rights record

Mohamed's arrest came only one day before Egypt faced a periodic review of its human rights record at the UN, which it has been preparing for by lobbying other countries, according to government sources cited by online newspaper Mada Masr. Egypt has also campaigned to present its prisons in a good light.

A video of Cairo's Tora prison released on Sunday featured interviews with inmates who said they were satisfied with their living conditions, but UN experts say medical conditions put inmates at severe risk.

Former President Mohamed Morsi was kept in solitary confinement at Tora after he was overthrown by el-Sissi and before he died of a heart attack, which experts have said may have been caused by denying him treatment for diabetes and high blood pressure.

Last month Amr Magdi, a researcher at Human Rights Watch, told DW, "Prison conditions and torture have always been big problems in Egypt, but the situation has never been as dire as it is now."

UN review

On Wednesday a range of countries, including the United States, Britain and Sweden, raised concerns about Egypt's treatment of activists through arrests, travel bans and the state's failure to investigate claims of torture at a review into Egypt's rights record held for every UN member every five years.

US human rights counselor Daniel Kronenfeld urged Egypt to "address impunity by credibly investigating allegations of extrajudicial killings, torture and forced disappearances by security forces, publicly release findings, and prosecute those responsible."

Egypt's rights delegation head said el-Sissi's government was trying to balance fighting terrorism while respecting rights and said that while there was a "blanket prohibition" on torture, isolated cases were possible.

Read more: Egypt quells protests with more stick than carrot

Magdi of Human Rights Watch told DW that Egypt had previously placed a lot of importance on appearing to respect human rights at the UN reviews but the arrest of Mohamed at the same time as this review indicated it "knows the state of play."

"Influential partners such as the US, Germany, Britain and France have not been willing to press hard for human rights reform because they are prioritizing their security and migration relationships with Egypt," Magdi said.

"El-Sissi will only show respect for human rights and respond to pressure when military assistance is conditioned on an improvement in human rights."

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