Chronicles from Egypt 2/4 – « Systematic torture and abuses in Egyptian prisons »

“Everyone has the right to life, liberty and security of person” the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948), Art. 3 recites.

This appears not to be the case in today’s Egypt, where reinforced security measures have increasingly been constricting Egyptian citizens’ life, liberty and security in the last years.

The government’s reaction to the wave of protests on September 20th, 2019 does not but confirm the presence of a policy of total repression under President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi’s rule.

Equally, the measures adopted to prevent any popular mobilization on the occasion of the anniversary of the Egyptian Revolution on January 25th, 2020 is highly indicative of the imposition of a state of total fear in the country.

A closer look into some everyday life stories of Egyptians cannot leave us indifferent.

Rather, it signals a worrying oppression leading to a deterioration, if not complete neglect, of human rights under what Project on the Middle East Democracy (POMED)’s Deputy Director for Policy, Andrew Miller, has called “the most repressive government in modern Egyptian history”.

Among the several stories that could clearly illustrate this scenario, we chose to present in a series of episodes the example of Hossam, who prefers to remain anonymous for security reasons. His vicissitudes since September 2019 stimulate a number of reflections on the current situation in a country that strongly prioritizes its national security but where citizens can hardly feel secure.

 

Episode 2 – Beyond deprivation of liberty: systematic torture and abuses un Egyptian prisons

The first stage of Hossam’s experience in prison was everything but untroubled. After preliminary control procedures at a police station, Hossam was moved to Tora prison. Tora prison is a familiar name for most Egyptians.

Among prominent figures who suffered from what a multitude of reports describe as cruel and degrading punishments, Mohammed Morsi’s five-year detention in Tora Prison and his successive death in court has become emblematic. Consequently, Tora prison represents in the mind of people a place of ill-treatment, abuse and torture.At the same time of his arrival, a group of detainees started a hunger strike to protest against torture.

As a result, everyone underwent increased ill treatment, including those as Hossam who did not participate in it.“For five entire days, for five entire days”, his brother keeps repeating, “Hossam could not see the light”. Predictably, he was not able to avoid torture. Detainees in Tora prison and he had to bear daily humiliation involving both verbal and physical violence.

Hossam’s experience as a prisoner did not come to an end there. After his first appearance in front of the “Niqab Amn al-Dawla”, the State Security Syndicate, he was charged with accusations of joining “terrorist organizations”. Abu Zaabal prison was therefore waiting for him.

During his 43-day imprisonment in Abu Zaabal Prison, the family could only visit him twice.

Policemen and people walk in front of the main gate of Tora prison in Cairo © HCR

Save Egyptian Detainees

Since President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi’s presidency, it is no secret that the crackdown on activists, bloggers, journalists, and researchers has reached an alarming peak.

It has become a common practice to silence opposition through enforced disappearance, assault and detention of people challenging the official state discourse. In its biannual report on detention in Egypt, the Detention Watch Project found 932 enforced disappearances, 638 arbitrary detentions, 320 equivocal killings from the first half of 2019. Notably, journalists have been among the most targeted categories. The International Press Institute (IPI) reported in December 2019 that 61 journalists were imprisoned and 25 arrested only during the three preceding months.

© CPJ - statistics - journalists attacked in Egypt since 1992

Furthermore, the September protests triggered a further escalation of governmental repression. The campaign launched on Twitter in November 2019 under the hashtag #SaveEgyptianDetainees confirms a deploring increase in arbitrary detention. As in the case of Hossam, several people were taken from the streets, leading to a registered number of 4321 detainees only in the weeks between September 20th and October 21st, 2019 according to The Egyptian Commission for Rights and Freedoms – ECFR.

Data on number of detainees from The Egyptian Commission for Rights and Freedoms © ECRF

Throughout that period, thousands of common citizens had to go through the experience of detention. Only after an exhausting waiting period with little information and extreme uncertainty, some of them were progressively released. As Cairo-based journalist for the Wall Street Journal, Amira el-Fekki, explains on December, 4th, 2019: “While Egyptian authorities have continued to release hundreds of detainees since September 20 events, critics are kept in jail over vague charges”.

The threat of detention has been taking its extreme form, leading to a widespread awareness of the predominance of “Dhulm”, injustice, in the current Egyptian state.

Systematic torture in Egyptian prisons. If “Dhulm” is a recurrent thought in the minds of thousands of Egyptians, “Ta’azib”, torture, has similarly acquired a prominent status in the Egyptian Arabic vocabulary.

Illutsration prison Tora Egypt – © @yssinmhmd

Detention in Egypt does not limit itself to deprivation of liberty. Since President Gamal Abdel Nasser’s times, prisons were associated with ill treatment, abuses and, above all, torture.Yet, under the presidency of Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, the State Security’s methods seem becoming exponentially brutal. “This is accurate, but outdated. Prisons today are much worse than this”, an Egyptian activist now living abroad exclaims. He was attending the screening of the movie inspired by true events on torture in Egypt “el Hatk” (The Assault) directed by Mohamed el Bahrawi.

This perceived increase in brutality of the practices adopted to silence opposition is also confirmed by official studies carried out by international organizations. In June 2017, the UN Committee against Torture stated that a study of current situation leads to “the inescapable conclusion that torture is a systematic practice in Egypt”.

The numerous testimonies of former prisoners equally send an alarming message.In the article “Thinking with Alaa” by independent Egyptian online newspaper Mada Masr, prominent human rights activist Alaa Abdel Fattah openly denounces its deploring conditions since the last of his numerous detentions in prison. In addition to the inevitable endurance of torture, during his imprisonment he was denied any basic needs such as access to reading materials, sunlight or clean water.

While the government has recurrently attempted to show a positive image of Egyptian prisons by organizing pre-scheduled visits for journalists and officials such as the open visit to Tora Prison last November, an independent research on the topic suggests a complete different reality.

International reaction On November 14th, 2019, Al Monitor reports that co-founder of April 6th movement and journalist Israa Abdelfattah would start a thirst strike. She was seeking to open an official investigation on complaints about her endurance of torture under custody. In a state where calls for a fair and transparent application of the rule of law are futile, people have been left with no other means but to recur to extreme gestures to make their cause being heard.It is here natural to wonder about the international reaction towards a country that has been manifestly violating fundamental human rights universally protected by international conventions.

In February 2020, six human rights NGOs requested in a joint letter to the European Council “to lead a comprehensive review of the European Union’s relations with Egypt” in reason of the sustained crackdown on human rights in the country.While numerous international organizations such as Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, Reporters without Borders, Committee to Protect Journalists and much more constantly denounce the alarming reality in current Egypt, states have often turned a blind-eye on the subject.

Even in front of prominent cases that have received extended media coverage and are directly related to other countries, governments have taken little or no action. The most recent case of Egyptian Patrick Zaki George studying in Italy and arrested at his arrival at Cairo Airport on February 7th, sparked a civil society outcry accompanied with some statements by politicians such as president of the European Parliament David Sassoli.However, we cannot observe any concrete steps to effectively re-discuss diplomatic and economic relations with Egypt.

Among others, business between Italy and Egypt is even increasing. Panarab newspaper al-Araby al-Jadid reported few days later that event the possibility of imminent agreement on armament between Cairo and Rome of 9 billiard euros.

Cases where the victims of the Egyptian repressive system are not only Egyptian citizens are recurrent, from the mysterious disappearance, torture and murder of Italian PHD student Giulio Regeni in 2016 to the death in prison of American-Egyptian Mustafa Kassem on January 13.The question is whether the international community will ever actively listen to and not merely pretend to hear the voices of thousands of people suffering from injustice in Egypt. Those voices screaming out loud the inhumanity of prison in Egypt, as expressed in Ramy Essam’s powerful song “Fe segn bel Alwan” (Colourful Prison).“Oh state of forlorn people, shame on your ideasGlory to prisoners as long as you are hypocrites”.

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