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Robert Fisk’s World: The curious case of the missing Egyptian and the Swiss police

Now here's a weird story from Cairo. Or rather from Geneva. Or wherever ex-Colonel Mohamed el-Ghanem, formerly a senior officer in the Egyptian interior ministry, happens to be. Just over nine years ago, when we met behind the old Marriott Hotel on the Nile, he had been newly fired by his Egyptian spookmasters. And he was having a little problem. Every time he went to Cairo airport for an international flight, the cops put an exit stamp in his passport – then told him he wasn't allowed to leave. Some of the policemen were his own former students at the Cairo police academy.

He wanted, you see, to claim political asylum, first in Italy and then in Switzerland. He holds a PhD in law from Rome University and published a book on "the law and terrorism" in 1991, a work he said formed the basis of much recent Egyptian legislation. He used to run the police insurance fund and was head of the interior ministry's legal department. An unlikely whistleblower, you may say. But he was furious at Egyptian government corruption, nepotism, fraudulent charges against Egyptian journalists, torture in Egyptian jails, human rights abuses – even the unfair treatment of Christian Coptic Egyptians when they wanted to build a church in majority Muslim Egypt. Can you ask Amnesty for help, he pleaded with me?

I published a long report on his campaign, along with his photograph. This appeared to be one brave man. Then we lost touch. It was a year later that he called me from Geneva to say that the Swiss had granted him temporary political asylum. All well and good, I thought. Then strange things happened. The general again called me up in Beirut in 2003 to say that the Swiss secret police were trying to force him to penetrate al-Qa'ida and Switzerland's Arab community, that he had refused – and that the Swiss secret police were threatening him.

The Swiss secret police, I hear readers ask? The Swiss secret police? It was a bit like telling me that the Luxembourg intelligence service was abusing human rights. But then I said, hold on a minute. It's not many years since the Swiss cops uncovered an Israeli spy cell in Geneva where it was trying to bug the home of an alleged Hizbollah member – these not very intelligent Israeli intelligence men had got a male and female agent to snog in a car across the road to give a warning if the cops came, and a very proper Swiss lady called the police to say that a couple were behaving improperly in her street.

The Israelis were allowed to go quietly back to Tel Aviv on condition they didn't return – but one of them did, posing as a businessman. And – so says one of my best sources in Beirut – was punished by the Swiss by being betrayed to Hizbollah, who arranged a sting operation to persuade him to go to Beirut to rescue captured Israeli soldiers. He ended up sharing their jail until exchanged in a prisoner swap. So maybe the Swiss lads (I suppose there are lasses as well) should be taken a bit more seriously.

But back to our Egyptian colonel. By 2005, he was supposedly authoring an article, alleging that Switzerland was "the most contemptible among the enemies of Islam" since it supported the American occupation of Iraq, stood behind Mubarak's "renegade regime" and was putting pressure on Turkey because its government had become "half-Islamic". Switzerland was part of an "international pact of the cross" and was trying – and here comes the interesting bit – "to penetrate Muslim society to collect intelligence".

El-Ghanem's article apparently turned up on jihadist websites and the Swiss authorities were not amused – not least, I imagine, because the article, if genuine, included the words "the day we strike the big stroke, we will avenge". The Swiss told the UN's "Enforced and Voluntary Disappearances" experts that he had been locked up in January, 2007, for what they called – in the English version of their reply – "his dangerousness". (In French, this wonderful word expression came out as dangerosité.)

Then last year, el-Ghanem's brother Ali rang me up in Beirut from his home in Washington DC to tell me that Mohamed el-Ghanem had disappeared. He was being held, he claimed, in a Swiss prison, without any contact with his family or friends. Ali said he was told Mohamed did not want to talk to him. The UN became involved and demanded to know from the Swiss authorities where he was. I can reveal that he is in the Champ-Dollon prison in Geneva, that he was placed there by the Chambre d'accusation of the canton of Geneva on 12 March 2007, and that he is still there to this day. No charges, it seems.

Now, I've got nothing against Switzerland – indeed I have massive respect for the International Red Cross which is headquartered in Geneva (though their Second World War behaviour was pretty pathetic). But I also recall that during that unfortunate conflict, the Swiss asked the Germans to stamp Jewish-German passports with a J so they could be turned round at the border when they sought refuge. Indeed, they even had a Swiss Red Cross team treating German troops on the eastern front – while not being allowed to look after dying Soviet soldiers. And I'm still amazed – reader, doubt it not – that the pre-war Swiss Nazi Party (it was called, of course, the National Front) had a supporter called Maurice Bavaud who tried to assassinate Hitler in 1938 because he didn't think the Führer was anti-Semitic enough!

But back to the present, when all that seems to upset the Swiss are American attempts to find out what secret US citizens' accounts their banks may be holding. Why on earth is el-Ghanem being held? When I met him in Cairo, he was campaigning for Christian Copts to have equal rights with Muslims. Is this really the man who would write the tract I've quoted above? And the Swiss have denied his disappearance.

So why is he locked up in Geneva? If he's imprisoned incommunicado and can't talk to anyone, then he surely has disappeared. As el-Ghanem's lawyer might say – if he had one – I rest my case.