Eighteen Russian citizens, eight of whom are children, are “missing” in Egypt after being taken away by suspected Egyptian secret police.
The relatives of the missing have raised concerns about the wellbeing and safety of their family members, saying they are “unable to establish their whereabouts”, according to Al Jazeera.
At the heart of the group is Sakinat Baisultanova, a 31-year-old mother of six who moved to Egypt in 2017. She had previously lived in Istanbul, Turkey, with her husband Ahmed Aligadjiev before they divorced three years ago. She disappeared in Cairo on 12 March when ten armed, masked men burst into the Cairo apartment where she was living, according to BBC Russian.
On 24 April, armed Egyptian secret police stormed the homes of Baisultanova’s former in-laws and arrested them, along with her six children, sister, two other children and a number of other Russians, according to her relatives. Baisultanova’s cousin told Al Jazeera that he had travelled from Turkey to Cairo in April to search for her and inquire with the Egyptian authorities about her whereabouts, but had received no information.
The Russian consulate in Egypt told BBC Russian that “we were notified by relatives and we contacted the local authorities and asked for the reasons for the detention of these people and their actual location. Unfortunately, the local authorities have not given us an answer.”
The reason for Baisultanova and the group’s arrest and subsequent disappearance is unknown. Al Jazeera noted that “sources familiar with this case […] suspect Baisultanova might have been targeted because of her ex-husband Ahmed Aligadjiev’s alleged ties to armed groups in Russia.”
Aligadjiev is believed to have been a member of the group Imarat Kavkaz, or the Caucasus Emirate, a militant jihadist organisation active in southwest Russia. The group sought to expel Russia from the North Caucasus and to establish an independent Islamic emirate in the region. Aligadjiev, like a number of volunteers from Chechnya and the North Caucasus, is also believed to have travelled to fight in the Syrian civil war.
Such arrests and disappearances have become commonplace in Egypt in recent years as part of a crackdown on political dissidence and opposition under the regime of Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi, the current Egyptian president. In the first six months of 2017 alone, 254 people were “forcibly disappeared” in Egypt. The statistic came from the Cairo-based Egyptian Coordination for Rights and Freedoms, with Director Ezzat Ghonim explaining he was concerned for “the continuation of the phenomenon of enforced disappearance,” and calling for “the rule of law and the cessation of these violations.”
According to Al-Monitor, Egypt “is first and foremost targeting perceived supporters of the outlawed Muslim Brotherhood, though secular activists […] are also becoming major targets.” Though most of those forcibly disappeared are young men, the BBC’s report into the disappearance of Zubeida Ibrahim, a 23-year-old Egyptian woman, in April 2017 demonstrates that women are not exempt.
Despite the proliferation of forced disappearances against single- and dual-nationality Egyptians, the disappearance of foreign nationals is rare. In 2016, Giulio Regeni, an Italian PhD student at the University of Cambridge, was tortured and murdered in Egypt. Regeni was missing for nine days before his body was found near a highway between Cairo and Alexandria. Experts believed Regeni’s murder bore “all the hallmarks of an extrajudicial killing by the state’s security police”, according to the Guardian. Two years after his murder, in January 2018, an Italian prosecutor concluded Regeni had been killed because of his research into Egypt’s independent labour unions. Egyptian officials continue to deny any involvement in his murder.