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Egypt: feared National Security Agency systematically 'monitoring' activists into silence - new report

Human rights activists and political opponents subjected to repeated summons, coercive questioning, arbitrary detention and torture

Tactic has increased rapidly in past two years, with thousands now affected

‘This new NSA tactic … is destroying lives’ - Philip Luther

Egypt’s feared National Security Agency is increasingly using a well-honed pattern of repeated summons, coercive questioning, arbitrary detention and torture - known informally as “monitoring” - against human rights and political activists to intimidate them into silence, Amnesty International said in a new report today. 

The 28-page report, ‘This will only end when you die’, shows how the agency - which specialises in policing terrorism-related and political cases and has earned a fearsome reputation for repression - has escalated its use of these tactics since 2019. 

Those targeted include human rights defenders, lawyers, journalists, protesters, political activists and actual or perceived members of the Muslim Brotherhood and other opposition groups. 

Though the exact number of people subjected to monitoring is unclear - with the practice carried out without judicial authority and without official record-keeping - some of those who spoke to Amnesty said they saw dozens of people under monitoring while they were at National Security Agency locations, suggesting the process has been affecting hundreds - if not thousands - of people. 

Amnesty’s report shows in detail how the National Security Agency used punitive monitoring measures to control the lives of 19 men and seven women between 2020 and 2021. Agency officers interrogated those they summoned about their human rights or political views and their activities. In most of the cases documented by Amnesty, officers threatened those summoned with imprisonment, torture and other physical harm against them and their families if they refused to disclose information. People under interrogation were not allowed a lawyer, and their phones and social media accounts were examined without official authorisation. 

One human rights defender, who was summoned to the agency in 2020, told Amnesty: 

“[The agency officer] asked me about the work of the organisation, the director, funding and what I do … he said, ‘If I find that you are lying to me, you will never see the sun again’.”

Police instructed those they targeted - all of whom had already previously been detained previously - to regularly report to National Security Agency offices in police stations or separate agency premises, where they often remained deprived of their liberty for days without legal grounds or legal oversight. These extrajudicial police probation measures amount to arbitrary deprivation of liberty. In many cases those detained were tortured. 

Philip Luther, Amnesty International’s Middle East and North Africa Director, said:

“This new NSA tactic of persistent intimidation and harassment of activists, lawyers and NGO workers is one that is destroying lives. 

“This is yet another example of how NSA officers abuse their powers, brazenly denying freedoms and basic human rights.

“Egypt’s President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi and minister of interior must end this extrajudicial harassment of human rights defenders and activists.”

Living in fear

Victims of “monitoring” found there are no legal avenues available to challenge the measures, report abuses or seek justice. They felt unable to lodge complaints before prosecutors or to publicly denounce their experience for fear of retaliation. Amnesty has previously documented the systematic failure of prosecutors to investigate allegations of torture and enforced disappearances by the National Security Agency.

Most of those featured in the report described how living in constant fear of being detained left them extremely anxious and depressed, severely disrupting their ability to lead a normal life. Many are now too scared to participate in political activities and some have been driven into exile. The measures taken against these activists constitute a violation of international law and standards, as well as the Egyptian constitution and Code of Criminal Procedures. Amnesty is calling on Egypt’s public prosecutor to open thorough and independent investigations into the National Security Agency’s abusive practices. 

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‘This will only end when you die’