A leading Egyptian investigative journalist and human rights advocate is being held by the country’s military in an undisclosed location while he faces charges of spreading “false news”, one of his lawyers has said.
Adel Ramadan said military prosecutors would not tell him the whereabouts of Hossam Bahgat, who was detained on Sunday after being summoned to an intelligence building in Cairo.
Mr Bahgat is one of Egypt’s best-known rights advocates. He founded the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights in 2002, was honoured with a Human Rights Watch Alison Des Forges Award in 2011, and just returned to Egypt after spending a year as a visiting fellow at Columbia University’s journalism school in New York.
The detention, which caused a wave of uproar on social media and among activists, is part of a sweeping crackdown on critical media launched in the aftermath of the military overthrow of Islamist president Mohammed Morsi in 2013.
Mr Ramadan said prosecutors asked Mr Bahgat in detail about an article he wrote last month.
In it, he described the conviction of a group of military officers on charges of conspiring with Mr Morsi’s banned Muslim Brotherhood to plot a coup against President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi, who as military chief had overthrown Mr Morsi.
“I asked the head of the military prosecution the place of detention, and was told I would not be told,” Mr Ramadan said, adding that prosecutors have ordered Mr Bahgat held until at least Wednesday, when his lawyers have been summoned for another meeting.
“Nobody knows what will happen then, maybe he will be released, maybe they will hold him longer,” he said.
A military spokesman said Mr Bahgat has been referred to military trial for “compromising national security” and writing about the army without written permission from its leadership. If found guilty, Bahgat could serve up to one year in prison and/or pay a fine of up to $2,500, he said.
Since Mr Morsi’s overthrow, Mr Bahgat has written a series of highly detailed and meticulously researched investigative pieces, including the article in question.
That article was based on official documents, including the military prosecutor’s indictment, and interviews with the military officers’ families.
Philip Luther, director of the Middle East and North Africa Programme at Amnesty International, said: “He is being detained and questioned by the military prosecutor for peacefully exercising his right to freedom of expression and must be immediately and unconditionally released. Any charges brought against him must be dropped.”
Mr Ramadan said prosecutors presented no evidence against Mr Bahgat. He said they asked Mr Bahgat to promise to stop writing about the military but he refused.
Mr Bahgat did, however, offer to publish any necessary corrections or clarifications, his lawyer said.
The crackdown launched after Mr Morsi’s overthrow initially focused on his Islamist supporters but was soon broadened to other dissidents, including secular activists who led the 2011 uprising that ousted long-time autocrat Hosni Mubarak.
In June, the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) said reporters face unprecedented threats in Mr el-Sissi’s Egypt.
CPJ said Egypt currently had the highest number of journalists behind bars since it began keeping records in 1990.