Egypt's emergency law leaves trail of tears

CAIRO (Reuters) - Fifteen years after police took away her husband, Zeinab Ahmed says she has lost hope he will return to help raise their daughter, born while he was in jail.

A woman stands near riot police in a main square in Mahalla al-Kobra, northwest of Cairo, May 4, 2008. About 18,000 Egyptians are detained without charge under the emergency law, in force since 1981 and which parliament has extended for two more years, Amnesty International says. REUTERS/Asmaa Waguih

Mohamed el-Leithi stood trial in a military court with dozens of Islamists charged with belonging to the radical group Vanguards of Conquest. He was acquitted but remains in jail under an emergency law that allows police to hold suspects for long periods without charge.

“Where is justice?” said Ahmed, wearing a black veil that only showed eyes welling with tears. “Drug dealers get out of jail. Murderers get out of jail. What has he done?”

About 18,000 Egyptians are detained without charge under the emergency law, in force since Islamist militants assassinated President Anwar Sadat in 1981, Amnesty International says.

The prospect for their early release diminished this week when parliament extended the law for two years. Local and international human rights groups accuse the ruling establishment of using it to crush dissent.

Ahmed and others with family members in detention share tales of months spent trying to find out where their relatives are detained, fruitless court release orders, financial hardship and traumatized children visiting their fathers behind bars.

During eight years when Leithi was in a prison about 450 km (300 miles) south of Cairo, Ahmed said she visited him only a handful of times a year because she could not afford to travel.

“I don’t have money. My father was supporting me financially. He died. Now my brothers support me,” she said. Both Leithi’s parents died when he was in jail.

Mohamed Abdel-Moneim said it took him six years to find out the whereabouts of his son Amr, who has also been in jail since 1993..

“Tired? I have been running around for 15 years ... filing lawsuits,” the 67-year-old retired civil servant said, choking back tears.


The government says it uses the law, which also allows authorities to send civilians for military trial, only to target terrorism suspects and drug dealers.

“If you knew the number of sabotage crimes that have been thwarted ... you would have said: ‘Thank God the emergency law exists’,” Moufid Shehab, a state minister, said this week.

Analysts and human rights groups note 27 years of emergency law failed to stop militant attacks such as the bombings that rocked Sinai between 2004 and 2006, killing scores of Egyptians and foreign tourists.

They say the law has contributed to the rising influence of the police in public life and to what they say is systematic torture inside prisons and police stations.

The interior ministry says it does not condone such practices and prosecutes officers who torture suspects.

“The government cannot live without a state of emergency,” said Mohamed Zarea, director of the Arab Penal Reform Organization, which offers free legal aid to detainees.

Zarea was a detainee himself. In 1988, he was kept in custody for 75 days for suspected links with an armed leftist group. He says he was subjected to “all kinds of torture.”

“It was torture that makes you wish you could die,” he told Reuters, sitting behind a desk at his office in downtown Cairo.

“All kinds of torture, from beating to electric shocks to sleep deprivation, to being questioned while people next to you are beaten up ... to threats of sexual assault. All kinds.”

Zarea won a lawsuit against the government granting him 10,000 Egyptian pounds ($1,900) in compensation for his detention. He used the money to set up his human rights group.

Others, like Abdel Moneim Gamaleddin, have tried to get on with their lives following their release.

Sitting in a room decorated with verses from the Koran and a library of Islamic books, the 43-year-old journalist said he tries to forget his former jailers.

“I haven’t forgiven them, but I don’t think of them a lot,” he said with a smile.

Gamaleddin spent 14-1/2 years in jail until August despite his acquittal by two military courts and more than 10 release orders. He was charged with being an Islamist militant.

He is now building a relationship with his son Gamal, who was born when he was in prison.

“His mother was pregnant when I was detained,” Gamaleddin said. “I’ve got used to him, but I think he has not got used to me yet. He is still shy.”

Writing by Alaa Shahine; Editing by Robert Woodward