'Terrifying': Egyptian opposition activist arrested off plane after emergency landing in Luxor
The arrest of an Egyptian opposition activist in the city of Luxor after his plane was forced to undertake an emergency landing while en route from Sudan to Turkey has shocked human rights advocates in the country.
The young man, identified by a rights group as 29-year-old Hossam Menoufi Mahmoud Sallam, was on board Badr Airlines flight number J4690 from Khartoum to Istanbul on Wednesday when it landed at Luxor Airport in southern Egypt.
Egyptian authorities have not confirmed the detention of Sallam, which the Istanbul-based rights group We Record called an "enforced disappearance" as he has been held incommunicado since.
According to a statement by the airlines, the flight had to land in Luxor after a warning from the smoke detection system in cargo cabin room no. 1.
The signal was a false one, however, and no faults in the system were found when the plane landed, the statement said.
To fix the alarm system, the plane was sent to Bratislava Airport for maintenance, and a replacement plane was sent from Khartoum to take the passengers to Istanbul.
When passengers were completing the boarding of the second plane, they were required to go through passport controls again in Luxor.
"Boarding the alternative plane makes the Egyptian authorities part of the travel procedures as applied in the flight regulations, and this is what led to the arrest of the aforementioned passenger," the statement pointed out.
The company denied complicity in handing over the Egyptian passenger, saying "it has nothing to do whatsoever in the actions taken by the Egyptian authorities or against the aforementioned passenger," and that it was not aware of the reasons for the arrest.
Middle East Eye has contacted the airlines for comment but did not receive a response by the time of writing.
Meanwhile, Mohsen al-Shami, the head of the Crisis-Management Administration in Luxor, was quoted in Al-Masry Al-Youm newspaper confirming the landing of the Sudanese plane, which had 135 passengers on board, in Luxor, on Wednesday. The second plane sent to Luxor by Badr Airlines left the airport at 4:40 am on Thursday, he said.
We Record said in a statement that they had received testimonies from five passengers on the same flight who said they did not hear any alarm sounds before the emergency landing.
When passengers disembarked from the plane, security staff at the airport requested the passports of Egyptian passengers only. Three passengers, including Sallam, were summoned by security, but only Sallam was barred from boarding the replacement plane.
According to We Record, Sallam was initially detained for interrogation at Khartoum airport before boarding the flight on Wednesday.
Sallam, a civil engineer, was a frequent traveller between Sudan and Turkey for a private engineering business, according to human rights researcher and advocate Haitham Ghonim.
Sallam was known to be a supporter of the Muslim Brotherhood, Egypt's largest opposition group, which has been labelled as a terrorist organisation by the government of President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi.
He had been sentenced to 25 years in absentia after a mass military trial, in connection with case number 64 of the year 2017, dubbed in the media as "The deputy attorney general case". The charges brought against him by a military prosecutor included "possession of firearms", but no evidence was provided to support that accusation, Ghonim said.
He has been based in Sudan out of fear of persecution in Egypt.
Sisi rose to power after ousting Egypt's first democratically elected president Mohamed Morsi, a leading figure in the Muslim Brotherhood, in a 2013 military coup.
Since then, his government has targeted members and supporters of Morsi's administration in a large-scale crackdown. In June 2019, Morsi died while in custody in circumstances described by UN experts as "state-sanctioned arbitrary killing".
It remains unclear whether the emergency landing was coordinated by the two governments of Egypt and Sudan, whose military leaders are allies.
Sudan has descended into chaos since a coup led by General Abdel Fattah al-Burhan in October that ousted the transitional civilian-military council in power since the overthrow of longtime ruler Omar el-Bashir in 2019.
An analysis of case 64/2017 by the Egyptian Front for Human Rights (EFHR) shows that 299 civilian defendants have faced a military trial on charges of involvement in 17 terrorist attacks that took place in several governments in the period from 2014 and 2016.
The attacks, according to the case files, led to the killing of 15 people, mostly police and military officers. The charges also include the attempted murder of Assistant Public Prosecutor Zakaria Abdel Aziz on 30 September 2016 and the assassination attempt on the former mufti of the republic, Ali Gomaa, on 5 August 2016.
According to the EFHR, the trial has violated due process, including subjecting 120 defendants to enforced disappearance for nearly five months, while 77 were subjected to physical and psychological torture in order to extract forced confessions. Moreover, 85 defendants were investigated without a lawyer, the rights group said, and 14 were minors at the time of detention.
Several Egyptian human rights defenders have sounded the alarm after Sallam's detention.
Some have called for boycoting Badr Airlines for "handing over" Sallam to Egyptian authorities, and others said the incident was reminiscent of the extraordinary arrest of Belarusian journalist Roman Protasevich in June last year after his Ryanair flight to Lithuania was diverted and landed in Minsk over a fake bomb threat.
"The details of this story are terrifying, similar to what Belarus did with a journalist there, and the world just watched without a strong reaction," said Mona Seif, a human rights activist and sister of the detained activist Alaa Abdel-Fattah.
"A new phase is underway in which civil aviation will land at an airport that is not its destination to hand over political dissidents!!"
'A new phase is underway in which civil aviation will land at an airport that is not its destination to hand over political dissidents!!'
- Mona Seif, human rights activist
Haytham Abu Khalil, a human rights activist, called for a boycott of Badr Airlines over the incident.
He said the company should be "held accountable for what will happen to an innocent persecuted young man."
While detaining Sallam after his flight was rerouted to Egypt is unprecedented, arresting dissidents from airports has been a common practice since Sisi became president in 2014.
The Arab Network for Human Rights Information, which has recently terminated its activity in the country over repressive civil society laws, has described Egyptian airports as "a trap for government critics and opponents".
Many journalists, lawyers, and government critics have been arrested at Egyptian airports, whether upon their arrival or on their way out of the country, including human rights activist Patrick Zaki, journalist Gamal al-Gamal, researcher Ismail Al-Iskandrani, journalist Ahmed Gamal Ziada, and human rights lawyer Ibrahim Metwally.
Sisi has overseen what Human Rights Watch has described as the worst crackdown on human rights in the country's modern history.
In the group's World Report 2022, it said Egypt’s security forces have regularly acted with impunity, routinely conducting arbitrary arrests, enforced disappearances, and torture of real or suspected political activists as well as ordinary citizens.
"President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi’s government in 2021 continued down its well-trod path of unrelenting repression," said Joe Stork, HRW's deputy Middle East and North Africa director.
Tens of thousands of political prisoners currently languish in Egyptian jails, including members of the Brotherhood as well as secular and left-wing opposition activists who supported the 2011 pro-democracy revolution.