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How We Counted Egypt’s Invisible Detainees

An investigation by the New York Times concluded that Egypt is holding thousands of people in a system of pretrial detention that can be extended indefinitely, expanding Egyptian laws that limit such detention and allowing the government to imprison people without having to prove its case at trial.

There is no general accounting for the number of people in this system. Our analysis put a number on detainees trapped in this system for the first time.

From September 2020 to February 2021, at least 4,500 people were in pretrial detention who had been there for at least five months.

This number is not a complete account.

It excludes Egyptians who were arrested and released before the passage of five months, the first time that a court appearance is required. It only includes detainees in the Cairo court system, not those who have been tried outside the capital. It does not include prisoners held in police stations, camps, or others who have simply disappeared.

We spent the greater part of the year researching the system to report on how it was used, prison conditions, and the number of people trapped inside.

We found that a group of volunteer defense attorneys were keeping handwritten records of all cases going through Egypt’s special terrorism courts. Detainees usually have a court hearing after five months in detention.

As each case was announced, lawyers recorded the names of the detainees, their case numbers, and the dates of their court appearances. On some days, court officials allowed them to photograph magazines.

An Egyptian rights group, the Egyptian Front for Human Rights, was collecting copies of the lawyers’ memos and delivering them to the Times.

We focused on a six-month period, which gave us enough data to track the entrances and exits of the turnstile system in which detainees appear in court every 45 days.

Our first task was to try to match names and case numbers. It wasn’t as straightforward as it seemed.

We copied every handwritten name in the lists to a database, and translated them from Arabic to English.

Some of the handwriting was hard to spot. In other cases, lawyers omitted some of the multiple family names traditionally carried by Egyptians, writing one family name on some days, or two or three on other days.

Since detainees periodically reappear in court, we had to make sure we were counting the number of people, not the total number of court appearances.

We wrote custom programs that match similar names to the same case number across different dates that appeared in remand. By comparing the phonemic sound of each name, we can match individuals even when alternate spellings are used for different listening sessions. After manually checking each match, we had a set of data that could track each person’s path through the system.

Our other reporting—including interviews with families of detainees, experts, defense attorneys, prisoners, and ex-prisoners—made clear that there would be gaps in our data.

The families spoke of their loved ones who had been arrested by security officials and then disappeared, and did not appear before prosecutors or judges. Some former prisoners said they met other detainees in police stations or security services offices who were held for months without formally extending their detention.

None of these people will be on our list.

Even if we had the full number of pretrial detainees, they represented only a tiny fraction of Egypt’s political prisoners, many of whom have been tried and convicted. Rights groups and researchers estimate that Egypt currently holds at least 60,000 political prisoners, people whose only crime has been criticizing the government and those accused of terrorist activity.

We may not have a full estimate of the number of people detained for political reasons in Egypt. But now part of the image that was in the shadows appeared.

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