Utilizing SMS to facilitate communication between detainees and human rights groups to provide medical help and legal assistance

Illustration for using Online Tools & Digital Devices between Detainees & FDEP on 6 April 2010 - By: Ramy Raoof - Source: http://flic.kr/p/7UWXSD


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Front to Defend Egypt Protesters

The Front to Defend Egypt Protesters (FDEP) developed an approach to encourage activists and protesters at risk of arrest and detention to communicate with a volunteer network and mobilize timely legal, medical and other support.

The FDEP is a network of human rights NGOs, lawyers, doctors and researchers that work as volunteers to provide medical and legal assistance to protesters and demonstrators.  The FDEP was established in Cairo in 2008 in response to an initiative by the Hisham Mubarak Law Center (HMLC), an Egyptian human rights NGO well known for providing legal support. At the time, the police state was very strong and aggressive, and activists were commonly targeted during protests and demonstrations.

The FDEP was established for several reasons, including:

  • To develop a coordinated response to random and mass arrests by the police and illegal detentions and inhuman treatment of protesters and detainees, and
  • To facilitate and coordinate efforts and work by human rights groups and lawyers.

The Tactic
The FDEP is composed of several sub-teams, including a legal team, medical team, coordination team, translation team, communications teams and a team that provides food, medications, and other necessities to detainees.  The sub-teams are mobilized based on the specific needs of each case.

In April 2010, FDEP’s communication team experimented a process to enable detainees to communicate with the FDEP by texting their full name, age, ID and health status and location of detention.  The communications team then relays that information to the appropriate sub-team to take action.

To carry out this tactic, the FDEP relies on two primary sources of information:

  1. Several hotline numbers which activists use to submit reports about detentions, arrests, injuries, and the need for lawyers, and
  2. Field representatives that monitor the situation on the ground and report to the FDEP operation unit.

Upon receiving information about an arrest at a demonstration or protest, lawyers in the network moves to several potential places that activists might be moved to, such as police stations close to the area of the demonstration, state security offices or prosecution offices.At this stage, the lawyers ensure those arrested do not face any torture or violence, and attend the interrogation process. Arrested demonstrators could be released or kept for four days or more, depending on several legal variables. During this period, the lawyer will update the communication team with the status of those arrested while another team provides food, clothes, and medicine to those detained.
If there are injuries or the health status of an arrested individual is very bad, the lawyers try to get one of the doctors from the FDEP to get in to do a check. When he or she is released, the team responsible for documentation meets them to collect their testimonies. Lawyers later provide legal help if an activist or detainee wants to file a complaint or legal case.
In addition to their work directly on behalf of the detainees, the communication team also frequently publishes lists of detainees after verification and updates of detainees’ status, which allows families and relatives to contact the FDEP to get and provide more information. The communication team often receives such calls from families and relatives to check for updates.

The FDEP was able to document many names and received many text SMS and multimedia the first time it implemented this model, using SMS and mapping tools as well as online platforms to report and disseminate information.

In order to increase the success of the SMS tactic, the FDEP conducted several trainings for activists on the effective use of mobiles during demonstrations, protests and arrests. Part of the training included practicing how to create a draft SMS to save on the phone with some personal information, select the recipients, and send the SMS once in danger or facing threat.

Since its inception, the FDEP has been able to provide legal and medical help to hundreds of protesters.  It has also expanded its presence to several other cities where similar large-scale violations have occurred.

The creation of the FDEP was an important step forward in providing help and support to those facing human rights violations, and has reduced the risks and troubles they could face by the police.

Difficulties and Challenges
While the tactic has been successful in many ways, the FDEP communication team also experienced numerous challenges that had a negative impact on their ability to provide help and receive alerts from others:

  • SMS delivery timing problems: SMS could take few seconds or few hours to be delivered or it could never reach the intended recipients. This could be due to overload on the networks or due to disruption of the services by security forces.
  • Shutting down hotlines: Mobile companies occasionally would shut down the hotlines of the FDEP based on security orders.

Things to Consider
Tactics and initiatives built on ICT and mobile phones can be very powerful and helpful. However, as this example suggests, these tactics may not always work when needed for several reasons: the coverage could be very weak or down (deliberately or accidentally), the time delay of sending/receiving data can limit their effectiveness, and they may entail other risks. It is important to analyze different possibilities and always have a plan b.

Diagram - Using Online Tools and Digital Devices between Detainees & FDEP on 6 April 2010: http://flic.kr/p/7UWXSD