A report from Human Rights Watch accuses Egyptian security forces of forcibly disappearing dozens of people, and asks authorities "to immediately disclose their whereabouts and hold those responsible to account.”
International law forbids enforced disappearances, which the UN defines as "the arrest, detention, abduction or any other form of deprivation of liberty by agents of the State or by persons or groups of persons acting with the authorization, support, or acquiescence of the State, followed by a refusal to acknowledge the deprivation of liberty or by concealment of the fate or whereabouts of the disappeared person, which place such a person outside the protection of the law."
Why do states inflict enforced disappearances on their own citizens?
Amnesty International says they are used to “spread terror within society,” especially in relation to the repression of political opponents.
According to the BBC, most of the detained in Egypt are “members or supporters of the outlawed Muslim Brotherhood but also secular and liberal activists.”
Human Rights Watch documented the cases of five people forcibly disappeared and two people "most likely" forcibly disappeared between April 2014 and June 2015. In three of the cases, the people were last seen in the custody of state officials, despite denials from authorities. In another three cases, those who knew the victims said security forces had apprehended the victims.
Last month, masked policemen raided Hassan Sultan’s apartment at dawn and abducted his three sons before charging them with membership of a terrorist group, AFP reported.
"It happened early in the morning. They blindfolded me and my sons, tied us from behind and made us sit on the floor like prisoners of war," Sultan told AFP.
A senior police official from Egypt’s interior ministry’s media department told AFP, “We don’t use these methods. If anyone has proof, they should file a formal complaint to the interior ministry.”
Mohamed Lofty, founder of The Egyptian Commission for Rights and Freedoms, told Human Rights Watch that authorities have not responded to most complaints filed by independent groups.
A report by the International Center for Transitional Justice documented the impact of enforced disappearances on women, concluded that they are likely to suffer the same levels of abuse as men while disappeared, but are additionally more likely to experience sexual violence.
Female relatives of the disappeared often wrestle with severe psychological and socioeconomic implications.
“Not knowing if their loved one will ever return, those left behind live in limbo,” Amnesty notes.
This lack of closure is compounded by dwindling “financial security” as “the disappeared person is often the family’s main breadwinner” and some “national laws don’t let you draw a pension or receive other support without a death certificate.”
The ICTJ report notes, “The precarious legal status of the disappeared often results in the inability of their wives to access bank accounts, social services, or retain ownership of assets. Socially, women may be blamed for the disappearance [and] ostracized for financially burdening the family.”
The report also offers recommendations to mitigate the painful aftermath of enforced disappearances.
“When done in consultation with family and community members, symbolic reparations [such as monuments, plaques, and tombstones] can promote healing and restore social balance,” it states.
The report also recommends all reparations programs recognize relatives as victims, as is required by international law. It urges that states ensure access to such benefits is not dependent on a declaration of death as this requires complicated emotional decisions.
Egypt isn’t the only country that suffers from allegedly state-sanctioned mass detentions, Amnesty notes.
In Mexico, more than 26,000 people were reported missing or disappeared between 2006 and 2012. In Sri Lanka, 12,000 complaints of enforced disappearances have been submitted to the UN since the 1980s. The actual number, Amnesty estimates, is at least 30,000 higher.