Mr. Vice-President, when you visit Cairo on Jan. 19, there are a few people you should meet, and a few things you should discuss with President al-Sisi.
In January 2011, Egypt erupted in a popular uprising spurred by the abusive government behavior, including rampant torture, extrajudicial executions, and wretched prison conditions. Under al-Sisi, Egypt has seen the revival of those abusive practices to an unprecedented extent.
Since al-Sisi and other generals took power in July 2013, authorities have arrested more than 65,000 people — secular activists as well as alleged Muslim Brothers. Many were later convicted in transparently unfair mass trials.
Authorities routinely renew pretrial detention orders a tool of political punishment without trial. Exhibit A: the three-year detention of the Egyptian-American child rights activist Aya Hegazi. Though ultimately acquitted, following welcome intervention by President Trump, her prolonged incarceration showed the perverse consequences of pre-trial detention practices in cases involving peaceful activists.Mr. Pence, ask President al-Sisi why Ismail al-Iskandrani, is in prison. Iskandrani is one of the very few journalists who reported on Sinai. When arrested in November 2015 an officer told his family he would be released in a few hours. He’s still in jail today on allegations of belonging to a banned organization and disseminating “false news” for his reporting on security force abuses in Sinai.
Mr. Pence, you should also ask why Hossam Khalaf and his wife Ola al-Qaradawi have been kept in solitary confinement for more than six months without charge following their arrest in June. Earlier in 2017 they had received green cards to legally reside in the United States, and had planned to join their American citizen children in Seattle.
For Egyptian political prisoners, finishing a prison term does not mean you are free. Ahmed Maher and Mohamed Adel, founders of the April 6 movement, finished their three-year “illegal assembly” sentences a year ago but are subjected to highly abusive probation — spending 12 hours every night, from 6 p.m. to 6 a.m., in their respective police stations, unable to resume their lives.
Please also ask al-Sisi why he has done nothing to rein in National Security officers who have “disappeared” detainees for days or months, even years, at a time. Officers have murdered suspects in their custody in incidents staged as shootouts with “terrorists.” The murdered men turned out to have been “disappeared” by police weeks and months earlier.
In May, police arrested Hanan Badr al-Din, a co-founder of the Association of Families of the Disappeared, when she tried to get information about her husband, who had been disappeared since July 2013. Authorities arrested Ibrahim Metwally, co-founder of the association, in September as he was about to board a flight to Geneva to present the UN Human Rights Council with a file on enforced disappearances in Egypt, including his son Amr.
A Human Rights Watch report in September documented how National Security Agency officers routinely tortured suspects to coerce confessions or inflict punishment, in some cases inside Interior Ministry headquarters.
Prosecutors refuse to investigate torture allegations, and some threaten detainees with additional abuse to pressure suspects to confirm their confessions. The behavior of prosecutors paints a disturbing picture of complicity in perpetrating and covering up torture at every level of Egyptian law enforcement.
Officials at the highest level, including al-Sisi, have effectively green-lighted the crime by failing to authorize independent investigations or otherwise hold perpetrators accountable.
Al-Sisi’s response has been to silence Egyptians attempting who speak up against the scourge of torture. In early 2016 the government ordered the Nadeem Center for the Rehabilitation of Victims of Torture and Violence to shut its doors. Authorities summoned Negad al-Borai, a prominent defense attorney and rights advocate, for several interrogations on charges of “broadcasting false information” and “disturbing public security” after his firm sent to President al-Sisi a draft bill that would criminalize torture. Two judges face disciplinary hearings before the Supreme Judicial Council for their anti-torture efforts.
The quasi-official National Council for Human Rights has reported on severe prison overcrowding and harsh conditions for the expanding prison population. Human Rights Watch documented particularly bad conditions in Cairo’s Scorpion Prison, a maximum-security facility infamous for its record of abuse. Many Scorpion inmates are political prisoners rather than dangerous criminals. In the words of a former Scorpion warden, Scorpion “was designed so that those who go in don’t come out unless dead.” Staff beat inmates, isolated them in cramped “discipline” cells, and prevented access to health care, contributing to at least six deaths in recent years.
Vice President Pence, Egyptians and many others will be watching and listening on Jan. 19. Do not miss this chance to make very clear what you think about a government that “disappears” and tortures its citizens and keeps them locked up though they committed no crime.
Joe Stork is the former deputy Middle East director for Human Rights Watch.