New York Times investigation Egypt was found to be holding thousands of people in a system of pretrial detention that can be extended indefinitely, extending Egyptian laws that limit such detentions and allowing the government to imprison people without having to prove their cases at trial.
There is no public accounting of how many people are in the system. For the first time, our analysis provides a number of detainees trapped in this system.
From September 2020 to February 2021, at least 4,500 people were held in pretrial detention, where they had been detained for at least five months.
This number is not a complete calculation.
It ignored Egyptians who had been arrested and released five months earlier, requiring court appearances for the first time. It only includes detainees in the Cairo court system, not those charged outside the capital. It does not include prisoners held in police stations or barracks, or others who are simply missing.
We spent the better part of a year digging into the system, reporting on how it was used, the conditions of the prison and how many people were trapped inside.
We found that a group of volunteer defense lawyers had been keeping handwritten records of all cases that passed through Egypt’s Special Terrorism Court. Detainees usually have a hearing in court after five months in custody.
As each case is announced, lawyers record the detainee’s name, case number, and court appearance date. On some days, court officials allow them to take pictures of the case file.
The Egyptian Human Rights Group, the Egyptian Front for Human Rights, has been collecting copies of the lawyer’s notes and making them available to The New York Times.
We focused on a six-month period, which gave us enough data to track the ins and outs of the turnstile system where detainees go to court every 45 days.
Our first task is to try to match the name and case number. It’s not as simple as it sounds.
We transcribed each handwritten name on the list into the database, transliterating them from Arabic to English.
Some handwriting is difficult to read. In other cases, lawyers omitted some of the multiple surnames Egyptians traditionally had, sometimes writing one, sometimes two or three.
Because detainees reappear regularly, we have to make sure that we count the numbers, not the total number of court appearances.
We wrote custom software to match similar names with the same case number on different dates that appeared during pretrial detention. By comparing the pronunciation of each name, we can match individuals, even using different spellings in different hearings. After manually checking each match, we have a set of data that tracks each person’s path through the system.
Our other reports — including interviews with detainee families, experts, defense attorneys, prisoners and ex-prisoners — clearly show gaps in our data.
The family spoke of loved ones who were arrested by security officials and then disappeared, never appearing before prosecutors or a judge. Some former prisoners said they encountered other detainees at police stations or security services offices who had been held for months without an official extension.
None of these people would be on our list.
Even if we had the full number of pretrial detentions, they represented a small fraction of Egypt’s political prisoners, many of whom have been tried and sentenced. Human rights groups and researchers estimate that there are now at least 60,000 political prisoners in Egypt whose only crimes are criticizing the government and those accused of terrorism.
We may never be able to fully count the number of people detained for political reasons in Egypt. But now, a picture that once existed in the shadows has surfaced.