Prisoners of conscience suffer in Egypt's 'horrid prisons': Amnesty

10 years after uprising, prisoners of conscience suffer in Egypt's 'horrid prisons': Amnesty
6 min read
23 January, 2021
To mark 10 years since the uprising in Egypt, Amnesty International released a report detailing the human rights abuses occurring in the country's prisons.
Amnesty International documented the horrific abuses suffered by Egyptian prisoners [Getty]
To mark the 10th anniversary of the start of Egypt’s 2011 uprising, Amnesty International released a damning report that highlights a litany of human rights abuses that have occurred in Egypt’s prisons, and adds yet another black mark to the record of Egyptian President Abdel Fattah El-Sisi. 

The report, titled “What do I care if you die?” Negligence and denial of heath care in the Egyptian prisons, reveals the nightmare that prisoners of conscience and others held for political reasons are experiencing behind the walls of Egypt’s prisons

It documents physical torture, medical neglect, emotional and psychological abuses, inhumane overcrowding, sexual abuse and harassment, prolonged and indefinite solitary confinement, dangerously unsanitary conditions, and no access to family visits. 

The report shows how the dream of open democracy and a free and fair society were left to die in Sisi’s prisons. 

“Prison officials show utter disregard for the lives and wellbeing of prisoners crammed into the country’s overcrowded prisons and largely ignore their health needs," said Philip Luther, Amnesty International's Middle East and North Africa Research and Advocacy Director.  

"They leave it to the prisoners' families to provide them with medication, food and cash to buy basics like soap and inflict additional suffering by denying them adequate medical treatment or timely transfer to hospitals,” Luther added.

For the report, Amnesty International focused on 67 individuals, held in three women’s prisons and 13 men’s prisons in seven governorates. Ten of those studied died in custody while two others died shortly after their release. 

The Egyptian government did not contribute or comment on the findings of the report.

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Egyptian authorities have not disclosed how many people are being held in prisons across the country, but in April 2020, the OHCHR estimated the number to be over 114,000. This is more than twice the 55,000 that President Sisi claimed.

According to the report, “the number of prisoners mushroomed after the ouster of late former President Mohamed Morsi in July 2013, leading to severe overcrowding.”

A 2020 report by the International Red Cross said that the recommended minimum floorspace for prisoners should be 3.4m2. The report estimated an average 1.1m2 floor space available per prisoner in the 16 prisons studied. 

Cruel and inhumane treatment

Former detainees from the prisons examined in the report described the appalling conditions that they endured.

According to the report, prisoners were held in, “unventilated, overcrowded cells with substandard sanitation, and guards denying them adequate bedding and clothes, sufficient food, items for personal hygiene including sanitary towels and access to fresh air and exercise.”

The report describes how some prisoners were singled out for particularly cruel and inhumane treatment.

“There is evidence that prison authorities, in some cases citing instructions from the National Security Agency (NSA), target certain prisoners to punish them for their perceived opposition to or criticism of the government,” Philip Luther said. 

These political opponents would be subjected to, “prolonged and indefinite solitary confinement in abusive conditions for more than 22-23 hours a day; being denied family visits for periods of up to four years and being deprived of receiving any food packages or other necessities from relatives.”

Amnesty highlighted two specific cases in their report. 

Zyad El-Elaimy is a prisoner of conscience, a former member of parliament, and one of the leaders of the Egyptian Social Democratic Party. He was sentenced to one year in prison and fined 20,000 Egyptian pounds for “spreading false news with an intent to spread panic among the people and disturbing public peace” during a TV interview with the BBC in 2017.

According to the report, prison officials denied him the constant care he needs for his underlying medical conditions.

Abdelmoniem Aboulfotoh, 69, another case highlighted in the report, is a former presidential candidate and founder of opposition party Misr Al-Qawia. 

Aboulfotoh was arrested in February 2018, prior to Sisi’s re-election, and charged with being part of a banned group and spreading false news. Egyptian prosecutors did not specify the group, but it is widely believed to be the Muslim Brotherhood.

Since his arrest, Aboulfotoh has been held, “in solitary confinement and suffers from diabetes, high blood pressure and an enlarged prostate, yet the prison authorities have repeatedly denied his requests for transfer for treatment outside the prison, and severely delayed access to doctors inside prison. Prosecutors have dismissed his complaints,” according to the report. 

In 2019, Aboulfotoh suffered two heart attacks while in prison. His son blamed the conditions inside Cairo’s Torah prison and the deliberate abuse he suffers as the cause.

Describing the treatment of the two detainees, Luther said that the, “gross dereliction of duty by the prison authorities is carried out with the knowledge and sometimes complicity of prosecutors in the absence of any independent oversight.” 

Death by neglect

The inhumane treatment of Egyptian prisoners has led to a variety of health complications and medical emergencies, but also, as reported in Amnesty’s report, the death of inmates. 

Amnesty investigated the deaths of 12 individuals who died in custody or shortly after their release, but notes that they are “aware of 37 other cases in 2020, where the organisation was unable to obtain consent from families for fear of reprisals.”

The true scale of deaths in Egyptian prisons is estimated to be in the hundreds, although authorities refuse to, “disclose figures or carry out effective, thorough, impartial and independent investigations into such deaths.” 

“Horrid prison conditions, including in prolonged solitary confinement, coupled with the deliberate denial of adequate health care may have contributed or led to multiple deaths in 2019 and 2020. Lives were also cut short by inadequate or delayed treatment in cases of emergency,” explained the report. 

One of the cases studied in the report was that of Shady Habash. 

Habash was imprisoned, without trial, in March 2018, after making a music video for the exiled Egyptian rock musician Ramy Essam, which mocked the Egyptian president. He, along with eight others, were accused of “joining a terrorist group and spreading false news”

After more than two years in pretrial detention, Habash died of alcohol poisoning. Amnesty’s report documents how, “prison staff at Tora Investigations Prison failed to urgently transfer him to an outside hospital, despite knowing he was suffering from alcohol poisoning.”

Compounding misery

The recent Covid-19 pandemic has created further misery and suffering for those being held in Egyptian prisons. 

The unhygienic and unsanitary conditions have allowed the virus to spread, and authorities have made no efforts to provide sanitary products, test or screen new arrivals, or even isolate those who are infected. 

Read more: Egypt buries a decade of hope and tyranny

“Longstanding issues, such as a lack of clean water, poor ventilation and overcrowding, have made physical distancing and preventative hygienic measures impossible to implement,” writes Amnesty.

For those who do contract the virus and are isolated, they face further abuses.

“In some prisons, they were quarantined in small and dark cells used for solitary confinement without access to adequate treatment.” 

A desperate need for transparency 

In the ten years that have passed since the Egyptian uprising, hopes of a democratic future, free from the abuses, government repression, and a suppression of freedom of speech have dwindled. 

Amnesty International’s report reveales how the Egyptian government, under President El-Sisi, has used prisons to punish political opponents and voices calling for justice and accountability. 

In an impassioned call, Philip Luther urged the Egyptian government to throw open the doors of their prisons and allow for a full inspection and accounting of the crimes committed. 

“Egyptian authorities must allow independent experts unfettered access to prisons and work with them on addressing the abysmal conditions of detention and access to healthcare in prisons, before more lives are tragically lost,” said Philip Luther.

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