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I want to go back to my cell, says released child detainee in Egypt

Released child detainee ,Al-Baraa, before (L) and after (R) detention
Released child detainee ,Al-Baraa, before (L) and after (R) detention

On 20 February 2021 Manar Abouelnaga and her son appeared in front of Egypt's state security prosecution two years after their forcible disappearance. Al-Baraa was just three-years-old.

The house Manar, her husband Omar and their son shared in the northern city of Alexandria had been raided two years ago. They were kidnapped by men in plain clothes and kept incommunicado ever since.

Manar studied Maths at the University of Tanta and graduated with first class honours, going on to secure a job in the same department despite being told she would struggle to find work because she wore a niqab. Her family nicknamed her the "the lawyer" because she always stood with the weak and oppressed.

After two years of appeals and a desperate search for information, news finally arrived. A lawyer who was present at Manar's hearing told her brother, Mohammed Abouelnaga, that she had been present at a court hearing on Saturday and that until now she had been in the custody of National Security in Alexandria.

"We heard news that she had appeared, that she will be detained for a further 15 days, that the case had been fabricated and that Al-Baraa would be coming home to our family all in the same moment," Mohammed told MEMO.

At the same time, National Security went to my house to ask about my father and tried to arrest him, but he had died a year ago.

"We were in a state of shock, astonishment, joy, sadness and anxiety. We thought Manar was dead."

When Manar heard that she and her son would be separated she became distraught and told the judges that she could not live without him. It made no difference – a police van took her to Al-Qanater women's prison, and her mother went to collect her grandson. Al-Baraa didn't want to go with her and authorities wouldn't let her see Manar.

Their mother was struck by how comfortable Al-Baraa was around the officers and guards in the prison, how he played and joked with them, and how this contrasted with the visible stress he underwent outside in the real world with real people.

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"We don't know what the cell they were detained in looked like," says Mohammed. "But Al-Baraa's condition suggests it was not ok. It seemed he had never been given a bath and his hair was tangled and dirty. Psychologically, he was not in a good state."

Al-Baraa often asks if he can go back to his cell and is struggling to adapt to society and is awkward around the family. "We don't know whether to be happy or sad about Al-Baraa coming home to us," says Mohammed. "He has left his mother and he is terrified."

Whilst we may never find out exactly what happened to Al-Baraa during his two years in prison, experts have previously told MEMO that the psychological toll on child detainees is huge both in the short-term and the long-term because the isolation, insecurity and humiliation they face inside haunts them for decades, often in the form of depression and suicidal thoughts.

On top of this, it is also a well-known fact that arrests in Egypt are always accompanied with violations and that prisoners suffer abusive treatment whilst inside. Children are not spared from this.

There are several pieces of legislation, including the Child Law and the Convention on the Right of the Child, which are designed to protect children like Al-Baraa, but Egypt has consistently shown that it considers itself as above the law.

The lawyer representing Manar's case told Mohammed that state security fabricated two documents that "proved" she belonged to a banned group. "She denied the accusations," Mohammed says. "She said she never wrote those documents and that it's not in her handwriting."

"The authorities told Manar that the law stipulates the child must be taken away. I do not know where the law was when she was kidnapped and forcibly disappeared for two years," he adds.

At the hearing, security forces told Manar to sign a document saying that she was arrested two days ago, not two years ago, and threatened her with permanent disappearance if she did not. Mohammed says he has evidence of the court ruling proving this is not true.

READ: Egypt's sex attacks on women are revenge for the 2011 revolution

Manar's disappearance has cast a long shadow over the family. Just before Manar and Mohammed's father passed away a year ago he said that his last wish was to see his daughter before he died. When he heard about her disappearance his health deteriorated and his body started rejecting chemotherapy he was receiving for cancer.

Until now Manar does not know about her father's death and her mother is drowning under a huge wave of grief, having lost both her husband and her daughter. There is still no news of Manar's husband Omar and his whereabouts remain unknown.

Al-Baraa's case is rare because usually children are handed over to their grandmother when their mother is arrested. But he is not the only one to share a prison cell with his mother. Aya Hijazi, who runs Belady, a charity which advocates for child political prisoners, told MEMO that there are two other women, Mai and Maryam, who were also disappeared with their children.

Maryam Radwan was handed over to Egypt by Libyan renegade General Khalifa Haftar's forces on 21 October 2018 with her three children, six-month-old Omar, two-year-old Aisha and four-year-old Fatima.

Mai Mohamed Abdel Sattar was arrested from her home in Cairo on 1 November 2019 along with her husband and son, when he was not even three months old. Mai's relatives issued telegrams and reports demanding to know their whereabouts and eventually the National Security Forces ruled that their place of detention should be disclosed but it never was.

Whilst Mai has since reappeared, Maryam is yet to be found. "We call on the state to regard women and children with humanity," says Aya, "and reunite them with their families."

NOTE: This article was edited at 9 am on 24 February 2021 to include the name of Manar's brother.

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