A lawyer investigating the murder of an Italian student in Egypt is facing five years in prison after being forcibly disappeared at Cairo airport.
Ebrahim Metwally Hegazy disappeared on Sunday while travelling to a session of the UN working group on enforced or involuntary disappearances in Geneva. He reappeared before prosecutors on Tuesday evening, charged with “managing an illegal group, spreading false news ... [and] cooperating with foreign organisations”.
Metwally represents families of people forcibly disappeared by the Egyptian state – when a person is secretly arrested and held in an unknown location without access to legal services – after his son disappeared in 2013 while working for the Cairo-based NGO the Egyptian Commission for Rights and Freedoms.
ECRF lawyers have acted as the legal counsel of Giulio Regeni’s family in Egypt after the Cambridge University student disappeared on 25 January 2016. His body was found on an outlying Cairo desert road bearing signs of extreme torture.
Mohamed Lotfy, the head of ECRF, said: “Ebrahim had intended to speak [at the conference] about his son and deaths in custody following disappearance. He was going to speak about the Regeni case as the iconic example of this.”
Metwally’s arrest comes days before Giampaolo Cantini is due to assume the post of Italian ambassador to Egypt in Cairo. Italy recalled its former ambassador Maurizio Massari in April 2016 due to Egyptian intransigence regarding the investigation into Regeni’s murder.
The return of the ambassador is seen as a boon for Egyptian-Italian relations, but the motivation behind Regeni’s brutal murder, and the culprit or culprits, remain a mystery.
Five Egyptian men gunned down by security forces in March 2016 after they were initially alleged to have kidnapped and murdered Regeni were later revealed to be innocent.
“Ibrahim coordinates with families of those disappeared, defends them and attends investigations,” Lotfy said. “He’s an important source of information, not just for campaigns, but also when we advise the Regeni family. He provides case examples.”
Metwally is the third person to be arrested this year after working on cases of enforced disappearances, and his detention comes less than a week after ECRF’s website was blocked in Egypt.
This was swiftly followed by the blocking of Human Rights Watch’s website after it published a report documenting widespread torture by Egyptian police and the national security agency.
The HRW report detailed torture methods used by Egyptian security forces, including physical abuse, electric shocks and beatings with metal bars. It also focused on the relationship between arbitrary arrest, enforced disappearances, torture and fabricated cases against detainees.
Egypt’s government and local press have expressed outrage over the report, with the Egyptian parliament’s human rights committee saying it is “mired in fallacies and contradictions, attributed to unknown sources and fake names”.
Lotfy said the waning international pressure over the Regeni case is allowing Cairo to step up its persecution of rights activists.
“I think the government feels it has got away with the Regeni investigation, and now they have some breathing room after months of being under pressure,” he said.
“The strongest leverage we had against the government was Giulio’s case. It was a headache for the Egyptian government. As soon as it appears to have stopped, they immediately go after those working on enforced disappearances.”