As many as 1,000 Egyptians who are suspected of attempting to emigrate illegally, are facing indefinite jail terms. Is this an abuse of emergency powers, political manoeuvering , or corruption at a local level. Abu Qir, Egypt // As many as 1,000 Egyptians face indefinite detention without charge because the government suspects them of attempting to emigrate to Europe illegally, according to a human rights organisation.
Many of the prisoners, some of whom have been held for up to two years, have remained in jail even after they were charged, tried and acquitted for either attempting to emigrate to Europe by boat or for conspiring to help others emigrate, said Karem Saber Ibrahim, the executive manager of the Land Centre for Human Rights, an organisation that advocates on behalf of poor Egyptians. The state is holding the men legally under the terms of emergency law, which Egyptian authorities have used to detain political opponents indefinitely since the latest version of the law was imposed in 1981, ostensibly to fight terrorism.
Over the past several decades, Egypt has frequently invoked the law to imprison thousands of Islamists and leftists without charges. But what makes this case unique, said Yehia al Gamal, an independent attorney who has written and spoken publicly about the detentions, is the use of the emergency powers in what would otherwise be a conventional case of law and order. It is yet another example, he said, of the government using a blunt legal instrument of "administrative detention" to deal with a problem that would be better served with sensible public policies.
"The emergency law is very wide and they use it badly," said Mr al Gamal. "The real solution of the problem is not to arrest these young people or arrest those who drive them to the sea. But unfortunately, we don't think of the roots of these problems. We think of the appearance of the problem." The land centre reported that the vast majority of the detained men come from the towns and cities along the Mediterranean Coast. Law enforcement authorities have not spoken publicly about the reasons behind the detentions and ministry of interior officials declined repeated requests for an interview. But analysts say the mass arrests could be one part of Egypt's response to increasing pressure from European countries to curb the flow of illegal Egyptian migrants.
It is impossible to determine how many migrants make the perilous journey across the Mediterranean Sea each year to seek better work opportunities in the European Union, but regular reports of arrests and deaths at sea provide a glimpse. According to The Economist magazine, 45,000 migrants arrived on Spanish and Italian shores from North Africa in 2008 alone. The problem has been an increasing cause of concern for southern European states, whose governments have appealed to their northern African counterparts to stop the illegal boat traffic on the Mediterranean Sea.
In May, the president of Italy, Silvio Berlusconi, met with Hosni Mubarak, Egypt's president, to discuss business-minded methods of mitigating the problem. Among other agreements, the Italian government said it would establish a university in Egypt and send experts to train Egyptian labourers. But Mr Berlusconi's right-wing government has also taken more uncompromising - some would say unlawful - action against migrants themselves. Starting last May, Italy instituted a policy of returning all immigrants to their North African countries of origin. The move incited outrage from human rights organisations, which said international law obligates Italy to vet the migrants and protect those who may have legitimate claims to political asylum.
Beyond mollifying its Mediterranean neighbours, another explanation for Egypt's tough-minded measures may be a genuine concern for the welfare of the Egyptian people, said Ray Jureidini, the director of the Center for Migration and Refugee Studies at the American University in Cairo. "What is really happening here might be just as it looks on the surface," he said. "That is, they're trying to stop this from happening, which could be both a political decision with regard to its relationship with Europe, but also its concern for its own population and the kind of dangers for people to take these incredible risks. And of course, it devastates [the migrants'] families when a boat sinks and lives are lost."
Faced with the state's silence regarding the reasons for their husbands' detention, the women of Abu Qir, one of dozens of coastal towns that have reported such detentions, have arrived at an alternative explanation. They say state security investigators rely on reports from unscrupulous confidential informants, who are using their sons and husbands as scapegoats for the real perpetrators. "These informants are working for the big smugglers. When the officer knows an operation is going on, he falsely accuses others," said Magda Ali Hassan, the unofficial organiser of the group. "Our president doesn't know about this. It's the lower officials who are doing this to us. When we talk to the media, we can't reach him and we can't reach the ministry of interior."
In fact, said the dozen women who spoke with The National last month, protesting and speaking to the media seem to be the detainees' only viable recourse. For the past year, women from Abu Qir and several other towns and cities along Egypt's North Coast have travelled to Cairo five times to hold protests and to petition the office of the public prosecutor for their family members' release. At one recent protest on October 11, about 200 women submitted petitions to the public prosecutors' office, said Mr Ibrahim, whose organisation has helped organise the protests.
"Unfortunately, no one knows when these arrested people are going to be released," Mr Ibrahim said. "It's easy for a police officer to issue an arrest warrant, but it's very difficult to release such a person. It requires a political decision." Thanks to the protests, there have been some marked improvements, he said. The government has released 15 detainees since the beginning of August, and the security forces have relaxed their threats against the protesters.
During the first protest last December, Cairo security officers threatened the women with jail. Last month, security officials said there were plans in the works to release the detained men. The threats are ominous, but until their husbands are released, the women of Abu Qir say they have nothing to lose from demonstrating. They certainly have nothing to gain from remaining silent. "We used to be very afraid of the security people, of course," said Lorna Mohammed al Saeed, whose son is among the jailed men. "But now that our husbands are in jail, what can they do to us?"