North Africa, West Asia: Feature

Egyptian student of gender and religion jailed for terrorism on visit home

Crackdown on freedoms is intensifying with the arrest of Ahmed Samir Santawy – the latest student to be locked up on obscure charges

Walid el Houri
23 February 2021, 12.00am
Ahmed Samir Santawy
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Courtesy of Souheila Yildiz

“He was a bit worried about going to Egypt because of what happened to other Egyptian students studying abroad,” says Souheila Yildiz.

Her fiancé, Ahmed Samir Santawy, had been studying for a masters degree at the Central European University in Vienna, focusing on gender and religion. Like many international students, he hadn’t seen his family for a long time. And so, in December, he flew home. And, with the campus shut down and courses online, he stayed there for the winter term.

She was supposed to visit him there, but because of COVID-19, kept postponing the trip. Finally she managed to book a ticket for 1 February, but it was already too late.

"I never could have imagined that one of the last sweet chats with him would be while I was shopping at the duty free almost arriving to Egypt," Souheila said.

"We planned to go together to Siwa in the desert, away from the crowded city and get a nice tan".

On 23 January, seven masked and armed policemen raided his family’s home, searching the house and their phones. But Ahmed was not there, said Hussein Baoumi, a researcher for Amnesty International working with Ahmed’s legal team.

"Ahmed video-called me as usual telling me that the security [service] came to their house and requested that he go to the police station. I was in shock but he said it so calmly," Souheila recalls.

Without giving a warrant or an explanation, the police told Ahmed’s family that he should present himself to the National Security Agency.

“He decided to wait till the uproar about the anniversary of the revolution was over and then go to the police station on 30 January,” says Souheila. That day, "they sent him back and asked him to come on 1 February at 12pm because the major who wanted him wasn't there".

Ahmed entered the police station building before I could see him, and never came out

Souheila Yildiz

When the young student walked into the agency’s office in New Cairo on 1 February he was arrested, said Baoumi. For five days, the authorities refused to tell his family or his lawyers where he was.

"I wanted him to wait until I arrived [in] Cairo, but that wasn't possible...he kept telling me to just stay with his family, that it's just going to take a couple of hours and he will be back," Souheila remembers.

His father kept going to the police station asking about his son, but the only answer he received was: "we don't have him here," Souheila explained. "Ahmed entered the police station building before I could see him, and never came out."

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Ahmed Samir Santawy with his fiancee, Souheila Yildiz | Courtesy of Souheila Yildiz

“Ahmed is currently arbitrarily detained [as defined by] international law,” Baoumi insisted.

According to the Egyptian authorities, he is being investigated for membership of “a terrorist group" and "using a social media account to spread false news".

"Ahmed is not a politician nor a human rights activist, this makes us wonder about a pattern of crackdown on academic researchers who study abroad," said Souheila.

His research focuses on women’s rights in Islam, and particularly reproductive rights.

‘A writer and storyteller’

Ahmed is “a soft, generous and simple person, full of roses on the inside”, Souheila said.

“Ahmed is a simple person, who lives day by day and does not look much into the future.

“I have never met a person who does not bear hatred or grudges towards people like him.”

The couple met in an Arabic language and literature class at Ain Shams university in Cairo. “We developed a sweet friendship and by winter 2017 we [had] got engaged,” Souheila said.

“He is a writer and storyteller. My best moments with him were when he would tell me beautiful improvised stories before bed.

“He loves food and jokes a lot. When you meet him, you immediately love him for his lightness and silly jokes.

“He is generous both with his money and feelings. Even when he is broke he would still share what little he had with his friends.”

Souheila, a skilful artist, studied Islamic thought and philosophy at Ghent university in Belgium. “We visited each other back and forth between Ghent and Vienna at least every two weeks,” she says.

Interrogation and court hearings

When Ahmed finally appeared before a prosecution panel on 6 February, he said he had been repeatedly hit in the face and accused of membership of “a terrorist organisation”, though it’s not clear to the defence team which organisation the authorities mean.

Ahmed was interrogated by the SSSP, prosecutors dedicated to cases relating to state security. After questioning him, they ordered his detention pending investigations for 15 days.

The Egyptian authorities have redefined terrorism to include any form of dissent or criticism

Hussein Baoumi

On 17 February, his lawyers learned that his imprisonment had been extended for another 15 days. Neither they nor Ahmed had been at the hearing. This, Baoumi says, could well be just the start of a long and bureaucratic process in a system that’s designed to trap people.

Ahmed, he says, could face months or years of detention without trial. Prosecutors will “decide whether to release or continue to detain Ahmed... in 15-day intervals for a total of 150 days. After that a terrorism circuit judge will decide on whether to detain or release him,” says Baoumi.

But the SSSP prosecutors “almost never release anyone during detention renewal hearings, while terrorism circuit judges released only 3.2% of defendants in 2020”.

“However, it does not have to be that way,” said Baoumi. “The public prosecutor and the SSSP can order Ahmed's release at any time.”

Even if the prosecutors or judges order the release of a defendant, the security forces often ‘disappear’ them, or open a new case against them on similar charges, meaning the whole process starts again, said Baoumi.

In violation of due process, the accusations against Ahmed rely on secret investigations, and neither he nor his lawyers were allowed to examine the file against him. “The prosecutor did not even identify the name of the alleged terrorist group that he is a member of,” Baoumi said.

According to Baoumi, the violations of Ahmed’s rights under Egyptian law include failure to notify him of the charges he is facing, subjecting him to enforced disappearance, and beating him. Additionally, the prosecutors failed to investigate these incidents.

Common tactics

“The Egyptian authorities have redefined terrorism to include any form of dissent or criticism, effectively turning Egypt into an open-air prison,” said Baoumi, who is familiar with SSSP cases through his work with Amnesty as an Egypt and Libya researcher. He has been documenting dozens of cases of arbitrary detention and other human rights violations in Egypt for years.

Western governments need to stop letting their firms sell to the Egyptian regime the weapons it uses to repress its people

Hussein Baoumi

Human Rights Watch, too, has said that the Egyptian regime is increasingly using accusations like those Ahmed faces to silence critics. In 2018, the watchdog published a list of activists and journalists prosecuted under terrorism charges since 2015, when a new counterterrorism law was issued.

Last year, Patrick George Zaki, a gender researcher from the University of Bologna, was also detained and remains in prison. A source from the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights, where Zaki worked, told Human Rights Watch: “The National Security Agency held Zaki incommunicado for roughly 24 hours and subjected him to torture, including with electric shocks.”

"This is a case for all students, all researchers and academics, not the case of Ahmed as an individual," Souheila explained.

"It is the cause of freedom, freedom to research and write one's opinion, and we are all going to defend that," she added.

Earlier this year, Italian prosecutors formally requested the trial of four Egyptian security officers for the killing of an Italian PhD candidate at the University of Cambridge, Giulio Regeni, five years ago in Cairo. In December last year, Italian prosecutors announced their plans to charge four officers with “aggravated kidnapping” and one with “conspiracy to commit aggravated murder”.

The regime uses charges like Ahmed’s against “thousands of real and perceived political opponents and critics to detain them for months or years without trial on the basis of secret police investigations”, Baoumi explained.

“Security forces routinely arrest human rights defenders, journalists, researchers, lawyers, protestors, activists, politicians, family members of dissidents living abroad or even individuals suspected of being from those categories.

“They are then detained over these charges for months or years without ever moving to trial.”

Prisoner of conscience

“In reality, Ahmed is a prisoner of conscience, detained solely because of his academic interests and research focusing on gender and religion,” says Baoumi.

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Ahmed Samir Santawy | Courtesy of Souheila Yildiz

In fact, since he started studying at the Central European University in September 2019, he has been questioned by Egyptian security every time he has visited Cairo. Their questions would focus on the reasons for his trips abroad and the nature of his studies. On his last trip in December 2020, Ahmed was questioned at the airport.

When he first appeared in front of the SSSP prosecutor, Santawy was asked about his studies and academic background, including his research findings in relation to Islam and abortion, Baoumi said.

Souheila told us how much Ahmed loves knowledge: “He always has a book with him, in his small bag that he carries on his shoulder everywhere.”

Condemnations

Concern for Ahmed is growing.

Amnesty International raised concerns about him due to “COVID-19 outbreaks in Egypt’s overcrowded and unhygienic prisons.” Michael Ignatieff, the rector of Central European University, has called on European authorities to raise his case with the Egyptian government, saying that his university had already brought the case to the attention of UN and EU human rights bodies.

“We encourage universities... in Austria, Europe and around the world, as well as students' associations everywhere to join us in calling for Ahmed’s immediate release,” Ignatieff added.

Baoumi said that the Egyptian legal system is unlikely to offer Ahmed justice without outside intervention: “The reality of the situation is that it is an extremely arbitrary system.”

“Ahmed will be released,” he said, “when the Egyptian authorities realise that the international community refuses the unfounded allegations against him and will not accept doing business as usual as long as Egypt continues to arbitrarily imprison peaceful researchers like him.”

In November 2020, when three Egyptian human rights advocates were arrested, pressure from European and North American governments succeeded in securing their release.

For Baoumi, it’s time for the UN to start monitoring the situation. He said that Western governments need to stop letting their firms sell to the Egyptian regime the weapons it uses to repress its people.

“The international community must stand up for Ahmed,” said Baoumi. “It is vital that Austria, where he was living, publicly call on the Egyptian authorities to release him.

“It is important to see media coverage of Ahmed's situation globally and to see more mobilisation around his case.

“The international community must come together to ensure that Egypt's human rights violations are not ignored.”

And Souheila agrees. "We ask you all to stand up and spread the cause as wide as possible," she said.

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