Human rights activist describes being held prisoner in Egypt


Picture of the home page of Human Rights Watch

Adrienne von Schulthess, Writer

As Egypt erupted in protests, the man whose job it is to ensure that the victims of political violence are recognized was being held captive in the military compound of Camp 75.

Picture of the home page of Human Rights Watch
Picture of the home page of Human Rights Watch

“The military, police, state security, and thugs bashing in windows” was how Dan Williams, senior emergencies researcher for Human Rights Watch, described the scene at the Hisham Mubarak Law Center in Cairo on Feb. 3. Williams, who worked at the center, was taken away in a police raid and spent 36 hours in captivity.

Williams recounted his ordeal and also spoke about his thoughts on the

future of Egypt, in a talk on March 17 at the home of Kim Davidson (’14), whose parents, Wendy Webster and Stuart Davidson, are members of the Human Rights Watch California Committee North.

As an emergencies researcher, Williams documents human rights abuses. His job exists because in the past during times of violence around the world, “not enough facts were coming out rapidly enough, if they were coming out at all,” Williams said.

The most difficult part of being held captive was “not knowing” why he was being detained and what was going to happen to him in the coming days, Williams said.

He recounted being slapped on the back of the head for chewing gum and sleeping on the pavement. He also “heard howls of pain in other courtyard” of Camp 75, the Egyptian military headquarters where he was held.

For Williams, the fact that the military was involved in his arrest was troubling. In Egypt, unlike Libya, the military is seen as the protectors of the people. The army “would not allow themselves to be used to put down the demonstrations,” said Williams.

In a speech in the grand foyer of the White House on Feb. 11, President Barack Obama praised Egypt’s military, saying that it “served patriotically and responsibly as a caretaker to the state, and will now have to ensure a transition that is credible in the eyes of the Egyptian people.”

However, now that “the military is running the show,” Williams said, they are “careful not to have a head guy. It is a (public relations) show. They don’t want to suggest that there is a new dictator.”

While Williams’ detention took place before President Hosni Mubarak was ousted, since then people “are still being held incommunicado,” Williams said. He said there are “secret trials” and detentions taking place every day despite Mubarak’s ouster.

“Its not over,” said Williams of the turbulent times in Egypt. Many Americans seem to agree: A Gallup poll on Feb. 14 showed that 44 percent of respondents believe that the recent events in Egypt will not foster democracy. Many around the world worry that a new Egyptian government will not change the abusive practices of the past.

”People need to be held accountable” for their actions, Williams said. “(Egypt needs) a whole new constitution. They need real laws against torture” and “the freedom of assembly, at a minimum.” But Williams added that “Egyptians don’t need us to tell them” what they need.

In a first step towards political change, Egyptians voted on March 19 to accept several constitutional amendments, which included term limits for the president and restrictions of emergency laws. The New York Times reported that 77.2% of Egyptians voted for the amendments.

According to Williams, some of the leaders of the revolution, especially young people, want a civilian technical government to run the country “for at least a year” in order to allow time for political parties to develop.

One thing is clear, and that is that there is a consensus behind change. “In (Tahrir) square, there were no party banners, because they knew they had one single overriding goal,” said Williams. Now Egyptians “can retain unity on certain fundamental things and get fundamental rights.”