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  • Justice Delayed: Egypt’s illegal use of pre-trial detention
  • Ruth Michaelson (bio)

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PORT SAID, Egypt—On May 5, 2015, Sarah Hamdy was walking home from university in Damietta, a town that sits on Egypt’s north coast where the Nile meets the Mediterranean. Then, according to her mother Iman el Naggar, the 20-year-old pharmacy student simply vanished.

Iman described her daughter in glowing terms: “She’s one of those high achievers at university, always gets high grades.” But, Iman added, she has one trait that could get her in trouble: “She likes to express her opinion a lot.” [End Page 82]

Sarah, along with other young women and girls in the town, had started rallying a month earlier for the release of those they saw as arbitrarily arrested in Damietta.

Sarah’s family began to fear that the state had apprehended their daughter but didn’t know how to find her. “We saw on Al Jazeera TV that 13 girls had been taken from Damietta, so we were worried about Sarah,” Iman said. “Usually we were in very close contact with her, and knew where she was at all times, so it was scary for a week, as we didn’t know where she was.”

Iman is from the town of Bilbays in Sharqiya, an adjoining governorate that Sarah had left to continue her studies. Iman departed for Damietta the next day and joined a group of mothers frantically searching for their daughters. The women called lawyers, chased leads, and traveled between police stations demanding information.

After a week of looking, the mothers got their answer: Their daughters were an hour away in a Port Said prison—“in an entirely different governorate,” Iman pointed out, furiously. A colleague of Sarah’s connected Iman to a lawyer, who helped her confirm that her daughter was held inside. Iman said she suspects they were taken there because it is the only prison in the area with a women’s facility. Yet her daughter told her during one of her weekly visits that this didn’t stop her from being beaten. Sarah remains in prison along with nine other young women from Damietta, accused of a litany of charges.

If recent history is any indication, the 10 young women could be imprisoned for months or years without ever seeing a judge, taking a toll not only on them but also on their families and communities. Increasingly, Egypt is arresting alleged members of the opposition and holding them in prison indefinitely. In doing so, the government has created a parallel security state outside the normal judicial system. Sarah and hundreds of others are stuck in a place where international conventions and Egypt’s own laws are not being applied and where global organizations have little reach.

“When they were first arrested, they were taken to a location designed for the Central Security Forces,” explained Ahmed al-Bardawil, the lawyer for the women, popularly known as “the Damietta girls.” “It’s normally illegal to hold investigations there as it doesn’t fall under supervision of public prosecution, but sometimes they do investigations there anyway.” Three of those originally taken into custody were later released since they were under 18 at the time of arrest; the remaining 10 are charged with “protesting with the aim of overthrowing the regime,” “disrupting the work of public institutions,” and “belonging to a banned group,” al-Bardawil said. They are also accused of assaulting a policeman while the protest was being dispersed.

Trial sessions have been postponed twice for three months at a time because the girls weren’t present. The state deliberately didn’t bring them to the courthouse for the trial, according to al-Bardawil. “This is done intentionally to keep the case going,” he explained. He said, based on similar cases, they could face a total of three years in prison.

After being swallowed by an opaque judicial system, the main public trace of the Damietta girls is on a Facebook page dedicated to sharing information about their case. The page reads like a grim flipbook: Details of the case of Fatima Turq, who...


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pp. 82-89
Launched on MUSE
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