First-Hand Account From Cairo: Amnesty Team Reports

February 3, 2011

Update: The Amnesty staffers have been released

From the Amnesty International Team in Cairo:

We were interviewing a father who lost his 16 year old son in the recent unrest when news of the arrest of our colleagues reached us.

They were visiting a national human rights organisation, the Hisham Mubarak Law Centre (HMLC), when their offices were raided by the military police. The HMLC and the Egyptian Center for Economic and Social Rights, based in the same building, have been leading efforts to provide legal and medical help to protesters camped out in Central Cairo’s Tahrir square in the last 10 days.

It is hard to describe the feeling of utter helplessness of being so geographically close but not knowing where they are or who is holding them. All we could to was make frantic phone calls, including to human rights defenders in Egypt also trying to locate their friends and colleagues.

From their side, colleagues in at the International Secretariat and Amnesty International sections throughout the world are doing their utmost to secure the release of our two colleagues and the other human rights activists arrested at the same time, ending their families’ torment and anxiety.

We could already feel this morning arriving back to Cairo from Mahalla, an industrial city in the Nile Delta, that tensions were rising. When we reached Imbaba, a working class neighbourhood in Giza, we were first met by a climate of distrust. Who are these strangers to the area looking for information about the unrest? Are they pro-Mubarak? Are they pro-opposition? Are they journalists? What are they planning to do with this information?

After we explained as best as we could and showed our identification, the tension dissipated somehow and people started sharing their stories. Stories of suffering even from before the unrest started – mostly around the abuse by local police and officials, of corruption, and of difficult living conditions.

Understandably, the family was shaken by the loss of their son, a high school student, killed instantly on Saturday night by an unknown assailant in a drive-by shooting down the road from the family home. They told us that even though nothing will bring back their son, they are determined to keep up their fight for truth and justice until they get answers and a proper remedy. Despite their own pain, they emphasized that their son is one victim; and that at least 6 others from Imbaba were shot dead during the unrest. They said that they will turn for help to national lawyers to help them raise an official complaint with the judiciary, once it is functional again.

Lawyers at the HMLC are among those in Egypt who worked tirelessly for years to defend the rights of victims of human rights violations. They have been supporting detainees held without charge or trial under the emergency law – in place since Mubarak came to power some 30 years ago – as well as union activists, workers and others, detained for expressing their views and demanding their rights. Some HMLC staff have already been targeted for their human rights work. Today’s arrests confirmed that despite promises of reform by President Hosni Mubarak, old habits never die.

Being here for the past few days, we witnessed the different methods used by the authorities to quell the anti-government protests: promises of change, violence, intimidation, and the dissemination of fear and a sense of insecurity.  The authorities also mounted an intense media war, involving the mobilization of state resources to spread an ultra-nationalist discourse, describing opposition to Mubarak as treason to the nation, the crackdown on independent voices including foreign journalists and the severing of access to information.

In anticipation of the protests planned for tomorrow – dubbed the “Friday of Departure [of Mubarak]” – the crackdown on those seen as organizing, supporting, reporting on and of course participating in protests has intensified. Eyewitnesses told us that at about 5pm today, snipers located on top of the Ramsis Hilton Hotel were shooting at protesters in Tahrir square; and that at least two have died on the spot.

Despite this and the confrontations with pro-Mubarak protesters a day earlier leaving several dead and hundreds wounded, protesters seem undeterred. At about 18:45 pm, we heard slogans “ Depart!”, “ Depart!”, “ Depart!” echoing through Central Cairo in reference to President Hosni Mubarak.

It is hard to predict what tomorrow will bring. As Egypt holds its breath, we can only hope for the safety of our colleagues, those held in connection with the protests, and those spending the night in Tahrir square in defiance to curfew and clear security risks.

Take Action: Egyptian Government must release international human rights observers and stop crackdown on civil society