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

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 to develop a coordinated response to mass arrests by the police and illegal detention and inhuman treatment of detainees, and to facilitate and coordinate efforts by human rights groups and lawyers. 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 with a process to enable detainees to communicate with the FDEP by texting their full name, age, ID, health status and location of detention to the organization. The communications team then relays that information to the appropriate sub-team to take action.

To carry out this tactic, the FDEP relies on several hotline numbers which activists use to submit reports about detentions, arrests, injuries, and the need for lawyers. The organization also uses field representatives who monitor the situation on the ground and report to the FDEP operations unit.

Upon receiving information about an arrest at a demonstration or protest, lawyers in the network move to several potential places where activists may be brought, such as police stations close to the area of the demonstration, state security offices or prosecution offices. At this stage, the lawyers attend the interrogation process and ensure those arrested do not face any torture. Arrested demonstrators could be released immediately 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.

If there are injuries or if the arrested individual is in very bad health, the lawyers call one of the doctors from the FDEP to try to do a check. When the detainee is released, the team responsible for documentation meets him or her to collect a testimony. Lawyers later provide legal help if a detainee wants to file a complaint or legal case.
In addition to their work directly on behalf of the detainees, the communications 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 more information. The communication team often receives such calls from families and relatives to check for updates.

The FDEP received many text messages when it first implemented this model, so it was able to document many names and use SMS 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. The FDEP has been able to help hundreds of Egyptian protesters through the use of this tactic.

Despite it success, the FDEP communications team also experienced numerous challenges that had a negative impact on its ability to provide help and receive alerts from others. Most importantly, there were SMS delivery timing problems. Text messages could take between a few seconds or a few hours to be delivered. Some never even reached the intended recipient. These issues could happen because of a network overload, due to a disruption of services by security forces, or because the mobile companies shut down the FDEP hotlines based on government security orders. In any case, the unreliablility of the text message system meant that some detainees did not get the help they needed when they needed it.

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

What we can learn from this tactic: 

Tactics and initiatives based on mobile phone technology 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 be aware of these problems and always have a different plan of action in place if text messaging should fail. Because of these issues, text message reporting systems may be best utilized for issues where timing is not crucial.