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College Students in Egypt Keep Getting Arrested, Disappeared, and Killed

Hundreds of university students in Egypt have been targeted in the midst of the government's two-year crackdown on political dissent.
Photo by Hazem Abdul Hamid/Almasry Alyoum/EPA

On May 19, a man later alleged to be a state security officer walked into a classroom at Cairo's Ain Shams University while students were taking a test. Accompanied by someone who claimed to be a school staff member, the officer approached the desk of a 23-year-old student named Islam Ateeto and asked Ateeto to meet with him after finishing his exam. Ateeto agreed.

According to witnesses, the officer and another man were waiting outside the room when Ateeto emerged, at which point they asked him to make a photocopy of his national ID. Soon two or three men began chasing Ateeto down a hallway and outside. Eventually, witnesses say, he was pulled into a Daewoo car, which then drove off.


The following day, the Ministry of Interior issued a statement that Ateeto's body had been found in a Cairo suburb about 18 miles away from the university. He had died, the ministry said, during a shootout with police. A statement from the university said that claims about "the student being taken from the examination room with members from the Interior Ministry" were untrue.

Related: Egyptian Police Lieutenant Sentenced to 15 Years for Shooting Peaceful Protester

As Ateeto's friends filed out of his funeral two days later, police were there to arrest them. Most were released the same day after being questioned. The university reacted by banning prayers and closing its gates to any student not taking a test. (No explanation was given, though some students suspected it was to prevent protests.) Two days ago, Amr Khattab, one of a group of students working to find out the truth about Ateeto's death, was arrested in front of his home.

That group of students — along with some of Ateeto's friends and professors — asked to see the university's CCTV footage from the day of Ateeto's death, but only one student was able to watch it before it was turned in as evidence. He told local media that he saw Ateeto walking in the direction of the engineering department while making a phone call; two men appeared to be following him. A professor also submitted a copy of Ateeto's test to the public prosecutor in order to prove Ateeto was in class at the time that police contend he was several miles away.


The case is still being investigated.

Ateeto's case garnered nationwide attention and aroused popular anger, but it's not unique. In the last two years, hundreds of students have been arrested by state security forces, mostly related to their alleged membership in the Muslim Brotherhood. During the past month alone, a heightened crackdown has resulted in the arrests or disappearances of dozens of students.

Shortly before President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi took office a year ago, security forces increased their already heavy policing of universities as part of their fight against political dissent. According to the Association for Freedom of Thought and Expression (AFTE), an Egyptian NGO, 714 students were arrested during the 2014/2015 academic year. Most were arrested at their homes; others were taken from campuses, dorms, and security checkpoints.

AFTE reports provided to VICE News indicate that only 11 of those students have been acquitted of charges. Another 89 have been released pending investigations. And 15 have disappeared.

(Students are not the only ones disappearing. A prisoners' rights group recently documented the forced disappearance of 163 people in Egypt between April 2014 and June 2015. Sixty-four of those people eventually resurfaced; 66 remained missing, and 31 cases weren't followed up on. Two people have been found dead.)

"Security [forces] use two tools," said Mokhtar Mounir, a lawyer with AFTE. "They can disperse university protests and make arrests. Or they can target students, investigate them, and then arrest them… for their part in the student activist movement."


Ateeto was active in school politics, his friends and brother told VICE News.

"Islam opposed injustice in all its forms, but peacefully," said his brother, who wished to withhold his name. "He never used a weapon, nor did he have blood on his hands."

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The VICE News documentary 'Egypt Under Sisi'

The Ministry called Ateeto a "Muslim Brotherhood terrorist" and accused him of killing State Security Colonel Wael Tahoon, who was shot dead in his car in April in the same neighborhood where Ateeto lived and went to school. The government had already reported that four other people had confessed to the crime in early May.

According to the ministry's statement, Ateeto was not picked up at the university. Instead, it contends he opened fire on police as they raided his "hideout," and that police returned fire and seized a firearm in his possession.

According to an official forensics report, Ateeto had five bullet wounds. However, after seeing his body, his family reported that he also had two broken ribs, a broken left arm, and a fractured skull. They believe he was tortured, and say there were marks on his body caused by ropes.

"I knew he would be tortured because the same happened to many of my friends when they were arrested," his brother said. "We looked for him in a few police stations but couldn't find him. We learned about what happened the next day, in the papers."


Ahmed Younis, a neighbor and childhood friend of Ateeto, was at the funeral when the arrests were made. The arrests, he said, seemed indiscriminate at first, but it soon became clear that police were detaining only "students who wore beards."

As part of their investigation into Ateeto's death, his fellow students are collecting other examples of students who were abducted. One is that of 20-year-old Mansour Ashraf Mohamed, who was taken from the agricultural institute at which he studied. According to a friend who was on the phone with him at the time, Mohamed repeatedly cried, "I am being abducted, I am being abducted." He has been missing since May 24.

The arrests happen to those who openly oppose the current regime, says lawyer Wesam Atta, who represents arrested students. Islamist students aren't the only ones targeted, he says, but they make up the majority.

Last year, student Salah Al Qady, 23, was imprisoned for taking part in a protest he never attended. On January 16, 2014, he went to a police station to look for his friend, who'd been arrested while getting off a train. There, he was interrogated and his tablet was searched. On it, police found songs about the 2011 revolution and some documents relating to an Islamic-centrist party he had joined.

"The officers told me they would let me go because there didn't seem to be enough evidence, but a few hours later, they arrested me," Qady told VICE News. His name was added to a list of about 40 Cairo University students who had been charged with, among other things, killing 28 people, "attacking a neighborhood," carrying firearms, and belonging to a terrorist group.


Qady spent eight months in pre-trial detention in various maximum-security prisons and detention centers, including Liman Natrun Prison. At the end of May, according to a joint statement issued by local NGOs, detainees refused to open their cell doors to a delegation visiting from the Interior Ministry in protest over their extended pretrial detention. The prison administration reacted with harsh disciplinary measures.

"Forces raided the prison, opened fire on the detainees in their cells, tore our books and clothes, and threw away our food," Qady said. Human Rights organizations condemned the incident, alleging prisoners were tortured as a result.

Related: The West Must End Its Support of Egyptian 'Tyrant,' Says a Muslim Brotherhood Leader

The authorities eventually reduced the charges against the students to nothing more than protesting, according to Qady. They were all released, with investigations pending.

The officers involved in Ateeto's killing were summoned for questioning in late May. The case is currently with the State Security prosecution, which investigates cases related to internal security.

"I want all those people complicit and involved in [Ateeto's] murder to be put on trial and sentenced to death," his brother said. "Starting from the person who supervised his exam schedule to those who facilitated security forces to enter college, to those who participated in his torture and murder."

Follow Nadeen Shaker on Twitter: @NadeenShaker