Articles

« Beyond deprivation of liberty: 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”.

Other articles

“Chronicles from Egypt: not only afraid to talk… Total state of fear un today Egypt »

“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 1 – From a simple walk to detention

On Saturday, September 21, 2019, Hossam was walking in the street, near Tahrir Square. He just traveled all the way from 6th of October in order to deliver delicious home-made food kindly prepared by his 53 year-old mother for a foreign friend living in Cairo. 

He was supposed to be back home soon after that brief meeting. His mother was waiting at home, but the son did not show up. His elder brother now living abroad was trying to reach him, but to not avail. He had two phones, both of them mysteriously unreachable.

This is how the story of most Egyptians who get arrested begins.

Later, the family would know that he was kidnapped near Mohamed Mahmoud Street, one of the centers of the 2011 revolution widely renewed for its collection of graffiti filling the walls of the area at the time.  As the National Security Service brutally took him from the street and conducted him first to a police station and then to prison, Hossam suddenly turned from a free man walking in the street to a potential criminal confined in detention.

In the meanwhile, his family would have no official information on the reasons for his detention.

Talaat Harb Square. Downtown Cairo, December 2019. Photo by Veronica Merlo

Downtown Cairo transforms into a police state

This episode might not be surprising to any person who has recently lived in Cairo.

Visibly, “Wust el-Balad”, the downtown, and its surroundings have become sensitive areas under tight security control.

Plain clothes, police vehicles and soldiers perceptibly dominate the space around main streets, squares and bridges, as if the state would be either at war or ready to fight one. In a tweet from September 27th, 2019, BBC Arabic Correspondent in Egypt and Middle East, Sally Nabil, describes an unprecedented security deployment in the Egyptian capital and concludes: “Tahrir Square looks more like military barracks!”.

As I was living in Cairo at the time, I could myself witness a reality where “Egyptians are treated as criminals simply for peacefully expressing their opinions” in Naja Bounaim’s, Amnesty International North Africa Campaign Director, words.

Not only did people get used to be extremely cautious when speaking, but they equally feel vulnerable while simply walking or even staying in their own homes. In addition to “spot checks” of peoples’ phones, looking for content that might deem political, visits of people’s apartments from the “Mabaheth”, State Security Service Investigations, increased in frequency and degree of intrusion.

On a Sunday morning, I opened the door of my apartment in Mounira neighbourhood and I found myself in front of two people with civilian clothes accompanied by the “Bawab”, the doorman. After asking for the contract of the apartment, they did not hesitate to enter the rooms of my two flatmates and I. After a thorough search through our books, laptops and phones accompanied by precise questions on our identity, they proceeded to the nearby apartment.

Beyond urgent security measures: normalization of intrusion of people’s privacy

Undoubtedly, the September protests sparked by the publication of a series of videos by Egyptian former army contractor Mohamed Ali denouncing the corruption of the government from Spain provided the justification for the regime to take urgent actions. The measures adopted were conceived as part of the higher “battle against terrorism” which has been on the top of Al-Sisi’s agenda since his takeover in 2013.  The words from Al Sisi’s official account on Twitter on September 27th show the adoption of a reinforced discourse on the necessity for the nation to fight terrorism, a battle that, he states, “has not ended yet”.

While we could consider this exponential crackdown as a temporary reaction to the wave of protests on September 20th, 2019, the observation of the reality in Cairo in the following period tells us otherwise.

The aforementioned reinforced measures to preserve the country’s stability have uninterruptedly been in force in the last months, with only slight differences in degree of intensity depending on the week. As Egyptian Human Rights activist Mona Seif explains on a twit on October 13th, 2019 :  “Every week a new activist gets kidnapped from the street, from home, from work”.

Photo by New York Times in Egypt

In January 2020, the very same atmosphere of last September characterized by total control over people’s movements, words and life was re-newly manifest in the capital. On the anniversary of the 25th January revolution -now exclusively referred to as the traditional celebration of  “’Aid al Shurta”, “The Police Day”, in the official government’s discourse- downtown was unsurprisingly shut down. 

Cairo-based journalist for The Wall Street Journal, Amira el-Fekki, reported that day on Twitter: “In what is becoming a normalized assault on privacy, police searching people’s phones around downtown #Cairo, #Tahrir. Some restaurants aren’t delivering to that area today to avoid harassment of their delivery guys”.

In the article “Your guide to surviving downtown during the revolution anniversary crackdown” published by the independent online newspaper Mada Masr on January 21st, the testimonies of people describing their experiences of arbitrary arrests, raids and random searches suggest a repeated scenario of total control to which any Egyptian citizen can be subject.

Downtown between past and present

Without forgetting the extension of similar security measures to numerous cities all around Egypt, the scenario in downtown Cairo from where Hossam was kidnapped last September best exemplifies the current government’s policy of total control over the public and private space.

Paradoxically, a place historically associated with intellectual development, cultural exchange and artistic creativity, looks now like a police state. The principles of “Aysh, Hurriya wa Adala Ijtimaiya”, “Bread, Freedom and Social Justice”, circulating in that same area in 2011 have rapidly been substituted by an atmosphere of constant fear, where any activity, movement and word is under tight control.

The question remains whether the government’s repressive measures in a space that was once the symbol of Egyptian’s fight for freedom will succeed in redefining its past distinguished identity.

Zahrat al-Bustan, Local Cafë in Downtown Cairo with graffiti of prominent Egyptian figures. Photo by Veronica Merlo

For now, we can only silently observe the changing environment and society animating the area. A process of transformation where the concept of “the square” as formulated in the Egyptian revolution has merely become a memory, or rather “a story to tell in narrations”, as Egyptian rock band Cairokee warned in its famous revolutionary song “al Midan”, the Square.


O you the square, where were you long ago? […]

sometimes I am afraid that we become just a memory

we get away from you then the idea dies and fades away

and we go back to forget what happened

and you become a story to tell in narrations

يا يا الميدان كنت فين من زمان

ساعات بخاف نبقي ذكري

نبعد عنك تموت الفكرة

ونرجع تاني ننسي اللي فات

ونحكي عنك في الحكايات


Other articles

Afrique – Les dictateurs Sassou, Condé, Gnassingbé, Biya, Sissi… interpellés par le Coronavirus qui les menace

Après la Chine où la maladie s’est déclenchée, des cas de coronavirus ont été détectés en France, en Italie, au Japon, en Iran, en Irak, en Coré du sud, aux Usa… Des pays avec une surveillance médicale évoluée. L’Afrique, continent le plus vulnérable et le plus perméable, peine encore à prendre des dispositions solides. Pourtant la Chine, épicentre de la maladie, est devenue au cours de cette dernière décennie, le pays le plus prisé des Africains.

La difficulté dans l’obtention de visas pour l’Europe et les Etats-Unis d’une part et des avantages commerciaux vers la Chine d’autre part, ont fait que les Africains choisissent le pays de Mao comme destination de prédilection. Malheureusement c’est dans ce nouveau centre d’affaire mondial que le Coronavirus s’est déclenché, faisant à ce jour environ 2700 morts et plus de 77000 malades, dont la plupart sont mis en quarantaine.

«Il est impensable que le continent africain soit le seul épargné. Il est fort possible que nous ayons des cas sur le continent qui n’ont pas été détectés.»

Premier partenaire commercial du continent, avec des échanges qui ont dépassé les 200 milliards de dollars en 2019 et une augmentation de plus de 600%. des liaisons aériennes entre l’Afrique et la Chine. Il y a six vols directs d’Ethiopian Airlines, quatre vols direct de Royal Air Maroc, trois vols direct Kenya Airways, deux vols direct de Rwandair…

Tous relient la chine à l’Afrique chaque semaine. Tous les jours, des centaines des chinois posent leurs valises sur le continent noir et dans le sens contraire, de nombreux africains continuent à se fréquenter comme si le confinement ne concernait que les occidentaux.

Certes, le sous-sol africain est le plus riche de la planète terre cependant, ses habitants sont les plus désorganisés qui existent avec des structures sanitaires en lambeau. Face donc à cette désorganisation, pauvreté et divers échanges, on est en droit de paraphraser John Nkengue, directeur du centre africain de prévention de la lutte contre les maladies a l’UA qui a déclaré: « Il est impensable que le continent africain soit le seul épargné. Il est fort possible que nous ayons des cas sur le continent qui n’ont pas été détectés ».

Si par le passé, les africains ont bénéficié du concours des occidentaux pour lutter contre le virus Ebola au Libéria, en Sierra Leone, en Guinée Conakry, en République Démocratique du Congo (RDC), il n’est pas sûr aujourd’hui que ses mêmes partenaires préoccupés par leur sécurité par rapport au virus puisse voler à leurs secours.

Les dictateurs, pillards et gouvernants africains ne doivent donc plus tout attendre, des partenaires au développement, des institutions spécialisées des Nations Unies, de l’OMS (Organisation Mondiale de la santé) ou des pays du nord pour prendre des initiatives. La surveillance doit être organisée afin d’épargner les populations en proie à la pauvreté endémique et à des violences de tout genre. La Chine par exemple, a construit plusieurs centres hospitaliers spécialisés contre le virus en un temps record. En France, où 6 cas ont été déclarés, une batterie de mesures est prise et la sensibilisation se fait au quotidien au plus haut sommet de l’Etat afin d’empêcher la propagation de la maladie.

Le glas vient de sonner pour les dictateurs et violeurs des droits, plus préoccupés par leur image, par la tricherie des élections, par le pillage. Il faudrait faire plus que de bomber leur torse et leurs muscles pour combattre efficacement le virus Coronavirus sur le sol africain.

Par ailleurs, en présence des gouvernants irresponsables tels ceux qui ne communiquent pas et bâillonnent les voix discordantes, les populations doivent se prendre en charge elles-mêmes pour ne pas subir les effets pervers du Coronavirus.

Un espoir à confirmer

Testé en Chine dans une dizaine d’hôpitaux selon le Huffinghton Post, la chloroquine pourrait être un traitement efficace contre le Coronavirus. Cette information relayée par le docteur Raoult, spécialiste français des maladies infectieuses, reste à confirmer.

En attendant que l’espoir se confirme, j’appelle les africains à appliquer les méthodes de prévention classiques comme partout dans le monde.

Les médias doivent jouer leur rôle traditionnel d’enquêter et d’informer comme le site zenga-mambu qui traite ce sujet constamment.

Selon nos informations, le mardi 25 février plusieurs ressortissants chinois seraient confinés suite à leur retour de voyage en Chine. D’autres sources affirment que certains chinois au Congo sont aussi concernés. Nous espérons que le gouvernement communiquera précisément sur ce sujet brûlant.

Enfin, bien que débordé, l’OMS dont le siège régional est à Brazzaville, devrait aider le Congo pour une riposte et une prévention efficace contre l’épidémie du Coronavirus. Cette attitude de l’OMS mettra en confiance plusieurs africains qui pensent qu’ils sont abandonnés.

D’autres articles sur l’Afrique

Pourquoi l’état Égyptien a décidé d’oublier la révolution de 2011 ?

[PRINTEMPS ARABE] Certes, mémoire et histoire sont souvent en conflit. Cependant, nous ne devrions pas oublier le droit de nous souvenir, de commémorer et de parler de tout événement passé. Cela peut prendre différentes formes, d’un article à une chanson, un tableau, un poème ou simplement une conversation. Ce qui est défini comme le droit humain fondamental à la liberté d’expression et qui n’est évidemment pas respecté dans l’Égypte d’aujourd’hui.