Journalism is not a crime: Release journalist Omar Abd al-Maqsoud and end the collective punishment of his family

Press Release

Sunday, 7 February, 2016

Journalist Omar Abd al-Maqsoud and his two brothers Ibrahim and Anas have spent 21 months in pretrial detention since they were arrested in April 2014 because of Omar’s work as a journalist. Despite an acquittal in one case on trumped up charges of illegal assembly related to the period when they were forcibly disappeared, the brothers are still held in pretrial detention related to another case. The next session in this trial will be February 21, 2016 and the brothers stand accused of torching police cars, which they all deny. On January 9, police forces also arrested their father, Ali Abd al-Maqsoud, while visiting two of his sons in Gamasa Prison, located in the Daqahliya governorate. The Bilqas prosecution ordered his release on February 1 and he was released three days later.

The brothers’ ongoing detention is an illustration of the collective punishment the Abd al-Maqsoud family has suffered purely as a result of Omar’s work as a journalist.

The Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights demands the release of photojournalist Omar Abd al-Maqsoud and Ibrahim and Anas and urges the prosecution to investigate complaints of torture and involuntary disappearance filed by the family and the Journalists Syndicate and to hold the perpetrators accountable. We further ask the parliament to amend Article 92 of the prisons law to prohibit the arbitrary arrest of family members visiting detainees by simply prohibiting the entry of contraband whose possession does not constitute a crime.

The violations began on February 19, 2014 when Omar was arrested while on a reporting assignment for the Masr al-Arabiya website and accused of working for Al-Jazeera. The police eventually released on March 11 after 20 days in custody, but approximately one month later, at dawn on April 14, 2014, the police raided his family’s home in MitGhamr, located in the Daqahliya governorate, and arrested Omar and his brother Ibrahim. The following day, the home was again raided and his younger brother Anas, aged 16, was arrested as well.

Omar’s mother Manal told EIPR that when the police raided the home, they asked for Omar by name. Anas and Ibrahim were sleeping in another room. The officers entered the room, but left them because they were looking for Omar. When Ibrahim awoke and asked what was happening, the police arrested him as well. According to Manal, the chief of investigations himself was part of the security force and when she asked for a warrant or official statement, he yelled, “Are you going to tell us how to do our job?!” Manal also reported that several family items were stolen by the police force, including two computers, an electric razor, and butane canisters, which she was told were taken as evidence. The police returned the next day, April 15, and arrested the third brother, Anas who was16 at the time.

Fabricating charges

The prosecution ordered the detention of the three brothers on charges of setting fire to two cars owned by citizens who had campaigned in support of the presidential candidacy of then Field Marshal Abd al-Fattah al-Sisi, according to case 2989/2014/Mit Ghamr station felonies, entered as case 2443/2014/South Mansoura Plenary. But Omar's employers issued an official statement declaring that the photojournalist was on assignment in Cairo on the date of the incident in question. The three brothers continued to be held at the Mit Ghamr police station and their detention was repeatedly renewed.

On September 11, 2014, the Mansour Felony Court ruled to release the brothers on bail of LE5,000 each. According to Omar’s wife, Amina Magdi, the family was harassed and thwarted when they attempted to pay the bail. She said the station chief refused to accept the bail money, saying that the brothers would be released when he was ready. After several attempts, the family paid the bail in full to the Public Prosecution’s bursar’s office on September 13. According to Magdi, they returned that night after the procedures were completed expecting the brothers to be released, but the station informed them that they would not be released that evening. When their father went to the police station the next morning, September 14, the chief of investigations told him that the three brothers had left the station the night before. Their father tried to learn his sons’ whereabouts, but the station refused to give him any information.

The three brothers were foricbly disappeared from the night of September 13 to September 21, at which point they were moved to the Sinbilawayn station and were allowed to call their family.

That same day the prosecution ordered them detained in connection with a second fabricated case, this time on charges of illegal assembly on September 20, according to police report 22042/2014—that is, during the time they were forcibly disappeared by the Interior Ministry. They continued to be held in pretrial detention at the Sinbilawayn station.

On February 21, 2015, the Sinbilawayn court sentenced Omar and Ibrahim to two years in prison and referred Anas to a child court due to lack of jurisdiction. The brothers’ attorney appealed the sentenced and May 16, 2015 the Sinbilawayn Appellate Court acquitted Omar and Ibrahim; Anas was acquitted on January 7, 2016.

Despite the acquittal in the illegal assembly case, the three brothers continued to be held in connection with the arson charge. A Mansoura court sentenced them in absentia to life imprisonment (25 years) for that charge on January 19, 2015, although there was no evidence they were behind the misdemeanor and although they were detained at the time, not fugitives. A new trial was then convened for the arson charge.

The first session of the retrial took place on March 15, 2015 before the same circuit. Since May 2, 2015 to the present day, all other sessions have been postponed, the last time on November 22, 2015, when the trial was adjourned to February 21, 2016.

Torture and conditions of detention

The three brothers have been subject to torture and ill treatment by the police for the nearly two years of their incarceration since mid-April 2014, when they were first detained in the Mit Ghamr police station. There, police officers pulled out Omar’s fingernails and beat him on various parts of parts of his body.

According to Omar’s wife, when the brothers were moved to the Mit Silseil station on June 2, 2014, police there began forcing them to crawl on the ground naked while the police walked on their backs and urinated on them; they were also beaten with water hoses. Following this, Omar announced a full hunger strike on July 5, 2015, in an attempt to put an end to the torture, despite the danger to his own health, especially since he already has heart problems. After five days, he suspended the hunger strike when the station chief promised to end the torture and mistreatment. Yet, the torture began against after the brothers were moved from the Gamasa station to the Mit Ghamr police station on September 6, 2015.

On September 15, 2015, investigating officers entered Omar’s cell and confiscated his heart and nerve medicine. When he objected, they denied visits to him and his two brothers. Subsequently six police officers and detectives entered his cell and beat them brutally, stomping on them and throwing Ibrahim to the ground and stepping on his neck. Omar himself lost consciousness. His wife, Amina Magdi, filed a complaint with the Public Prosecutor asking for an investigation into these incidents, and the Journalists Syndicate filed another complaint asking that the chief of investigations at the Mit Ghamr police station be investigated in connection with the torture of the journalist and his brothers.

Anas has suffered from serious health complications. According to a report from the Dikirnis Health Department to the station chief on June 17, 2015, he suffers from heart rheumatism, which the report described as the result of old rheumatic inflammations. But Anas’s mother informed EIPR that Anas never suffered from such symptoms before and that they are a result of torture and abuse during his confinement. Omar has had heart problems since his childhood, for which he was relieved of compulsory army service on the grounds of lack of fitness. His symptoms have been exacerbated as a result of his nearly two-year detention. A report by the Sinbilawayn Health Office, based on an external medical examination on April 14, 2015, stated that he suffered from unstable angina and recommended transferring him to the Sinbilawayn Hospital. The conditions of his detention and the torture have severely exacerbated his health condition.

Before his arrest, Omar and his wife Amina had been planning their wedding party, having concluded the marriage contract shortly before his arrest. A visit to Omar and Ibrahim in the Gamasa Prison takes three hours from the family’s home. Anas was temporarily transferred to the Mit Ghamr police station to sit for his high-school exams, but he is being detained at the Dikirnis Center for Juvenile Care.

 

Violation of visitation rights

Omar and Ibrahim have been denied visitations since their father was arrested on January 9 trying to visit them. Their sister Marwa attempted to visit them the next day, but an officer at the prison gate denied her entry. When she asked the officer to permit the entry of food and blankets, he denied this as well and threatened to arrest her.

The prolonged denial of visits contravenes Rule 43 of the UN Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners (the Mandela Rules), which states, “In no circumstances may restriction of disciplinary sanctions amount to torture or other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment…Instruments of restraint shall never be applied as a sanction for disciplinary offences. Disciplinary sanctions or restrictive measures shall not include the prohibition of family contact. The means of family contact may only be restricted for a limited time period and as strictly required for the maintenance of security and order.”

On January 9, Omar’s parents went to the prison for a regular visit to their sons. After having entered the prison gate and passed through the metal detector and search, which found no contraband in their possession, an officer stopped Omar’s father during the second phase of the search in the prison and accused him of attempting to smuggle in a mobile phone in one of the bags he was bringing to his sons. Their mother Manal said that soldiers at the prison told them that mobile phones are regularly found and are typically simply confiscated, with no police report filed. Yet in this case, an officer entered and asked whether the prisoner being visited was a criminal or political prisoner. When Omar’s father refused to answer, the officer detained him and accused him of attempting to bring in a mobile phone, which the father denied during questioning. On January 11, 2015, the Bilqas Prosecution ordered the father detained for 15 days on charges of belonging to a banned group, relying on investigations by Homeland Security, which accused him of belonging to the Muslim Brotherhood. His family denies this.

 

Arbitrary application of the law

Article 92(1) of the Prison Law states that any person who brings in or attempts to bring in to a prison or prison camp by any means any item in violation of prison laws and regulations is subject to jail time of three years and a fine of LE1,000 to LE5,000. This article was amended in October 2015 by presidential decree to increase the sentence from six months to three years. We urge the Egyptian legislature to again amend Article 92 to criminalize the entry of contraband only when possession of such items is already a criminal offense, such as weapons and drugs, to avoid the kind of arbitrary application of the law seen in this case.