“The Mystery of Mohamed Abbass”
Dateline, SBS Television. 6th June 2007
In 1999 Australian man Mohamed Abbass traveled to Egypt for a holiday. To the horror of his wife and children he never returned, apparently vanishing into thin air. In a twisted and horrifying saga his wife was contacted from Cairo and told he was being held captive for ransom. For years his wife has been battling with Australian and Egyptian authorities, and murky figures connected to the Egyptian prison system, desperately trying to save her husband.
SEHAM ABBASS (Translation): Yes, we’re ready.
Seham Abbass is waiting for a lift to Canberra. She has an important meeting with the Australian Government.
SEHAM ABBASS (Translation): Pray for us, Sahar, that God may grant us success.
In a horrendous scenario, Seham believes her husband is being held illegally by corrupt officials in an Egyptian jail.
SARAH: Ahmed, give me a piece of paper.
Along with his two sisters, 12-year-old Ahmed is missing school to go to Canberra today, hoping it will help return the father he hasn’t seen since he was three years old.
AHMED, DATELINE 2005: “To the Prime Minister, John Howard. I’m Ahmed Abbass, and I have age of nine years old. I have a problem – my Dad is in Egypt, and for six years I have not seen him.”
This has been a long nightmare for the Abbass family. A father and husband has vanished, and all attempts to help him have failed. When Dateline first met Seham and her children two years ago, they’d already been battling for years.
AHMED, DATELINE 2005: “On September 5 it is Father’s Day, and I would like to see my Dad. Please help me solve my Dad’s problem.”
SEHAM ABBASS (Translation): A heart condition, health problems, psychological, financial problems – many problems. It’s too much for me. For eight years I’ve been doing everything on my own.
But today the family leaves for Parliament House with renewed hope. A mysterious man has emerged who claims to have contact with those holding Mohamed Abbass in Egypt. But as Seham tells her companions, this go-between says her husband is being held unofficially, and only a hefty bribe will get him out.
SEHAM ABBASS (Translation): He gave me his bank account to deposit the money. So it’s quite… complicated. But he said something I am convinced of. He said, “Your husband’s held unofficially. How will you get him out officially?”
Importantly though, this go-between has told the Egyptian community that after 8.5 years, Mohamed Abbass is still alive.
KAMEL KILANI, ISLAMIC EGYPTIAN SOCIETY NSW: Yeah, he confirmed many times that he is alive and he is well. Sometimes he get sick, and they move him to hospital and bring him back to where he is. Only one thing he said is that his eyesight is getting down, he cannot see properly as he did before.
To test this, Australian authorities gave the go-between five so-called “proof of life” questions – personal questions that presumably only Mohamed Abbass would know the answer to. The go-between brought back two correct answers.
MARTIN HODGSON, FOREIGN PRISONER SUPPORT SERVICE: I think they suggests he is in Egypt. I think they suggest he was definitely alive at the time, I think they are certainly the last piece of solid evidence we have that he was alive and while we still have belief he is alive we have to continue to look for him.
Mohamed Abbas, an Australian citizen since 1971, disappeared shortly after this home video was taken in 1999. He went to his native Egypt for a month’s holiday, but never returned. Recently retired after 20 years working for Telstra, by all accounts he was an innocent man.
MOHAMED ABDELGHANY, FAMILY FRIEND: Absolutely he have no interest in politics, absolutely he have no interest to be in any group, absolutely he have no contact with any politics or group or Islamic group or even normal society. He just practice his life like any normal person – work, house, kids, and couple of friend, just go out picnic, go out watching football game.
GREG HUNT, PARLIAMENTARY SECRETARY TO MINISTER OF FOREIGN AFFAIRS: We’ve spoken with all of the Australian intelligence agencies and they speak very highly of Mr Abbas, that this is not a very wealthy man, a very strong family man, no dark secrets, no engagement with terrorism, no basis for any such motive that we can find.
Mohamed Abbass was last seen by the relatives who dropped him off at Cairo airport at the end of his trip. Egyptian authorities later said he’d flown to Turkey, and in fact Turkish immigration records show him arriving. But Seham Abbas was convinced he’d never left Egypt and in late 2000 she went to look for him there. After making a fuss at a number of government buildings, she says she was approached by men outside.
SEHAM ABBASS (Translation): They took my telephone number and told me “We’ll contact you in three days and tell you if you can see him or not.” They did ring me three days later. They told me “You’re being watched. If you report it, it won’t be good for you. If you want to see him, we’ll organise it, but don’t talk.”
After paying a bribe, Seham was blindfolded and taken to what appeared to be a prison where she says she spent 30 minutes with her husband.
SEHAM ABBASS (Translation): I asked him what the problem was and he said he didn’t know. He begged me to get help from the Australian Government, as he used his Australian passport, “I’m Australian, I don’t know why I am here.”
His captors then demanded $250,000 for his release. Scared for her safety, Seham told them she’s have to return to Australia to find the money, knowing all along she didn’t have it. Instead she approached the Australian Government, which told Dateline two years ago there was no way to back up Seham’s account.
BRUCE BILSON, PARLIAMENTARY SECRETARY TO MINISTER FOR FOREIGN AFFAIRS: What we’re missing here is some concrete evidence to challenge the very clear and repeated assertion by the Egyptian authorities that Mr Abbass is not in Egypt.
But today Seham believes the Government now has the concrete evidence it needs in the form of the mysterious go-between, a man Australian authorities have been dealing with. This is the Australian Egyptian businessman who’s claimed to have contact with Mohamed Abbass’s captors. He lives in Sydney, but spends considerable time in his native Egypt. Dateline knows the name of the go-between but out of concerns for his safety in Egypt, we’ve decided to protect his identity. Seham says he’s been contacting her ever since she saw her husband in captivity, telling her that she needs to pay the ransom. Two years ago, Seham put him in touch with Australia’s Department of Foreign Affairs.
SEHAM ABBASS (Translation): When they were here, they spoke to him on the phone. They told him, “Your requests, including meeting the Australian Ambassador in Egypt directly… when you go to Egypt, he’ll be waiting for you.”
In Egypt, the go-between began liaising with the Australian Embassy. They made it clear though, they would not be paying a ransom. Early last year Seham was informed of a breakthrough via a letter from the Department of Foreign Affairs.
AUSTRALIAN EMBASSY LETTER: “On 27 March, ???? contacted our Embassy in Egypt and advised that a prison guard at the Al-Mazraa prison camp in Cairo had given him answers to two proof-of-identity questions. This is an encouraging development, providing an indication that your husband may be alive and in Egypt.”
The Australian Government now had information it could take to the Egyptian authorities, but it decided to wait for the go-between to work through his unofficial channels.
AUSTRALIAN EMBASSY LETTER: “We think it may be worthwhile allowing that process to unfold, given advice from ???? and Sheik Hilaly that approaches to the Egyptian Government would be counter-productive.”
What’s really astounding about this letter is that it shows that Australian authorities were finally willing to accept the possibility that Mohamed Abbass was being held unofficially in an Egyptian prison.
SHEIK TAJ EL-DIN AL-HILALY: I don’t believe the Government or diplomatic way they have solution for this case.
The controversial Mufti of Australia, Sheik Taj el-Din al-Hilaly, still believes unofficial channels are the best hope for Abbass. Hilaly, who’s from Egypt, has tried to help in this case, though he personally has no contacts.
SHEIK TAJ EL-DIN AL-HILALY: This is secret…secret business. Mr Abbass isn’t under the control of the Egyptian Government. He’s with unknown parties, who don’t deal in the open.
It sounds like an incredible proposition – that rogue elements could hold an innocent man outside of the official prison system. But Egyptian human rights groups have documented many such cases.
MARTIN HODGSON: One aspect with the Egyptian system is that the Egyptian Government themselves don’t have direct control of quite a number of the prisons in the country. They’re controlled by the SSI, who are known to carry out coercive disappearances.
MARTIN HODGSON: State Security intelligence.
Martin Hodgson is from the Foreign Prisoners Support Service, which investigates the plight of Australians jailed overseas. He thinks it’s plausible that Abbass could have been held secretly for this long.
MARTIN HODGSON: There have been plenty of cases of people going beyond the 10-year mark and being released after this time. Again at least I have the names of 50 people who have gone more then five years with no contact from anyone and then they have been released.
Former Guantanamo Bay inmate Mamdouh Habib has spent time in Egypt’s unofficial prison system, sent there by the United States as part of its rendition program. As Dateline first reported in 2005, Mamdouh Habib says he saw Mohamed Abbass in prison. Interrogators paraded Abbass before him.
MAMDOUH HABIB: They say “You know this guy? He’s Mohamed Abbass. He disappeared two years ago.”
Habib says that those running the prison were in the business of making money.
MAMDOUH HABIB: Running their own business there, that’s what happened.
Based on the go-between’s assurance that release could be imminent, in 2006 the Australian Embassy in Cairo even issued a new passport for Mohamed Abbass. But after months of waiting for the go-between to deliver on his promises, it decided to make an official approach. A strategy was devised whereby Australia’s Ambassador in Cairo would tell the Egyptian Foreign Minister that his country might be detaining an Australian in a case of mistaken identity.
AUSTRALIAN EMBASSY LETTER: We are hopeful that by offering the Egyptian Government a face-saving solution they might be more likely to confirm that Mr Abbass is in detention. However, I should stress that there is no guarantee the Egyptian Government will provide a positive response, and there is a small risk that Mr Abbass might be relocated to prevent his discovery.
But the Egyptian authorities continued to deny holding Mr Abbass.
REPORTER: Have Egyptian authorities made attempts to see if there are indeed corrupt elements within the system who are holding Mr Abbas?
MOHAMED TAWFIK, EGYPTIAN AMBASSADOR: This issue I think is totally unbelievable for anyone who knows Egypt. This sort of situation could happen really in a failed state. Egypt is a strong state. There is strong control over the different elements of the state.
Seham Abbass believes the only reason that the go-between’s dealings with the Australian Embassy came to nothing was because the ransom wasn’t paid. In a terrible predicament, she says the only way she could get the money was by selling her house, but she couldn’t because it’s held in her missing husband’s name.
SEHAM ABBASS (Translation): When he told me that the embassy didn’t agree to paying a ransom, I told him “You know, I don’t have the authorisation to sell the house so that I can give you the money. Why don’t you ask him to give me the authorisation and I’ll sell the house and pay you the money?” He said “No, you work something out. Borrow money or whatever and he can pay it back.”
A final chance appeared two months ago when the go-between – who was in Egypt – called community members here.
KAMEL KILANI: So he rang up here, a friend of ours, and he told him he had a chance to get him out if we pay $100,000.
This time a rallying cry went out, and dozens from Australia’s Egyptian, Lebanese and Anglo communities pledged money. Kemal Kilani called the go-between in Egypt.
KAMEL KILANI: I told him that we collecting the money, ready to do it, but please tell us how we send the money to Egypt. He said “Alright, give me time, I will go back to the people, and I will call you back.”
A few days later, the go-between called from, of all places, Germany.
KAMEL KILANI: He rang me up, and he said “I am in Frankfurt.” I said, “What’s going on?” He said, “I left Egypt, I am in Frankfurt now, and I feel I am in dangerous position and I cannot do any more. You have to forget about this deal.”
With the go-between saying the deal was finished, Seham Abbass was placing her hopes on the meeting at Parliament House. Afterwards, her own lawyer cautions against undue optimism.
STEPHEN KENNY, LAWYER: If they are not able to find him within a prison then there’s not a lot the Australian Government can do. It makes it difficult for them and for us.
But Foreign Affairs officials promised Seham they would meet with the go-between. When Dateline spoke with the Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister for Foreign Affairs last week, he revealed the surprise outcome of the Department’s conversation with the go-between.
GREG HUNT: In that interview, he denied having encountered Mr Abbas, he denied any information as to where Mr Abbas might actually be, and he denied having made requests for money from Mrs Abbas. So when we actually confronted him, it’s unfortunate, but the information which he had allegedly offered to provide to others, evaporated.
REPORTER: Will attempts be made to make Mr ???? reveal his sources in Egypt?
GREG HUNT: Well, he denied to us that there were any sources.
REPORTER: But he has already told Australian authorities in Egypt that he does have sources, so how can he deny it now?
GREG HUNT: I can’t speak for him. I can only tell you the very latest information of us having interviewed him only recently. We in fact have also referred it to the Federal Police to see if they may have any success with him.
Dateline has been trying to speak to this mysterious go-between for weeks.
REPORTER: Hi, can I speak to ???? please?
We finally spoke to him this morning, and while he refuses to discuss his involvement in this affair, he did express concerns for his safety in Egypt. He also disputed the Government’s account of his retraction, saying he told them “Please get me out of this.” He also told Dateline that Seham needs to pursue this legally in Egypt because “anybody like us cannot help any more.” Seham Abbass, however, still wants his help. She believes he is the best link to her husband’s captors.
SEHAM ABBASS (Translation): I want to tell him please, please help us. Help my children, help us. You know the situation inside out. So, please help my children because they’re upset and sad. Nothing can make them happy except the return of their father. Please, help me to let my children smile again.
Supporters of the Abbass family now hope that Australian authorities can do something with the information this man gave in the past.
KAMEL KILANI: That’s what we hope, because he said he gave them all the information, even unofficial name for him, and whereabouts he is.
GREG HUNT: Well, we’ve followed every avenue and we’ve followed the official, we’ve followed the unofficial, we’ve worked through governments, we’ve worked through security agencies, we’ve worked through prisoner groups, we’ve worked through the Egyptian community, and everything that the individual in question has said has amounted to nothing.
REPORTER: Given that the approach, the face-saving solution to the Egyptian Government, that strategy didn’t work. Do you think perhaps it’s time to play a little hard ball with the Egyptian authorities?
GREG HUNT: Well, I spoke with the Egyptian Ambassador and we called him in only last week, and we’ve.. What you are assuming – your whole assumption to this is that there is a secret plot to hold this man.
After seeming so close to her husband’s release, Seham is now back to where she started, trying to convince sceptical officials that Mohamed is being held in Egypt. It is an extraordinary-sounding plot, and hard information is difficult to find, but if Mohamed Abbass is indeed held in a shadowy, unofficial prison, that’s little wonder. For the family left behind, it’s nothing short of a tragedy.
REPORTER: What impact does it have on your family?
DAUGHTER: I guess it makes us, like, kind of less of a family, because we have one member missing.
SEHAM ABBASS (Translation): My children and I, and all his family, are still as determined as on the first day. It’s 2007, but our determination is as strong as it was back in 1999. Yes, my husband is alive.
GEORGE NEGUS: Just before we went on air, we heard again from the elusive go-between, this time via his lawyers. The go-between says he never suggested to the Abbass family that he personally would have a role in the paying of any ransom. And, as Bronwyn reported in that story, he categorically rejects that he made any about-face with the Government.