“It’s a hostage negotiation and it has been all along,” said Sherif Mansour, describing the arrest of his cousin Reda Abdel-Rahman by Egyptian security forces last August as an attempt to intimidate Mansour into silence.
Abdel-Rahman has been imprisoned without trial for nine months. Mansour, an outspoken human rights advocate in Washington with the Committee to Protect Journalists, has since learned that he and his father are listed on the same charge sheet, all accused of joining a terrorist group and spreading “false news”.
Mansour is one of a growing number of activists, dissidents and analysts angry at the US administration’s suddenly warm relations with Egypt. They point to Egyptian officials’ escalating threats against critics living in exile in the US, including arresting their family members or contacts in Egypt, many of whom are imprisoned like Abdel-Rahman on spurious charges.
Twelve members of Mansour’s family have been detained and interrogated by Egyptian security agents since Abdel-Rahman’s detention.
“They ask about us, when we last spoke to them, what we spoke about,” Mansour said. “They go through their phones – and if they don’t provide passwords they’re beaten in order to find anything that connects them to us, including Facebook conversations.
“It’s why we haven’t been in touch: I’ve stopped talking to my family in order not to give them any reason to harass them,” he said.
Joe Biden and the Egyptian president, Abdel Fatah al-Sisi, held their first official call in late May, four months after Biden took office. As a candidate, Biden promised that there would be “no blank checks” for the man Donald Trump once addressed as “my favourite dictator”. Yet when they spoke, the two leaders discussed human rights in terms of a “constructive dialogue” and “reaffirmed their commitment to a strong and productive US-Egypt partnership”, according to the White House.
This followed Egyptian mediation of a ceasefire between Israel and Hamas, including a recent rare public visit by the Egyptian intelligence chief, Abbas Kamel, to Tel Aviv and Ramallah, and Israel’s foreign minister, Gabi Ashkenazi, travelling to Cairo – the first visit by an Israeli foreign minister in 13 years.
HA Hellyer, of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace thinktank, said: “The latest crisis in the Palestinian occupied territories and the Israeli bombardment reminded DC of a very clear and present reality: that there is no capital in the region that has direct and workable relations with the Israelis and the Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank other than Cairo.”
Biden’s administration capped his warm exchange with the Egyptian president with a decision to request $1.38bn (£1bn) in annual military aid for Egypt – the maximum amount possible.
A coalition of human rights groups expressed “strong disappointment” at the administration’s decision. “President Biden campaigned on ‘no more blank checks’ for Egypt’s regime, but requesting the same amount the United States has provided annually since 1987 despite Egypt’s deteriorating human rights record is, effectively, another blank check,” they said.
Mansour agreed. “They abandoned the rhetoric calling publicly on Egypt to respect human rights by agreeing to this ‘constructive dialogue’,” he said. “It makes my blood boil to hear this term in many ways. Not just because it’s a repetition of what we as Egyptians, and the United States, have heard from all previous dictators, but it also underscores how naive and timid this administration is when it comes to Egypt.”
Since coming to power in a military coup in 2013, Sisi has overseen the broadest crackdown on dissent and free speech in Egypt’s recent history. Tens of thousands remain behind bars for their political views or for activities as benign as a Facebook comment; Egypt’s prisons are at double their capacity, according to Amnesty International.
The Freedom Initiative, a Washington-based human rights organisation founded by the Egyptian-American activist Mohamed Soltan, has tracked the increasing numbers of arrests of family members of outspoken Egyptians in exile abroad. It said that threatening phone calls and even physical intimidation were now regularly used against Egyptian dissidents worldwide.
“They said they could hire someone here in the States to go after me,” said Aly Hussin Mahdy, an influencer and dissident now in exile in the US. Mahdy described how his family members were detained earlier this year as a way to stop him speaking out against the Egyptian government on social media; his father remains in detention. The threats against Mahdy escalated to menacing phone calls from someone purporting to be an Egyptian intelligence agent after he openly discussed his family members’ arrests.
The Freedom Initiative described what it termed “hostage-taking tactics” involving five American citizens whose families were detained in Egypt in order to silence their activism in the US. In addition, it found more than a dozen cases of US citizens or residents whose close relatives were detained in Egypt last year, although it believes the true number to be far higher.
It added that one US citizen was warned against speaking to US lawmakers on their release from detention in Egypt, and told that doing so would result in harm to their family.
Yet US law contains mechanisms to curb cooperation with countries that threaten US citizens and dissidents abroad. These include the Leahy law, which stops the US funding foreign security forces that violate human rights; the Global Magnitsky Act, which allows the government to sanction human rights abusers and prevent them from entering the US; and the “Khashoggi ban”, curbing visas for those engaged in anti-dissident activities.
The White House did not initially respond when contacted for comment on this issue. The secretary of state, Antony Blinken, told a congressional hearing this week that “I think we’ve seen some progress in some areas” of human rights in Egypt, but that “when it comes to freedom of expression, when it comes to civil society, there are very significant problems that we need to address directly with our Egyptian partners – and we are. So we hope and expect to see progress there.”
US-based activists expressed disappointment at lawmakers’ reluctance to employ sanctions against Egyptian officials, who they say more than qualify for punitive measures.
“The fact that Egypt feels it can get away with taking citizens hostage, and so far it did, will continue to be a stain on the Biden administration,” said Mansour.
Norway killings ‘appeared to be’ Islamist ‘terrorism’
Wednesday’s murders “appeared … to be an act of terrorism” Norway’s ‘PST’ intelligence service said Thursday, noting that the killer, Danish national Espen Andersen, had been a “known” threat. Andersen was a Muslim convert and extremist, but might also have had psychiatric problems, Norwegian police said. Norway’s terrorism-threat level was “moderate”, the PST added, while monitoring the risk of “follow-up actions, revenge actions” by either “extreme Islamists” or “right-wing extremists”.
UN quizzed over role in prison-like island camp for Rohingya refugees | Global development
The UN’s refugee agency (UNHCR) is facing questions over whether it is helping to detain Rohingya refugees in prison-like conditions by providing services on a controversial island camp.
Over the past year, Bangladesh has relocated almost 20,000 refugees to Bhasan Char, an island formed of silt deposits in the Bay of Bengal thought to be vulnerable to cyclones, which the refugees are unable to leave.
About 700 refugees have reportedly attempted to flee the island but Bangladesh hopes that the UNHCR’s cooperation will ensure better services for the refugees and is now planning to increase the island’s population by 80,000 over the next three months.
Refugees International, a global advocacy organisation, said there were “serious questions” about whether it was safe and possible to move such numbers to the island from the Cox’s Bazar refugee camps, which are the world’s largest, hosting about 890,000 refugees.
“Most concerning is whether any relocations of Rohingya refugees to the island will be truly voluntary, evidenced by the fact that hundreds of refugees relocated there have already tried to flee,” said Daniel Sullivan, Refugees International’s senior advocate for human rights.
“As Refugees International has warned in the past, failure to properly assess conditions and inform refugees about the move will result in policies more akin to detention than refuge.”
The Geneva-based Global Detention Project tweeted: “In signing a new memorandum of understanding with the Bangladesh government, is the UNHCR assisting in the detention of Rohingya refugees on Bhasan Char island? Are refugees free to move on and off the island? Are they moving there truly voluntarily?”
Human Rights Watch reported in June that the government had misled refugees about conditions on the island and that some had been relocated without informed consent. It also reported that, despite promises from the government of good living conditions, they did not have access to work or education and were unable to leave.
In May, during a visit by senior UNHCR officials to inspect the island, thousands of refugees defied orders to remain in their shelters to protest at the living conditions. The UNHCR later said it was “deeply concerned” that refugees were injured during the protest.
A Rohingya teacher living in the Cox’s Bazar camps said they opposed the UNHCR’s cooperation with the government because they did not believe the island was fit to live on.
“There is not any freedom for the Rohingya people in Bhasan Char. People who have gone there thought life would be comfortable for them, as the government said they would be provided with everything they need,” said the teacher, who did not want to be named for fear of repercussions. “There is a lady in Bhasan Char – she sometimes talks with her mother and I heard from her mother that people in Bhasan Char are living as if in prison there.
“At least the government could consider free movement for the people who are in Bhasan Char, so they could travel to see their relatives.”
A leaked copy of the agreement offers no guarantee that refugees will be able to move freely to the mainland, Reuters reported on Friday.
Bangladesh has justified relocating refugees to the island by arguing that conditions are better than the overcrowded camps in Cox’s Bazar, which have witnessed devastating floods and fires this year.
The UN said, after the agreement with the government was announced last weekend, that its presence on Bhasan Char would “help support the refugees to lead decent lives on the island” by ensuring protection, education, healthcare and livelihoods.
Former UNHCR official Jeff Crisp questioned why the agreement between Bangladesh and UNHCR had not been published and whether it failed to ensure freedom of movement for the refugees, which could amount to it becoming a prison island.
He also questioned what the long-term plan was for the island, as little progress had been made towards ensuring the Rohingya can return safely to Myanmar, which several generations of refugees have fled after repeated military operations.
“I don’t know what strategy the Bangladeshi government is working on. What is the endgame? Do they assume people can live happily on Bhasan Char?” said Crisp. “They’re talking about 80,000 moving in the next three months. Are that number of people going to volunteer to go and, if they do, can you move that many people and give proper attention to settling them properly?”
China’s Xi to snub UK climate summit
Chinese prime minister Xi Jinping will not personally attend the ‘COP26’ climate summit in Scotland, UK prime minister Boris Johnson has been informed, British newspaper The Times reported Thursday. The no-show might mean China would not submit a ‘nationally defined contribution’ (NDC) on CO2-cuts either, British officials feared. Just half of the world’s ‘G20’ wealthiest countries have filed NDCs so far, amid a supply crunch in oil and gas markets.
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