Egyptian Vice President Omar Suleiman has won the blessing of both the Mubarak and Obama administrations as the leader of a political transition toward democracy in Egypt. However, human rights advocates say that so far Suleiman, who also is in charge of Egyptian intelligence, has shown no sign of discontinuing the practice of extra-legal detention of political opponents — a hallmark of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak’s nearly 30-year rule that is a central grievance of the protesters in the streets.
“We have been seriously concerned about the arrests and harassment of human rights workers and youth activists who are around the demonstrations,” said Heba Morayef, a researcher with Human Rights Watch in Cairo. “These are exactly the same practices that inspired the Jan. 25 demonstrations in the first place, not a departure.”
The continuing pattern is one reason many of the opposition leaders and protesters in the streets say they are determined not to back down until Mubarak leaves office: if he stays, they say, they risk imprisonment, torture and death.
The most notable example is the long disappearance of Wael Ghonim, a Google executive and leader of the young Internet activists who started the revolt.
Believed by many to be the anonymous host of the Facebook page that first called for the Jan. 25 protest that kicked off the Egyptian uprising, he wrote that day on his Twitter account, “We got brutally beaten up by police people,” and later, “Sleeping on the streets of Cairo, trying to feel the pain of millions of my fellow Egyptians.”
“Very worried as it seems that government is planning a war crime tomorrow against people,” he wrote two days later. “We are all ready to die.”
He disappeared soon after, and after a thorough search of area hospitals his family and human rights workers have concluded that he was taken by Egyptian security forces.
The pattern was most evident on Thursday, when the authorities rounded up scores of journalists and human rights workers all around Cairo. Though most foreigners appear to have been released, many Egyptians are still out of sight or in custody.
Around 8:45pm on Thursday, for example, a group of about 10 young online political organizers — part of the group that started the revolt with an online call to protest — sat down for dinner at a Cairo coffee shop after a meeting at the home of Mohamed ElBaradei, a Nobel-Prize-winning diplomat who has become a spokesman for the democracy movement.
One of the young organizers, Ahmed Eid, was talking on his cellphone when he saw an army officer and a police officer approaching his friends’ table.
“I thought at first that it was just to check their IDs,” he later wrote in a group e-mail to human rights workers. “When I found that it is taking longer than usual and that they had 3 plain-clothed men with them, I felt that they were going to be arrested. I decided to stand afar and follow up with them over the phone.”
After one of their wives confirmed that the group had been arrested, a human rights lawyer went to the Haram police station to inquire about their defense. He, too, was arrested. On Saturday night, a human rights worker said they had been released, but there were no details given.
The government has also detained without charges and subsequently released dozens of foreign journalists, holding many overnight.
Officials of the Muslim Brotherhood say security forces recently raided the office of its Web site, and over the weekend they reportedly raided a Cairo office of the pan-Arab news network al-Jazeera as well.
In another notable raid, a group of men with clubs accompanied by a handful of soldiers stormed the Hisham Mubarak Legal Center, breaking windows, rifling desks and confiscating two safes, a person present said. Screaming and yelling at the roughly 35 human rights workers and civil rights lawyers present, the men forced them to the ground and handcuffed their hands behind their backs.
“This is the real Egypt! This is the real Egypt!” one of them said, pointing to the rights workers prone on the floor, recalled Dan Williams, a researcher with Human Rights Watch who was among those captured.
He said the man seemed to be saying: “The real Egypt is, we can do whatever we want with Egyptians. We come in, we manacle you, and you sit down and you do what we say.”
Unlike the online political organizers who started the revolt, however, the 35 or so human rights workers and legal advocates were released the following morning, after the potential for another violent crackdown appeared to have passed.
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