Egypt: Investigate the suspicious death in custody of economist Ayman Hadhoud following his enforced disappearance

The Egyptian authorities must ensure that the investigation into the suspicious death in custody of 48-year old Ayman Hadhoud, an economist and member of the Reform and Development Party, who died at a psychiatric hospital following his enforced disappearance on 5 February, is independent, impartial and effective, Amnesty International.

A new investigation by Amnesty International, based on an examination of official records, interviews with witnesses and sources as well as analysis from independent forensic experts who examined leaked photos of Hadhoud’s corpse, strongly suggests that Ayman Hadhoud was tortured or otherwise ill-treated before his death.

The authorities did not notify Ayman Hadhoud’s family of his death or order an autopsy until 9 and 11 April respectively, even though, according to his death certificate, he died on 5 March. Both the prosecution and the ministry of interior have denied any responsibility while also sharing contradictory, implausible explanations of the causes and circumstances of his death.

“Ayman Hadhoud’s family deserves answers. Why did the authorities detain him and then deny having him in custody, when he had in fact died over a month earlier in suspicious circumstances? These questions point to acts of torture and enforced disappearance, which the authorities must respond to,” said Lynn Maalouf, Deputy Director for the Middle East and North Africa at Amnesty International.

“Following any death in custody, there is a presumption of state responsibility in arbitrary deprivation of life. As the authorities subjected Ayman Hadhoud to enforced disappearance, possible torture and other ill-treatment, and concealed his death from his family for a month, this concern is greatly heightened. It is shameful that, instead of carrying out an effective investigation into the causes and circumstances of his death, the authorities continue questioning Ayman Hadhoud’s mental health.”

Amnesty International interviewed 8 people with direct knowledge of the situation, including Hadhoud’s friends and relatives, as well as sources at the Abassiya psychiatric hospital where he died. The organization also reviewed his death certificate and burial license, analysed official statements, and had photos of his corpse reviewed by independent forensic experts.

After Hadhoud’s death, Abassiya Hospital’s management warned its staff against speaking about the case and threatened to refer them to Egypt’s National Security Agency (NSA) if they did so.

Enforced disappearance

Hadhoud’s family lost contact with him on the evening of 5 February. Three days later, NSA officers summoned one of his brothers for questioning about Hadhoud’s work, political tendencies, and activities, and confirmed that they were holding him at Amiriya police station in Cairo but did not allow any family members to meet him.

The family tried to visit him at the police station a few days later, but police officers denied having him in custody and told them not to come again.

Ayman Hadhoud’s family deserves answers. Why did the authorities detain him and then deny having him in custody, when he had in fact died over a month earlier in suspicious circumstances?

Lynn Maalouf, Amnesty International

Amnesty International learned from a source at Abassiya Hospital that Hadhoud was transferred to the facility on 14 February. His relatives informally learned of his transfer on 18 February and repeatedly attempted to visit him, but hospital staff either denied having him on the premises or demanded to see a letter of approval from the prosecution.

On 23 February, an individual mediating between the family and security agents met with the Abassiya hospital director, who confirmed that Hadhoud had been under observation in the forensic medicine department for 45 days. According to his friends and family, the hospital director rejected requests to see him saying the department was under the control of the NSA.

The forensic medicine department is formally supervised by the National Council of Mental Health, but according to two sources at Abassiya psychiatric hospital, the department essentially functions as a detention facility controlled by the Ministry of Interior, where people are not allowed to move freely and are at great risk of torture and other ill-treatment by security officers.

On 4 April, one of Hadhoud’s friends received a call from a staff member at Abassiya Hospital, who confirmed that Hadhoud had died a month ago. Five days later, a police officer informed Hadhoud’s brother of his death and asked him to collect the body.

When the family requested to see a burial permit, the prosecutor told them that a charity cemetery, which is used to bury unidentified individuals or those whose bodies are not claimed by relatives, had already issued one.

Cause of death: unknown

The public prosecution formally announced that they had opened an investigation on 12 April, stating that the death was “not suspicious” and noting that Hadhoud may have contracted Covid.  

It was only after a public outcry following leaked news of his death that prosecutors finally ordered an autopsy on 11 April. Following an examination, prosecutors claimed on 12 April that they found no injuries on Hadhoud’s body stating “sharp drop in blood pressure and cardiac arrest” as the cause of death. Hadhoud’s family has not received the autopsy report.

Derrick Pounder, an independent forensic pathologist who examined photos of Hadhoud’s corpse after the autopsy, told Amnesty International that the pictures show marks on his forearms and the left side of his face that strongly suggest that he suffered repeated injuries before his death. The marks, he said, cannot be explained by the natural processes which occur as bodies decay, and represent injuries. He added that the distribution of the marks “strongly suggests repeated systematic infliction in life, that is to say, ill-treatment/torture,” most likely caused by burns rather than blows. Pounder also noted the difference between the autopsy scars and the injuries inflicted on his body prior to his death.

Pounder’s analysis correlates with the testimonies of two eyewitnesses, who each said they noticed injuries on his face and head at the hospital mortuary on 10 April — before the autopsy was carried out.

Contradictory explanations

Both the Ministry of Interior and the prosecution have denied any wrongdoing by state officials and pointed to Hadhoud’s mental health and accused him of breaking into an apartment.

A 10 April Ministry of Interior statement and 12 April statement by the prosecution both claimed that a doorman in Cairo’s Zamalek neighbourhood had prevented Hadhoud from breaking into an apartment on 6 February. The Ministry of Interior said Hadhoud “initiated irresponsible behaviour”, while the prosecution said he suffered from “schizophrenia … poor concentration and attention, persecutory delusions, delusions of grandeur, and was raving incomprehensibly.” The prosecution statement acknowledged ordering Hadhoud’s referral to a psychiatric hospital on 7 February, despite the fact that police officers at the psychiatric hospital had consistently denied his detention to his family until 23 February.

The family said that both the prosecution and the Ministry of Interior’s statements contradict an account from a police officer at the hospital, who had said Hadhoud was detained for “attempting to steal a car”.

Although Hadhoud’s friends and family acknowledge that Ayman had suffered from stress and financial anxiety before his arrest, they fear the authorities are using these concerns to cover up his death in custody. According to the family’s lawyer, prosecutors repeatedly probed Hadhoud’s brother about his sibling’s mental health when they questioned him on 12 April.

Ayman had regularly posted content on his social media accounts that criticized the authorities’ economic policies.