The Mystery of Mohammed Abbass - Wed 6th June 8.30pm SBS
This week Dateline reports on dramatic new developments in a story they first investigated in 2005.
Bronwyn Adcock returns to the mysterious case of Mohamed Abbass, an Australian allegedly kidnapped eight years ago and held for ransom in an Egyptian prison. His wife claims she knows he's there because she saw him: taken there by his captors after paying a bribe.
Mohamed Abbass was a loving father of three from Sydney. Eight years ago,
he took a holiday in Egypt, and never returned. Officially, no-one knows where
Mr Abbass is or even if he is alive, despite the fact that two governments,
the Australian Federal Police, his family and friends have all tried to find him.
Two years ago here on Dateline, Bronwyn Adcock first reported on the Abbass story
and now she has the latest in this extraordinary human saga.
The Mystery of Mohamed Abbass
Reply to Bronwyn Adcock from Kay Danes
Mohamed Abbass - A Missing Australian father of three |
Born 1942 |
||This former Telstra employee of over 35 years, is a husband and father of three. He is originally from Egypt but became an Australian citizen in 1970. He has two daughters and a son. He is remembered by his loving wife. |
||In January 1999 Mohamed travelled to his native Egypt for a one month holiday. On the 2nd Feburary 1999 he was taken to the airport to board a flight to return home to Australia. He never arrived although he was booked on the flight. A ransom was demanded 1 1/2 years after his disappearance. His wife flew to Egypt to meet his captors. Blind folded, she was driven to see her husband at a secret facility in Egypt. On her return to Australia, Mrs Abbass alerted the Australian Government. Unfortunately, this resulted in the ransom takers breaking all future contact. Mohamed Abbass is still missing. |
Anyone who may have information that can assist in safe return of Mr Abbass or any information about him, is urged to contact Martin Hodgson. firstname.lastname@example.org |
Mohmed Abbass - A Missing Australian |
Report by SBS Journalist Bronwyn Adcock
REPORTER: Bronwyn Adcock
It was the morning of February 13, 1999 and Seham Abbass was waiting at her home in Sydney's western suburbs for her husband to arrive.
Mohamed Abbass had been on one month's holiday in his native Egypt. A friend had gone to the airport to pick him up, but returned alone, telling Seham that while Mohamed was booked on the plane, he wasn't on it.
SEHAM ABBASS, (Translation): It occurred to me that the plane might have been delayed or he might have missed the plane. So I called Egypt straight away. I called my family straight away. I asked them why Mohamed was late. But they didn't know. They said, "We drove him to the airport ... and we know nothing about him." I asked if he'd called from anywhere but they said he hadn't. And that's when my journey of suffering started.
64-year-old Mohamed Abbass, an Australian citizen since 1971, is still officially missing today. He's never come back to his job at Telstra, where he worked for decades. And he's never returned to his wife and young family in Sydney.
SEHAM ABBASS, (Translation): Sarah will write to Parliament and you to Immigration.
Seham believes that for the past 6.5 years her husband has been held without charge in an Egyptian prison. The family has written dozens of letters to the Australian Government, human rights groups and even foreign politicians asking for help.
AHMED ABBASS, LETTER TO PM: 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. On 5 September it is Father's Day and I would like to see my dad. Please help me solve my dad's problem.
JASMINE ABBASS, LETTER TO MINISTER: To the Minister of Immigration, I am Jasmine Abbass and I am 11 years old and live in Sydney, Australia. My father went to Egypt for a holiday in 1999 but unfortunately never returned. The Egyptian Government won't let my family or our Egyptian lawyer see him.
Ahmed is too young to even remember his father, who disappeared when he was two years old. Even the older girls, Jasmine and Sarah, have only fragments of memory left.
REPORTER: 'Cause how old were you when he left?
JASMINE: Three and a half.
REPORTER: So what do you remember about him?
JASMINE: He used to take us to the park and to the beach and stuff and I can remember what he looked like and what he wore to work.
REPORTER: Are there things you can't remember?
JASMINE: Um... Kind of. Kind of can't remember things about him like. what he was like, like personality and stuff.
Seham feels she's locked inside a nightmare. The Egyptian Government denies her husband is in Egypt and the Australian Government says it doesn't know where he is.
SEHAM ABBASS, (Translation): When I ask something, they won't respond or don't care. And the same goes when I ask here. This story has gone on for 6.5 years now. Egypt and Australia are fobbing me off on each other.
Seham is so certain her husband is detained in Egypt because she's seen him there. 1.5 years after he disappeared, she flew to Egypt. She made contact with Egyptian intermediaries, whom she won't identify, and paid a bribe of around A$2,000.
At the appointed time she was picked up in a car, blindfolded and driven to a prison somewhere in Cairo. She was given just 30 minutes with her husband.
SEHAM ABBASS, (Translation): I asked what the problem was and he said he didn't know. He begged me to get help from the Australian Government, as he is Australian, and he didn't know why he was there.
REPORTER: What kind of state of health was he in?
SEHAM ABBASS, (Translation): He was sad and, he was pscychologically stressed. I couldn't say things to him that would upset him too much so I didn't tell him our house had burnt down.
After the meeting Seham was told she must pay even more money if she wanted her husband released. She was warned that people would be watching her. Scared for the safety of her three children, who were with her, and not having the money, Seham flew back to Australia. She told Australia's Department of Foreign Affairs what she'd seen.
SEHAM ABBASS, (Translation): I thought that when I informed them here, they'd help me. But they didn't care about anything at all.
REPORTER: Are you aware that Mrs Abbass has told the Department of Foreign Affairs that she actually saw her husband in an Egyptian prison?
BRUCE BILLSON, PARLIAMENTARY SECRETARY FOREIGN AFFAIRS: Very much aware of that, we take - took that piece of information very seriously given the amount of work that had gone in to trying to establish Mr Abbass's location and wellbeing. When we became aware of that information, we naturally pursued it through Egyptian authorities, and they were quite adamant they didn't have Mr Abbass, he wasn't being detained in Egypt.
REPORTER: So what's your understanding of where he is?
BRUCE BILLSON: Well, at the moment we don't know, we don't know where he is. The reports are that the last concrete evidence we have is that he was in Turkey.
One of Seham's main frustrations on what she calls her journey of suffering is the insistence by Australian authorities that Mohamed disappeared in Turkey.
Seham acknowledges that on the day Mohamed disappeared back in 1999, he was planning to fly out to Turkey for a quick side trip, before flying back to Sydney.
Mohamed's brother-in-law in Cairo has told Dateline that he dropped off Mohamed at Cairo airport. However Seham says that when she first made enquiries about the fate of her husband, the Egyptian Consulate in Istanbul told her Mohamed never entered Turkey. This was repeated when Seham went to the Egyptian Consulate in Sydney.
SEHAM ABBASS, (Translation): The Consul, Essam Ramadam said he was glad I'd come as he had a fax from Istanbul stating that my husband hadn't entered Istanbul. I said "He must be in Egypt then." "Why are you saying that?" he said. So I asked him to send me a copy of the fax. But he refused, stating it was addressed to them.
The current Egyptian Consul General in Sydney refused to be interviewed by Dateline. But Egypt's official position now is that Mohamed Abbass did go to Turkey.
The Australian Government says they also have information that Mr Abbass did get on his plane and fly to Turkey.
BRUCE BILLSON: And in terms of flight movements through the airline he was using, travel plans, immigration checks and not only our own federal police but Interpol both in Turkey and also in Egypt. That seems to be the only concrete basis we have to work from.
There is an explanation as to why airline and immigration records would show that Mohamed Abbass had gone to Turkey. Mohamed Gharib Abdel Aziz is the family's Egyptian lawyer. He believes that Mr Abbass was arrested after checking in and going through immigration at Cairo airport, so it would appear as though he'd left the country.
MOHAMED GHARIB ABDEL AZIZ, LAWYER, (Translation): They let you go through customs, they stamp your passport with the departure stamp. While waiting in the transit area for your flight, you're called to the information desk. There's an officer of the State Security Investigations (SSI) who tells you to go with him.
You go through the same gates where your passport was stamped and re-enter the country through those gates. And there's no proof of re-entry only proof of departure.
Mr Aziz knows this technique first-hand - it's happened to him before, but fortunately he was released after questioning.
Just why Mohamed Abbass was detained in Egypt is a mystery. He's never been charged with anything and there are no allegations from any source he was involved in any illegal or terrorist activity. His Egyptian lawyer thinks he may have been mistaken for an Islamic fundamentalist.
MOHAMED GHARIB ABDEL AZIZ, (Translation): Anyone with a beard is seen as suspicious by security, until the opposite is proven. Throughout the 1980s and 90's and up until now there' been this security paranoia. In my analysis and from my experience, he has a beard, he was leaving Egypt on an Australian passport, he'd migrated to Australia many years ago and was on his way to Turkey. They had no information about him so they decided to get some.
This scenario may seem extreme. However, human rights groups and even the US State Department regularly report on cases of arbitrary arrest, detention and disappearances in Egypt.
No-one knows why Mohamed Abbass was never released, though it's clear that some have seen his ongoing detention as a money-making venture.
When she returned from Egypt after seeing her husband, Seham received a phone call from Egypt, demanding more money in return for Mohamed's release. In ongoing demands, a number of Egyptian Australians in Sydney have acted as intermediaries.
SEHAM ABBASS, (Translation): A man came to see me and told me that my husband hadn't been officially detained so he can never be released officially. If you want him out it must be done unofficially.
At one point US$200,000 was demanded. Seham wanted to sell the family home to raise the money, but couldn't, because the property is in her missing husband's name.
Since her husband, the sole breadwinner in the family, disappeared, Seham's been plagued by financial problems. She relies on the help of friends and neighbours, like Eric, for help with jobs her husband once did.
Seham's inability to speak English fluently is another difficulty for her and certainly impedes her ability to communicate with Australian authorities. Next-door neighbour Eric remembers Mohamed Abbass well.
ERIC: He was a good fella, I knew him well. I only feel sorry that they, you know, that their father's away from them, poor little ones, because they haven't seen him! You know, it's a shame and she's a nice lady.
While Seham is in despair that Australian authorities won't accept her husband is being illegally held in Egypt, there is a new eyewitness. Ex-Guantanamo Bay detainee Mamdouh Habib has seen him too. Mamdouh Habib spent six months in an Egyptian prison in late 2001, early 2002, after being sent there by the United States. He says that on one occasion during this period, Mohamed Abbass, whose face he knew from Sydney, was paraded before him by interrogators.
MAMDOUH HABIB: They say, "You know this guy? He's Mohamed Abbass. He disappeared two years ago." And I said... They said, "We are very strong, we have a very good connection everywhere around the world, we can do whatever we want to do." And they do threat for me if I not cooperate with them and they do what they want to do, they want me to do, I will be same this man.
REPORTER: Did he see you, do you know?
MAMDOUH HABIB: No idea. I think he is behind the window. I don't know if he see me or not.
REPORTER: And what kind of physical state did he appear to be in?
MAMDOUH HABIB: I can't tell you the physical, but only what I see - he was sit down in chair, he had handcuff in his hand. He wearing a blue uniform and... his head shaking like this. Yeah, his head was shaking, and hands, he move it like this.
Mamdouh Habib paints a disturbing picture of a prison being used for unofficial detentions, including of many foreigners.
MAMDOUH HABIB: Yeah, plenty people, from everywhere around the world they can find this. I don't think this is jail - it's not jail, it's not prison. This is a place to kidnap anybody to take him there.
REPORTER: So, you and Mohamed Abbass were not the only foreigners in that prison?
MAMDOUH HABIB: No, no, they have a lot of people. They have from Britain, they have American, they have from everywhere around the world.
Habib says that in this prison, money certainly changes hands.
MAMDOUH HABIB: Running their own business there - that's exactly what happened.
We took this new eyewitness account to the Australian Government.
REPORTER: If you look at the facts overall, there are two eyewitnesses now that have seen Mr Abbass in an Egyptian jail. Mrs Abbass has received ongoing demands from Egypt over the last six years, for money in return to have her husband released. From my point of view it seems quite convincing that he actually is in this Egyptian prison.
What can the Australian Government and what should the Australian Government do in this situation?
BRUCE BILLSON: What the Australian Government can do, and has done, and will continue to do is canvass every avenue to try and establish where Mr Abbass is. If there can be some evidence...
REPORTER: Don't we know where he is? This is the point. We are pretty sure he's in an Egyptian prison. There are two people who have seen him there.
BRUCE BILLSON: You as a journalist might be just recently interested in this subject, might assert where he is. We've had people working on this for many years trying to establish actually where he is, not simply assert where he is.
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.
The Australian lawyer who's just taken up the case says two eyewitness accounts do constitute evidence.
STEPHEN KENNY, LAWYER: Well, there is real evidence and they need to seriously consider it. This man's life depends on the action the Australian Government are going to take, probably in the next six months. They need to speak out very strongly and insistently to the Egyptian Government to insist that he be released and sent back to Australia on whatever terms and conditions.
Stephen Kenny - who also represented a more well-known Australian detained overseas, David Hicks - says time is running out for Mohamed Abbass.
REPORTER: How perilous do you think the situation is for Mr Abbass?
STEPHEN KENNY: Unfortunately, it's extremely perilous. I have very grave concerns about his welfare and safety, to be honest. I'm very concerned about it.
It's now been more than three years since a confirmed sighting of Mohamed Abbass. There are concerns it could already be too late. Despite assurances they've done all they can, Seham Abbass says she feels let down by the Australian Government.
SEHAM ABBASS, (Translation): How could it wash its hands of children and of a person who has rights? My problem is lost between two countries. I've fallen into a chasm between the two countries.