A LAWYER who investigates the cases of missing people in Egypt has disappeared. Ibrahim Metwally Hegazy, who was investigating the abduction and murder of an Italian Cambridge PhD student, vanished on his way to an international conference.

Hegazy went missing from Cairo airport on Sunday as he was about to fly to Geneva to speak at a UN meeting about Italian Giulio Regeni and other cases.

It is thought that he is being held at the high security Torah prison in Cairo charged with setting up an illegal group.

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His co-founder of the Association of the Families of the Disappeared, Hanan Badr el-Din Othman, has been in “preventative detention” since May after going to a prison to seek information about her missing husband.

Around 1300 cases have been recorded by the Association in the last two years. Most of the people they have tried to find have later appeared in court charged with terrorism offences.

Metwally’s disappearance and possible detention has caused widespread concern.

Italian MEP Pier Antonio Panzeri, chair of the European Parliament’s committee on human rights, said: “It is unacceptable that a prominent lawyer should vanish at an airport. I urge the Egyptian authorities to ensure the immediate and unconditional release of Metwally, a lawyer who is dedicating his life to denouncing this growing practice by Egyptian security forces of forced disappearances.”

WHY ARE SO MANY MISSING?

Human rights groups are also calling for Metwally’s release. One said his disappearance was part of the Egyptian Government’s moves to crush dissent.

“The government’s strategy at the moment is to lock down Egypt and isolate it from the rest of the world, ensuring only the voice of the government comes out,” Mohamed Lotfy said.

A new law brought in by President Abdul Fattah al-Sisi in May prohibits non-governmental organisations from activities that “harm national security, public order, public morality or public health”.

Those found guilty of breaking the law face up to five years in jail and hefty fines.

The new ruling has been condemned by human rights groups and the Egyptian Government has also faced international criticism for refusing to address claims that security services were involved in the death of Regeni. Officials have admitted that the 28-year-old, who was researching trade unions, was being monitored. He vanished in January last year and his body, which showed signs of extreme torture, was found a week later by the side of a Cairo road.

The authorities at first claimed he had been murdered by a criminal gang but his death remains unsolved and Italian officials have complained about the lack of co-operation from the Egyptian authorities.

WHAT LIES BEHIND THE DISAPPEARANCES?

In a recent report Amnesty International claimed Egypt’s National Security Agency (NSA) is abducting, torturing and forcibly disappearing people in an effort to intimidate opponents and wipe out peaceful dissent,

The charity says hundreds of students, political activists and protesters, including children as young as 14, vanish without trace at the hands of the state.

On average three to four people per day are seized according to local NGOs, usually when heavily armed security forces led by NSA officers storm their homes. Many are held for months at a time and often kept blindfolded and handcuffed for the entire period, according to Amnesty.

“This report reveals the shocking and ruthless tactics that the Egyptian authorities are prepared to employ in their efforts to terrify protesters and dissidents into silence,” said Philip Luther of Amnesty International.

“Enforced disappearance has become a key instrument of state policy in Egypt. Anyone who dares to speak out is at risk, with counter-terrorism being used as an excuse to abduct, interrogate and torture people who challenge the authorities.

“The Egyptian authorities have repeatedly denied that enforced disappearances exist in the country, but the cases featured in this report provide strong evidence to the contrary.

The report exposes not only the brutality faced by those disappeared but also the collusion between national security forces and judicial authorities, who have been prepared to lie to cover their tracks or failed to investigate torture allegations, making them complicit in serious human rights violations.”

WHAT HAPPENS TO THE MISSING?

The report includes harrowing accounts of the torture of victims during interrogation sessions lasting up to seven hours. In some cases, those tortured were children.

One of the most horrific examples in the report is that of Mazen Mohamed Abdallah, who was subjected to enforced disappearance at the age of 14 in September 2015 and suffered horrendous abuse including being repeatedly raped with a wooden stick in order to extract a false confession.

As well as increasing the risk of torture and other ill-treatment and depriving the victim of the protection of the law, enforced disappearances also have a devastating impact on the families of victims who are left wondering about the fate of their loved ones.

“All I wanted to know was whether my son was dead or alive,” said Abd el-Moez Mohamed, whose 22-year-old son Karim, an engineering student, was forcibly disappeared for four months after NSA agents accompanied by heavily armed forces seized him from his home in Cairo in August 2015.

CAN NOTHING BE DONE?

Amnesty has called on the Egyptian President to order all state security agencies to stop enforced disappearances, torture and other forms of ill-treatment and make clear that anyone who orders, commits or is complicit in such violations will be brought to justice.

The charity has also urged Western governments to put pressure on Egypt to stop the disappearances.

“Egypt is regarded by many Western powers as a key counter-terrorism partner in the region and many states have used this justification to supply Egypt with arms and related equipment despite evidence of its use to commit serious human rights violations,” pointed out Luther. ‘‘Many continue to maintain close diplomatic, trade and other ties with the country without prioritising human rights.

“All states, particularly EU member states and the USA, must use their influence to pressure Egypt to end these appalling violations, which are being committed under the false pretext of security.

“Instead of continuing to blindly supply security and police equipment to Egypt they should cease all transfers of arms and equipment that have been used to commit serious human rights violations in Egypt until effective safeguards against misuse are established, thorough and independent investigations are conducted and those responsible are brought to justice.”