Through the hallways of Capitol Hill, Jihad Khaled, 26, was desperately bouncing from one meeting to another, talking to Congress members as well as human rights activists and major news outlets. She hoped her efforts would help get her mother, Hoda Abdelmoniem, 60, released from an Egyptian prison.
“Death is much better than imprisonment. Death is fate. But when you’re a political prisoner — that’s just injustice,” Khaled said in a recent interview with NPR.
Before dawn on Nov. 1, 2018, Khaled was in Doha, Qatar, when she woke up frantically to a phone ringing. She picked up to hear her sister’s voice panting. Their mother, Abdelmoniem, a prominent human rights lawyer and former member of Egypt’s National Council for Human Rights, had been detained and taken to an undisclosed location by Egyptian state security forces after they raided her flat in Cairo.
“I felt numb. Frozen. I didn’t realize what was happening, but I knew it wasn’t something that can be solved in two days,” Khaled said.
Twenty days after her detention, Abdelmoniem appeared in court for the first time. She told her family that she was being detained in an undisclosed location. Her last appearance in court was on March 26. During the time between court hearings, none of her relatives knew her whereabouts.
Khaled said the family has now learned that Abdelmoniem is being held at al-Qanater women’s prison in Egypt’s Monufia province, north of Cairo.
Egyptian prosecutors accuse Abdelmoniem of vague charges under the country’s broad anti-terrorism laws, which human rights groups say the state frequently uses to target activists and journalists. Her family believes that the unspecific charges are meant to leave them defenseless.
The 60-year-old’s health is getting worse. She has a blood clot in her leg and high blood pressure, causing her to lose balance and requiring medical care that she received in prison only recently, according to her husband and lawyer, Khaled Badawy.
The family’s lobbying trips came before this week’s return visit to Washington, D.C., by Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi.
Rights groups say Abdelmoniem’s case is one of the latest examples of a sweeping crackdown by the Sissi government against a broad range of citizens.
The Egyptian Embassy in Washington did not respond to NPR’s request for comment on the case.
But in a January interview with CBS’ 60 Minutes, Sissi said:
“We don’t have political prisoners nor prisoners of opinion. We are trying to stand against extremists who impose their ideology on the people. Now they are subject to a fair trial. And it may take years, but we have to follow the law.”
Eighteen other human rights lawyers and activists were arrested in similar raids in Egypt the same day as Abdelmoniem, according to Hussein Baoumi, an Egypt researcher with Amnesty International. Eight women and 11 men are believed to have been forcibly disappeared during this wave of targeted arrests.
Baoumi said Egypt’s government has systematically enforced disappearances not only of activists and journalists but also of a wide array of citizens suspected of any form of dissent.
Amnesty counted 1,700 cases of enforced disappearance between 2013 and early 2016. Baoumi described the estimate as “very conservative” because the organization follows strict procedures for documenting incidents and those procedures take a lot of time and effort and are difficult to apply to all cases.
This is not the first time Khaled and her family have been desperate to save a loved one from Egypt’s prisons. In August 2013, she was newly married when her husband, Al Jazeera journalist Abdullah Elshamy, now 30, was detained by Egyptian police while covering a sit-in in Cairo’s Rabaa al-Adawiya Square, when Egyptian security forces violently suppressed several protests in the city, killing hundreds and injuring thousands.
Elshamy was later sentenced in absentia to 15 years in prison by an Egyptian court. While in prison, he went on a hunger strike that lasted five months and that ended in his release in June 2014.
Khaled remembers those days vividly as she recalls her mother’s extensive support during her husband’s detention.
“She was my only support system. She was the reason I remained strong and resilient during Abdullah’s imprisonment,” Khaled said. “I thought it was the most horrible thing that could happen to someone, but now I know it’s not like having your mom in prison. I feel broken.
Khaled also recalled when she was 6 and her father was sentenced to three years in prison after a military trial — an experience that she describes as a traumatic event that affected her entire family. “That was a time when mama brought us all together and was the main support for baba,” she said.
For her father, Badawy, his experience in prison was nothing compared with what he is going through now. “I didn’t feel as much vanquish when I was in prison. Now my wife is in jail, and I feel helpless and broken,” Badawy said.
He said it is not just the family that is affected. With Abdelmoniem in prison, she is unable to carry out human rights work for other families whose relatives have been disappeared.
In January, Khaled was desperate for solutions. She decided, along with her husband, to fly from Doha, where they currently live, to Washington to advocate on her mother’s behalf.
The U.S. has previously pressed Egypt on prisoners. In 2017, President Trump said he negotiated with Egypt’s leader for the release of imprisoned Egyptian-American charity worker Aya Hijazi and her Egyptian husband.
That year, the administration denied tens of millions of dollars in aid and military funding to Egypt over the country’s human rights violations and its relationship with North Korea. But last year, the U.S. reinstated its military aid to Egypt, and rights activists accused the administration of turning a blind eye on Egypt’s human rights violations.
Human Rights Watch estimates that Egyptian prisons have detained at least 60,000 people on political grounds since the 2013 military coup.
President Trump has twice welcomed President Sissi to the White House. On Tuesday, Trump said he thinks the Egyptian leader is “doing a great job,” and that “we’ve never had a better relationship, Egypt and the United States, than we do right now.”
Despite her efforts, Khaled worries it will be tough for her to make progress toward freeing her mother. Abdelmoniem is not a U.S. citizen.
“I try to remain hopeful and strong and fight for mama’s release,” she said. “But sometimes all doors seem closed and I lose hope.”
NPR’s Alex Leff contributed reporting to this story.