Without evidence or trial: Remand detention is authorities’ tool of choice to imprison political opponents

At a recent detention renewal hearing on January 22, software developer and activist Alaa Abd El Fattah addressed the State Security Prosecution and questioned the reasons for his imprisonment. 

“In my isolation from reading material and world news, I try to answer this question: Why am I in detention? The only explanation I can come up with is that the security apparatus has a certain conception, a conception built on history and on continuous defamation campaigns after the revolution,” he said. “I am imprisoned as a preventative measure because of a state of political crisis and a fear that I will engage with it. It’s clear that I am in prison because of previous positions I have taken.”

Since the State Security Prosecution denies lawyers access to transcripts from its detention renewal hearings, Abd El Fattah’s remarks were reproduced by his family and lawyers who attended the hearing.

Abd El Fattah was arrested by national security agents on the morning of September 29 as he was leaving Dokki Police Station where he had been forced to spend 12 hours every night — from 6 pm to 6 am — as part of the conditions of his probation since his release from prison at the end of March after serving a five-year sentence. Since then, he has been held in remand detention in Case 1356/2019 on charges of joining a terrorist group; spreading false news leading to a disturbance in public security and terrorizing people; and misusing a social media platform to broadcast and spread false news and rumors.

His re-arrest came in the wake of the September 20 demonstrations, which were called for by former Armed Forces contractor Mohamed Ali and lead to the largest arrest sweep since President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi officially came to power.

Abdel Fattah’s detention has been renewed on a routine basis by the State Security Prosecution every 15 days. During the renewal sessions, the prosecution has opted not to interrogate Abd El Fattah about the case, prompting him to conduct his own self-questioning. 

“With regard to the accusations against me, I have requested in all the previous hearings that the prosecution complete my interrogation,” he said. “I’m somewhat confused. This is not the first time I stand before the State Security Prosecutor, nor is it the first time I’m imprisoned because of my political positions, but this is the first time that I don’t understand the nature of the charges or events for which I am in prison.”

According to Abd El Fattah’s lawyer Khaled Ali, his client was only questioned in the first session, with the prosecution repeatedly renewing his detention without any further investigation. With regard to the specific charges, Ali says the prosecution did not identify the terrorist group Abd El Fattah is accused of joining or how he participated in it. The prosecution also did not respond to Abd El Fattah’s question about the nature of the statements he posted or disseminated which they allege are false news or rumors, nor did they clarify what statements attributed to Abd El Fattah lead to a disturbance in public security and terrorized people. The prosecution also did not respond to Abd El Fattah’s questions about the third charge regarding his alleged misuse of social media, or even to which social media platform they were referring.

The lack of any pretense by the prosecution to conduct an investigation mirrors what is happening in a number of other cases, including that of activist and human rights lawyer Mahienour al-Massry. Massry was also arrested on September 29 as she was leaving the headquarters of the State Security Prosecution where she was conducting her work as an attorney, attending hearings for the, at that time, hundreds of people detained in the September arrest wave. She is being held in remand detention in Case 488/2019 on similar charges of spreading false news and joining a terrorist group.

Like Abd El Fattah, Massry was questioned in the first session but not again in any of the subsequent detention renewal hearings, according to her lawyer who spoke to Mada Masr on condition of anonymity. The prosecution never outlined the nature of the false news Massry allegedly spread. They did identify the terrorist group she is accused of joining as the Muslim Brotherhood, a charge she strongly denies, pointing to her vocal opposition to the organization, her lawyer says.

“Throughout this entire period, she has been imprisoned without evidence and has asked for the investigation to resume,” her lawyer says. “As lawyers, we haven’t been allowed to familiarize ourselves with the case documents. We have asked the prosecution to provide a reason for remand detention and colleagues have appealed the decision to hold her in pretrial detention.”

At her last detention renewal hearing on January 29, Massry challenged the prosecution on the lack of any proper investigation in a statement she later wrote down and smuggled out of prison. “I appear before the prosecution for the tenth time without being presented any tangible evidence that proves the investigation testimony. During the nine previous sessions, I didn’t request to be released as I waited to be presented with anything that involves me committing some crime,” she said. “But I see that the crimes for which I have been dragged into this case are firstly my practice of law and second my belief in the principles of the January 25 revolution, that are stipulated in the Egyptian Constitution. Today, I will also not request release, but I do request the implementation of Article 154 of criminal proceedings code, since there is no evidence for the charges against me. Therefore, I ask the prosecution to order that there is no cause for bringing a case against me.”

Similar to Abd El Fattah, Massry sees her imprisonment as related to her past political activity. “Mahienour wasn’t arrested because of the charges outlined in the case,” her lawyer says. “She was arrested because of her ties to the January revolution. Her only recent activity has been defending people’s rights in her capacity as a lawyer.”

According to Ali, Massry and Abd El Fattah are not the only examples of this trend. Activists Khaled Dawoud, Esraa Abd El Fattah, Islam Mousadiq and journalist Solafa Magdy, in addition to university professors Hazem Hosny and Hassan Nafaa and others are all locked up for similar reasons.

Mohamed Lotfy — executive director of the Egyptian Commission for Rights and Freedoms, which closely documented the arrest wave a few months ago — says the state found itself facing a crisis in September, as demonstrators took to the streets without authorities knowing who was organizing them on the ground. “Officers have a quota, and, at varying leadership levels, they have ready-made lists,” Lotfy says. “So they arrested people on the streets, and they arrested political activists as a precautionary measure. They struck at everyone.”

Lawyers say that a full nine years after the 2011 revolution, authorities still treat the activists who were involved in it as a potential threat. 

“Everyone who participated in January 25 is responsible for the country’s status. They don’t want this to happen again,” says legal scholar and rights lawyer Ahmed Ezzat. “This is not just a source of hostility but also of fear. So they imprison Mahienour, Alaa, Aboul Fotouh and members of the April 6 Youth Movement because those and others set off January 25 and they must shut that door.”

Over the years, the crackdown has been relentless, with authorities subjecting prominent activists to a revolving door to prison.

During one detention renewal session, Massry — who is 33 years old — told prosecutors she had been imprisoned every year for the past seven years, according to her lawyer.

At his January 22 detention renewal session, Abd El Fattah pointed to a lack of any recent political activity that may serve as some kind of explanation for his imprisonment.

“When I was charged in the Shura Council case, I did not deny the charges but argued that the Protest Law violated the Constitution,” Alaa said. “I know that there are hundreds of cases like mine that are not being referred to the courts. I don’t understand the political motivation behind detaining me this time. I have explained to the prosecution that I spent five years in prison, and that, since my release, I was serving a probation sentence, which put me in a police station for 12 hours of every day, and that the nature of my family and professional responsibilities have kept me completely removed from any public work of a political nature.”

The legal and non-legal

Remand detention has become the punitive measure of choice by authorities against their perceived political opponents, regardless of context, particularly since the practice of administrative detention was abolished in 2013, according to rights lawyers. Administrative detention was an exceptional legal measure that allowed the Interior Ministry to imprison people without charge for up to six months. However, it was ruled unconstitutional in 2013.

Now, authorities are using remand detention without any pretense of an investigation.

Ali submitted a legal memo to State Security Prosecution and the public prosecutor arguing that the way Abd El Fattah was being held in remand detention — without a proper investigation which entails interrogation and confronting defendants with charges that are discussed — was invalid.

“Questioning the defendant was illegal because some of the case elements were from anonymous sources,” the memo reads. “It fell short of informing the defendant of the truths of the charges attributed to him and the nature of his statements and actions that constitute the objective and subjective elements of the crimes attributed to him.” Ali says that this form of remand detention has significantly increased.

Meanwhile, Massry’s lawyer says that remand detention has effectively replaced administrative detention. “Authorities have expanded the use of remand detention without referring cases to trial and without detailed charges or case documents and therefore without the possibility of a legal defense, all to use it as a form of punishment,” her lawyer says.

Lotfi also describes what is currently happening as a legalized form of administrative detention. “There’s an increase in using remand detention to punish political detainees since 2013. This happened as national security became more responsible for cases. So cases became secret. Defendants can’t defend themselves. And cases are not referred to the court,” he says.

Ezzat says that, after 2013, the state placed several articles of the extraordinary emergency law within the Criminal Procedure Code, thereby legalizing the practice of extending the period of remand detention in a retrial before the Court of Cassation. This was then also implemented in terrorism and emergency court circuits, which is a violation of the amended law. Eventually, the use of remand detention was expanded in criminal courts and within the prosecution.

“Of course, the state controls the police, the Public Prosecution, national security and the judiciary,” Ezzat says. “They want to ensure that there’s no chance for people to be referred to trial and get acquitted or receive a sentence, serve it and get released. They want people in jail. That’s why as soon as the period of remand detention ends, they’re placed in new cases. And the main legal basis here is investigations conducted by the National Security Agency.” 

Ezzat says that, before the revolution, the tools to punish dissidents varied. Islamists were punished under extraordinary legal measures, such as administrative detention, the state of emergency and martial law, while leftist dissidents were mostly punished by legal tools, such as the Criminal Procedure Code. 

“The state has now demolished the barrier between the legal and the extralegal, between remand detention and administrative detention,” Ezzat says. “So Abdel Moniem Abouel Fotouh is just like Mahienour al-Massry. Both are enemies of the state and must be punished with the same tools.”

Hadeer El-Mahdawy 

You have a right to access accurate information, be stimulated by innovative and nuanced reporting, and be moved by compelling storytelling.

Subscribe now to become part of the growing community of members who help us maintain our editorial independence.
Know more

Join us

Your support is the only way to ensure independent,
progressive journalism