Abu Qir, Egypt // Little more than a year ago, the Egyptian government performed an illusion that stunned Marwa Mansour Abdel Wahab and her family: it made her husband disappear for 10 days. In October 2008, Mahmoud Hamam Ahmed Ali, 30, had just been found innocent of illegal emigration charges and was awaiting his release from a prison in Marsa Matrouh, a coastal city about 300 km west of Alexandria, where Mrs Wahab lives with her daughter.
During the course of Mr Ali's brief trial, which followed 30 days of detention, Mrs Wahab, 28, and several of her family members rented an apartment in town. She had hoped to greet her husband at the local jail, several hours after a criminal court judge had acquitted him and ordered his release. But when Mrs Wahab arrived at the prison, she was told she had to wait until morning. Twenty-four hours of anguished delays followed. The next morning, the duty officer at the police station told Mrs Wahab to return in the afternoon, then again in the evening. But it was only on Mrs Wahab's fourth visit to the jail later that night that the illusion was complete.
According to prison guards, her husband had vanished from their custody, as if by magic. "We walked around the police station looking for him, asking around. They told us they didn't know what happened to him. I went to the duty officer and he said 'I don't know where he is'," Mrs Wahab said. "I was shocked. I told him, 'You just told me he was going to be released tonight' and he said 'I don't know.' Every time we asked him anything like 'is he here in the police station with you?' the guard would say 'I don't know'."
Mrs Wahab was confused and outraged. How, she wondered, could her husband have been plucked from police custody without the jailers' knowledge? "I can tell you that they were killing me slowly. It was like I was dying. I didn't know what to say," she said. "How come he was released? How come the judge gave him an acquittal and we don't know where he is? This is torture, it's a complete, 100 per cent injustice."
Demoralised but determined, Mrs Wahab returned to her home in Abu Qir, a suburb of Alexandria, with her two-year-old daughter. She spent the next several days searching for her husband in local prisons and police stations, but found nothing. Ten days after a judge had ordered her husband's release, Mrs Wahab received a phone call. The voice on the phone - one of Mr Ali's fellow detainees - said that Mr Ali had been transferred to the Burj al Arab Penitentiary, about a three-hour drive from Alexandria.
The Burj al Arab is famous in Egypt. It has hosted hundreds of the country's most notable political dissidents. Mr Ali does not belong to any banned organisations. He is just a fisherman, said Mrs Wahab. When Mrs Wahab was allowed to visit her husband more than a week later, she was told the truth. Her husband had been "released" from the prison in Marsa Matruh only to be re-arrested by agents working for the general department of public funds.
"I can tell you that the word breakdown is not enough to describe how he looked," said Mrs Wahab of her husband. "I was crying, he was crying, and my brothers and whole family were crying just from looking at him." Later that month, Mrs Wahab moved out of her small apartment, which she could no longer afford without her husband's income, and moved in with her parents. She still visits her husband as often as she can, but he has turned into a wreck of a man. The visits have become so disturbing that Mrs Wahab no longer brings her young daughter, whose asthma is aggravated by the dusty prison.
"The first time, [my daughter] was really tired. The second time, she told [my husband] to come out to her from behind the wire. When she said that, he broke down into tears," Mrs Wahab said. "He's like a mountain shaking when he's crying." Prison conditions are difficult, said Mrs Wahab. The food is terrible - the bread would "bounce off if it was thrown against a wall" and the "scratching disease" is prevalent. Mr Ali told his wife that he shares a room with 35 other inmates, according to Mrs Wahab. If her husband wants to roll over while he sleeps, he has to stand up first, turn, and then lie back down.
"He was a beautiful, handsome young man. He was well-built," Mrs Wahab said. "He dropped weight. He looks very bad now because he's always thinking about why he is in detention even though he has been acquitted." According to Mrs Wahab, Mr Ali has won four appeals since he was first detained. But each time he faces release, the general department of public funds greets him with a renewed detention order.
But Mrs Wahab has not resigned herself to defeat. Dozens of men from Abu Qir face the same undetermined fate as her husband, and their female relatives have banded together - with the help of the Land Centre for Human Rights - to push for their release. Mrs Wahab and about 60 other families from Abu Qir have travelled to Cairo, Egypt's capital, several times during the past year. Each time, the large group of mostly female protesters walk around town submitting petitions to Egypt's most formidable houses of power: the People's Assembly, the Shura Council, the General Prosecutor and the Ministry of Interior.
On each occasion, she said, she receives the same treatment she had in Marsa Matrouh. The officials promise the women that their husbands are in the process of being released. Just a few more days, they always say. But Mrs Wahab wonders if she has more time. Her financial situation has deteriorated, and she now lives entirely off her parents' generosity. During Mrs Wahab's last visit with her husband, Mr Ali told her that he did not know how much longer he would last in jail.
"We're in a situation now where we can't find bread for our kids. We can't find houses. We can't put roofs over our heads," she said. "There's a saying that says that you're innocent until proven guilty. The judge found him innocent. There should be nothing beyond that." @Email:firstname.lastname@example.org