Twenty-four-year old Ayatollah Ashraf was arrested from her home in the Qalyubiyah governorate of Egyptian capital Cairo on 3 October 2018. Egyptian security forces broke into the family’s home while Ashraf was sleeping, dragging her from her bed and leaving no time for her to change into outdoor clothes. When Ashraf’s sister tried to tell them to wait while she changed, they hit her in the face. Though the security forces told the family they only needed to ask Ashraf a number of questions and she would then be sent back home, four months later she remains missing.
Ashraf’s mother, Ibtihal Mohammed, believes her daughter has been forcibly disappeared, a fate shared by hundreds of political prisoners in Egypt. Speaking to MEMO, Ibtihal describes her daughter an “an ambitious girl who loves her country”, but as someone who “wishes to live in a country which respects freedom of speech and human rights”. Ashraf had studied media and journalism but was working in a textile company prior to her arrest – “she dreamed for Egypt to be developed,” Ibtihal remembers.
Like so many political prisoners, Ashraf is being detained on trumped-up charges of “spreading fake news” and “incitement to demonstrate”. For a long time her whereabouts were unknown, leaving her family searching frantically for any leads that could help them locate her. “We searched for her and sent dozens of messages to the [Egyptian] Attorney General, the Human Rights Council, the Minister of Interior, the Deputy Minister of Interior for Human Rights, the Director of Security of Qalyubiyah and the Presidency, but no one answered us,” Ibtihal explains.
It wasn’t until last week, on 27 January, that Ibtihal received any information about her daughter’s fate. The family’s lawyer, Mustafa Aldemiri, got in contact to say that Ashraf had been seen at the State Security Prosecution and was being held at Qanatir police station, in a northern suburb of Cairo. “We went to the prison after the lawyer told us we had been granted an exceptional visit,” Ibtihal recalls, “but when we got there we were prevented from seeing her”. She added:
Police officers treat political detainees and their families like dirt; they don’t even recognise us as humans.
Ashraf’s fate is not uncommon. According to Human Rights Watch (HRW) – citing the Egyptian “Stop Enforced Disappearance” campaign – “Egyptian authorities disappeared at least 230 people from August 2017 to August 2018, and the practice increasingly targeted journalists and rights activists in recent months.” In a 2016 report, Amnesty International stated that “enforced disappearance has become a key instrument of state policy in Egypt. Anyone who dares to speak out is at risk,” adding that though the Egyptian authorities have repeatedly denied that enforced disappearances take place in the country, “the cases featured in [the] report provide strong evidence to the contrary”.
Ashraf’s mother also worries that her daughter will be mistreated in prison. “Aya was severely sick when they arrested her; she suffers from rheumatic disease and takes special medication for it,” she explains. Ibtihal’s worries are not unfounded, as reports of deaths as a result of medical negligence in Egyptian prisons are commonplace. In January, reports emerged that seven Egyptian prisoners had died from medical negligence that month alone, while high-profile political prisoners like deposed President Mohamed Morsi – Egypt’s first democratically elected president who was ousted by a military coup led by the incumbent leader Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi in 2013 – have also been repeatedly denied access to the medication they need.
“I don’t feel safe in Egypt anymore,” Ibtihal admits to MEMO: “It doesn’t make a difference who you are; the arrest of women and girls has become more frequent, just as it has with men.” She explains: “Many of the detained women’s families prefer to hide their cases and don’t publicise it for fear of any harm that might come to them as a result, or for fear that they would be stigmatised by society.”
Ibtihal claime that since Ashraf was detained people have “treated us as if she is a traitor or has committed a crime”. “I’m ready to leave the country with my children as soon as Ayatollah is freed,” she adds.
Asked what she would like the world to know about her daughter’s case, Ibtihal concludes: “I wish the whole world could know what is happening to us as Egyptians under Al-Sisi. Let the world know the true face of Al-Sisi’s regime, which he claims is legitimate and democratic and one which respects the rights of Egyptians. We have no rights in Egypt; we are treated like slaves.”