Mystery shrouds extradition of Egypt imam from Spain
On 1 June Spanish police injected Dr. Alaa Mohamed Said with anesthetic, beat him and bundled him onto a plane bound for Egypt. For two days his wife Iman, who was then two months pregnant with their sixth child, had no contact with her husband:
“I kept calling when he disappeared,” she tells me. “Once the authorities said he was there, another time that there was a problem with the phone.”
Eventually Iman learnt that her husband was in Tora Prison, the notorious maximum security jail in Cairo whose degrading conditions, brutal treatment of inmates and lack of independent oversight have earned a wing within the complex the nickname Scorpion. She hasn’t spoken to her husband since the end of May.
Iman and Alaa first moved to Spain from their home country Egypt in 2004 as part of an agreement between the Islamic Commission and the government of Egypt to provide a quota of imams to serve local communities. The entire family hold legal residence.
They eventually settled in Logrono, a city in northern Spain on the banks of the Ebro River and the capital of La Rioja province. Alaa worked as an imam in the local mosque where he was known, according to his wife, for being a moderate preacher with good manners.
Alaa has published a number of lectures about Islam in Arabic and Spanish online and has several books to his name. Iman describes their life in Spain before he was arrested as “a happy life without problems”.
At the end of January, however, the problems began and continued to escalate. It started when Spanish police knocked on the door to deliver an official letter asking the family to leave because Alaa was a threat to national security. “I was baffled,” says Iman. “For someone who has been living here for 15 years it felt abnormal.”
In March a local court in Logrono ordered Alaa to cease his work as an imam and made the decision that he would be deported. Then in April Alaa was arrested and presented with two options: to leave Spain willingly to a country outside Europe or be deported to Egypt. He took the first, agreed to move to Turkey to protect his family and said goodbye to his daughters. But two days later the police delivered yet another blow to Iman. Alaa’s visa to Turkey had been cancelled and his stay in prison had been extended.
Regional newspaper La Rioja has covered Alaa’s case extensively though it has largely taken the position that he is guilty. “He wanted to establish in Logrono the main centre of dissemination of the most radical and strict message of the Muslim Brotherhood in northern Spain,” writes local reporter Luis J. Ruiz who has written the bulk of articles about Alaa.
The accusations have worrying parallels with the mainstream discourse in Egypt where the group were banned in 2013 and designated a terrorist organisation. Any person who opposes the regime is tried under the broad brush of belonging to or colluding with the group, whether they are a member or not.
There are a number of missing links in the case. Iman adamantly denies that Alaa is part of the Brotherhood and also reiterates that neither he, nor any member of their extended family, have now or in the past opposed the government. Even if he does belong to the organisation, it is not banned in Spain or in any other European country.
Alberto Breton, delegate of the government in La Rioja, is quoted in the newspaper accusing Alaa of being “one of the greatest promoters of Salafist Wahabbi doctrine in the national territory”.
Wahhabism is a Salafist Islamic movement founded in modern day Riyadh in the eighteenth century and is led by Sheikh Muhammed ibn Abd Al-Wahhab. The Muslim Brotherhood was created in Egypt in 1928 by Hassan Al-Banna.
Although Al-Banna described his movement as Salafist, meaning that they follow the companions of the Prophet Muhammad, there has been a long-standing rivalry with Egypt’s main Salafist party, Al-Nour, which supported the coup against jailed Brotherhood President Mohamed Morsi.
The Brotherhood and Wahhabism are bitter rivals largely due to the influence of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt – Saudi Arabia’s ally – and its perceived threat to the House of Saud, which follows the Wahhabi doctrine. To suggest Alaa was preaching the Muslim Brotherhood ideology, Salafism and Wahhabism is non-sensical.
On top of this, in a 2015 interview with the very same newspaper, Alaa described the Paris terrorist attacks, in which three suicide bombers killed 137 people across the capital, as “intolerable” adding “they are neither Muslims, nor represent Islam or anyone” and “our religion is tolerance and living in harmony”.
Ahmed El-Attar, who is a human rights activist working on Alaa's case, says there is no evidence to support the accusations against him.
When Spanish authorities first contacted Egypt for information about Alaa the reply was that he was a good person, says El-Attar. “If the answer a few months ago was good behaviour what’s the change now? Why are they keeping him in Tora Prison?”
“A big questions mark hangs over this whole case,” says El-Attar. "Why did the Spanish government send him to Egypt with Egypt’s history of human rights abuses, instead of charging him at home. If there is any crime or act contrary to Spanish law, the Spanish government should have tried him in Spain, not sent him to Egypt."
There are roughly 60,000 political prisoners in Egypt who languish in overcrowded cells or are kept for lengthy periods of time in solitary confinement. They are routinely tortured, denied medical attention or access to a lawyer. The abuse is well documented, and Spain cannot deny knowledge of it.
According to El-Attar they have taken some assurances – the Egyptian embassy signed papers in Madrid which stipulated that after Alaa was taken back to Egypt he would not be tortured. It seems to be working for now, but the Egyptian regime is volatile and does not take its orders from Europe.
“Since being back in Egypt the government has treated him very well,” says El-Attar. “Also they are asking his family to come to Egypt, promising they will be safer and closer to the family. Perhaps if the family come to Egypt they may start treating him badly.”
The questions surrounding the case keep coming – if Alaa was not wanted by Egypt why did Spanish authorities insist on handing him over; why did it happen so quickly, in the space of five months; why did the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) allow Spain to deport Alaa with full knowledge of the deteriorating human rights situation in Egypt and the regularity with which torture is used to extract confessions, adds El-Attar.
Alaa’s case has worrying echoes with that of other Egyptians who were extradited to Egypt from Europe under the US’ extraordinary rendition programme after the fallout from 9/11.
Abu Omar was abducted by the CIA from a street in Italy in 2003 and Ahmed Agiza and Mohamed El-Zehry from Sweden in 2001. All three were extradited to Egypt though none were fully informed why. Abu Omar was imprisoned without trial and Agiza and El-Zehry were tortured using electric shocks.
Rome and Stockholm later admitted they made a mistake and paid out compensation to the men and their families, but not before they had undergone a horrific ordeal and been victims of a grave travesty of justice.
Much like the case of Abu Omar, Agiza and El-Zehry, Alaa’s case has been shrouded in secrecy and the full extent of the facts not revealed. However, his ordeal can in part be explained by Spain’s increasing anti-Islam sentiment. Last year over 500 hate crimes against Muslims were recorded in the country; whilst in the UK we talk about Islamophobia, in Spain they talk about Moorophobia – fear that a second Muslim Spain is imminent.
Published in Middle East Monitor