Human Rights Watch (HRW) called on Egyptian authorities, in a statement posted on Thursday, to immediately disclose information pertaining to the whereabouts and conditions of four Palestinian men from Gaza who went missing after crossing the border into North Sinai in August 2015.
Missing for approximately 20 months, the four Palestinian men, all of whom are members of Hamas, the governing authority in Gaza, were last seen aboard a bus in the Egyptian border town of Rafah, in the northeast of the North Sinai Governorate. Family members of the four men told HRW that they had legally passed into Egypt through the Rafah border crossing.
“Twenty months without contact with the missing men inflicts incalculable anguish and suffering on their families and friends,” wrote HRW Middle East Director Sarah Leah Whitson. “Egyptian authorities should come clean and reveal whether these four disappeared Palestinian men from Gaza are in their custody.”
Citing an eyewitness account, HRW reported that, on August 19, 2015, “about 300 meters after the bus left Rafah, six armed men in civilian clothes fired on the bus and forcibly took custody of the four men.”
Family members of the four missing men told HRW that they were destined for Cairo International Airport, where they were scheduled to depart for Turkey. Two of the men were due to travel for medical care, while the other two were intending to study abroad.
HRW reported the family members had not heard from the four men since they went missing nearly two years ago, adding that their prolonged and undisclosed circumstances constitute forced disappearances if Egyptian authorities know of their whereabouts but have failed to notify their kin.
The four missing men have been identified as 23-year-old Abdullah Abul Jebain, 26-year-old Abdel Dayyem Abu Lebda, 29-year-old Hussein al-Zebda and 26-year-old Yasser Zannoun.
In August 2016, Al Jazeera published a photograph purporting to show two of the men – Abu Lebda and Zannoun – in a detention facility in the Egyptian capital. Other media outlets posted video footage allegedly showing the men in the same Egyptian detention facility. According to HRW, the families of Abu Lebda and Zannoun confirmed that the photo and video are indeed of their missing relatives.
HRW pointed to a Reuters interview conducted in August 2015 with an anonymous Egyptian security source who claimed that the four men were members of Hamas’ armed Qassam Brigades. HRW also pointed to an interview conducted with a Hamas diplomat in August 2016, in which he alleged that Cairo may be willing to hand over the four missing Palestinian men, in exchange for several men wanted by Egyptian authorities.
In September 2016, Ghazi Hamad, a Hamas foreign affairs official reportedly confirmed to HRW that the four men were Hamas members but not high-level figures.
In a letter addressed to Egypt’s interior minister, prosecutor general and foreign minister, HRW wrote, “If any of these four men is in the custody of Egyptian authorities, we urge you to immediately acknowledge this, as well as the basis for their detention, as state authorities are required to do under international law.”
“This obligation is unconditional and cannot be contingent on the fulfilment of demands by the Gaza authorities. Egyptian authorities should immediately charge the men if they suspect them of criminal activity, or otherwise release them,” HRW’s letter asserted.
The webpages of the Office of the Prosecutor General, Ministry of Interior, and Foreign Ministry had not posted any official response to HRW’s statement or letter as of Thursday. The media spokesperson for the Foreign Ministry told Mada Masr he did not have any information regarding the matter.
HRW pointed to a Egyptian Commission for Rights and Freedoms report documenting 912 forced disappearances between August 2015 to August 2016, 50 of whom remain unaccounted.
Last month the Palestinian Embassy in Cairo issued a statement denouncing the death of Wasseem Daghmash a former police officer affiliated with the Palestinian Authority, in an Egyptian police station. The cause of death is still unknown and contingent on a coroners report, ordered by Egypt’s prosecutor general.