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On 30 August each year, the international community observes the International day of the Victims of Enforced Disappearances, established by the United Nations in December 2010.
Last year, this day represented the chance for the UN Committee on Enforced Disappearances (CED) and the UN Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances (WGEID) to “urge Governments to support relatives of the disappeared by removing all obstacles hindering their search for loved ones, including through the opening of all archives, especially military files.”
Today, reiterating this call to all Arab States, Alkarama presents numerous cases of enforced disappearances that it recently documented, such as in Egypt, where over 1,000 people are believed to have been abducted since the beginning of 2015; in conflict-ridden countries such as Libya, Iraq, Syria and Yemen, where both the government and armed groups use the practice of enforced disappearance as a tool to spread terror within the populations; and in countries thought to be more “progressive”, such as in the United Arab Emirates, where we are currently witnessing a troubling pattern of enforced disappearance practiced by State security actors in the form of prolonged incommunicado detention in secret places.
North Africa: focus on Algeria, Libya and Tunisia
Algeria still carries the marks of the “dark years”; in the 1990s, thousands of people were subject to enforced disappearances, with total impunity and no chance for their families to see those crimes recognised by the Algerian authorities.
One emblematic case is that of the Bourefis family, who, faced with the Algerian authorities’ refusal to shed light on the fate of their relatives, addressed the UN Human Rights Committee (HRCtee) which, in 2014, urged the Algerian government to investigate the cases of Tahar and Bachir Bourefis and insisted on its obligation to prosecute and punish the perpetrators of such abuses as well as to provide adequate compensation to the family, so as to ensure the non-repetition of such violations in the future.
In response, the Algerian authorities took retaliatory measures against the family, summoning them to the Court to question them on the reasons of their appeals to the HRCtee, with the aim to further intimidating them.
In Libya, the practice of enforced disappearances has left the families of the victims in total ignorance about the circumstances of their relatives’ death.
Such is the case of the family of a young air force pilot, who disappeared following his arrest without warrant by internal security agents in 1989, and for whom the family only received a vague death certificate devoid of detail. Enforced disappearance in Libya, however, is not a practice of the past.
To the contrary, and especially due to the prevailing political and security situation, this practice has become systematic. In fact, the army and the militias are responsible for numerous abductions and subsequent enforced disappearance in the country. On 20 October 2014, a young Deputy Prosecutor was abducted in front of the Arab Medical University in the Belaon neighbourhood of Benghazi by the “Battalion 21”, a militia aligned with the Libyan Army.
Unlike in Algeria and Libya where the practice of enforced disappearances is endemic because of the impunity that prevails, in Tunisia this practice is closer to that of incommunicado detention, which becomes systematic for terrorism suspects. Except for one case of disappearance documented by Alkarama in early 2010 that remains unresolved to this day, victims are generally either abducted at night, without an arrest warrant, and secretly detained for several days during which they are subject to torture.
Among such cases are that of a young man accused of terrorist links and that of a 20-year-old woman suspected to have managed two Facebook accounts linked to a terrorist movement, allegations that she firmly denies. Both victims are still detained in horrendous conditions and without having been examined by a doctor despite the fact that the judge was witness to the clear marks of torture on their respective bodies.
Nile Region: focus on Egypt
The Arab country in which the situation is most concerning is Egypt, which has become the scene of a grave escalation of enforced disappearances, to the extent that this practice is now considered widespread and systematic, which amounts to a crime against humanity according to Article 7 of the Rome Statute.
According to Alkarama’s estimations, more than 1,000 individuals have been abducted across the country since the beginning of 2015 and, if some individuals have reappeared since, many remain disappeared to date while others have been arbitrarily killed without any investigations launched into their deaths.
Alkarama has documented numerous cases of enforced disappearances, including that of a 16-year-old child along with six other men, of students and of a former Member of Parliament, illustrating that this practice affects all fringes of the population.
In fact, the Security Forces act in total impunity, and judicial bodies, such as the public prosecution, are not always made aware of the arrests they conduct. Moreover, many individuals who secretly detained inside Security Forces camps or police stations have been subjected to all kind of tortures, such as this young charity worker arrested by the Homeland Security on 22 September 2014 and secretly detained and tortured for 119 days.
Alkarama also documented cases where individuals had only reappeared after confessing under torture to crimes that they could not have committed since they were detained when these crimes occurred, such as the case of six men who were then sentenced to death by a military court before being executed on 17 May 2015.
Mashreq Region: focus on Iraq and Syria
In Iraq and Syria, enforced disappearances are used by both the government and armed groups with the aim of spreading terror within the populations, of silencing any critical voice of their respective governments, or in retaliation against the civilians for acts of war committed by opposing parties.
In Iraq, while the fate of thousands of people missing for years remains unknown to date – especially those handed over to the Iraqi authorities by the U.S. forces during the occupation, such as Wissam Al Hashimi who disappeared in 2005 – further mass arrests and secret detentions have been carried out under the pretext of the “fight against terrorism”.
Such is the case of 12 Iraqi citizens who disappeared on 21 April 2014 following their abduction from their homes in Baghdad during a night raid of the SWAT forces; or the case of two brothers also abducted from their homes by the security forces respectively on 11 August 2014 and 3 May 2015.
Today, their parents fear that they may be held in the secret detention centre of the old Al Muthanna airport in Western Baghdad. Pro-government militias also play a role in thousands of enforced disappearances, with the government authorities guaranteeing their total impunity as the abuses committed are never investigated and hence brought to justice, especially since the creation, in June 2014, of a State-sponsored umbrella organisation. This organisation, composed of about 40 militias and led by former Minister of Transport and commander of the Badr Brigades, Hadi al-Amiri, the “People’s Mobilisation” or “al-Hashd al-Shaabi” militia is strongly supported by the government in the fight against the Islamic State (IS).
In Syria, enforced disappearances have become widespread and systematic since the beginning of the conflict, with most victims being arrested at military checkpoints or during mass arrest campaigns carried out by different branches of State security.
Arrests take place without any judicial warrant and can involve political activists, human rights defenders, members of humanitarian organisations or even ordinary citizens, who are then secretly detained and tortured, such as this 21-year-old student who disappeared on 14 March 2014 following his arrest by the Military Intelligence after he refused to serve in the army.
Although the student was last seen in early February 2015 by a former co-detainee in Damascus’ Military Intelligence Branch 215 notorious for its practice of torture, the authorities keep on refusing to provide any information about his fate.
Several armed groups also use the practice of enforced disappearances in order to further their aims, such as IS, which abducted a Syrian Kurdish activist in November 2013; the al-Nusra Front, which abducted a Syrian Kurd on 23 July 2013 seemingly in retaliation for the capture of this town by the Kurdish forces, just days before; or the Kurdish forces of the People’s Protection Unit (YPG) operating in the north of the country, which abducted a Palestinian father born in Syria, on 27 October 2013.
In both countries the current climate of terror makes it difficult for the families of the victims to denounce the cases of enforced disappearances and, even when they do, they always have to face the absolute denial of the authorities.
Gulf Region: focus on UAE and Yemen
In the United Arab Emirates, we are witnessing a troubling pattern of enforced disappearance practiced by State security actors in the form of prolonged incommunicado detention in secret places. During these months of secret detention, detainees are at serious risk of torture used with the aim of extracting false confessions.
The measure mostly targets political or human rights activists or anyone criticising the Emir or other State authorities in order to punish critics and send a message to activists both Emirati and foreigners. Indeed, it is also becoming increasingly common against citizens of countries with whom the UAE have political disagreements.
Among prominent cases that illustrate this pattern feature two Qatari nationals who were arrested by UAE immigration officials when they entered the country from Saudi Arabia on 27 June 2014 for allegedly criticising the UAE authorities.
The men were detained incommunicado for over than eight months without being allowed to let their families know about their fates. Furthermore, on 2 October 2014, a Turkish academic and businessman was abducted by the security forces at Dubai’s Airport. He was detained incommunicado for 135 days, before being freed without any charges pressed against him.
Another case is that of a Libyan-Canadian businessman who disappeared for 130 days following his arrest by Emirati Security Service officers on 28 August 2014 while he was on vacation with his family in Dubai. During his incommunicado detention, he was severely tortured for 130 days.
He is still detained without trial at Abu Dhabi’s Wathba Prison. The most recent case is that of prominent Emirati economist, academic and advocate for political reforms, Dr. Naser Bin Ghaith who disappeared following his arrest by State security forces on 18 August 2015.
In Yemen, the practice of enforced disappearance became systematic in the early 1970s as a tool used by the security forces of North Yemen against their opponents. On 17 April 2014, 33 years after his arrest and subsequent disappearance, 66-year-old Ahmed Al Masraba, a member of the Arab Socialist Baath Party opposed to the government of North Yemen, was finally allowed to receive a short visit from his son.
Although the officer in charge then promised to release him by transferring him to a psychiatric hospital, Al Masraba is still detained incommunicado. He was arrested in 1981 during the civil war opposing Marxist guerrillas to the government of northern Yemen. This practice continued until 1990, when Yemen was re-unified.
Today, the practice of enforced disappearance is used by all forces fighting in Yemen, from those close to former Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh, to those of President Abd Rabbuh Mansour Hadi, to the Houthi insurgency, Al Qaeda and other armed groups. In particular, Alkarama has documented dozens of cases committed by both State and non State actors such as the Houthis and affiliated forces.
For example, in 2012, when the Houthis controlled the governorate of Saada, the group arrested several students and teachers – including the chairman of the teacher’s syndicate, who refused to accepted the group’s slogans – and used schools as detention centres.
After obtaining control of the capital in 2014, the Houthis abducted a tribal elder, Sheikh Mohamed Abdullah Ghalib, who had been a vocal critic of the expansion of the Houthis in Yemen. He was also taken to an unknown place and is disappeared since.
“Enforced disappearance is one of the most serious human rights violations: placed outside the protection of the law, disappeared persons see all their fundamental rights violated,” says Inès Osman, Coordinator of the Legal Department at Alkarama. “The crime of disappearance also inflicts severe suffering on entire families, who will never be able to turn the page until they learn what happened to their relative.”