Parliament to take on Egypt’s notorious prisons

As allegations continue to mount against Egypt’s penal institutions, legislators plan to visit the lockups to see the conditions for themselves.

al-monitor Goats roam outside the Borg al-Arab prison in Alexandria, north of Cairo, Sept. 4, 2013.  Photo by REUTERS.

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prisons, human rights violations, egyptian politics, egyptian people's assembly, egyptian parliament, egyptian muslim brotherhood, detainees, abdel fattah al-sisi

Jul 27, 2016

Amid accusations that Egypt’s prisons have become tombs for dissidents, members of parliament’s Human Rights Committee are preparing to investigate first-hand.

Egypt has long faced international condemnation for allegedly torturing prisoners and making people “disappear.” On July 13, Amnesty International issued yet another report — some have called it “damning” — accusing Egypt’s National Security Agency (NSA) of abducting, torturing and forcibly disappearing people “to intimidate opponents and wipe out peaceful dissent.”

The human rights organization says an average of three to four people per day are seized, usually after “heavily armed security forces led by NSA officers storm their homes.” Many of the victims are held for months and “often kept blindfolded and handcuffed for the entire period.”

Egyptian authorities were annoyed by the report and denied any instances of torture or enforced disappearances. Egyptian Foreign Ministry spokesperson Ahmed Abu Zeid slammed Amnesty International for the report and accused the group of being motivated by political efforts to defame Egypt.

In an official statement the day the report was released, Abu Zeid accused Amnesty International of relying on biased sources, including the enemies of Egypt, and of ignoring that the judiciary handles all cases based on clear legal principles and the constitution.

Despite Egypt’s severe financial crisis, President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi has approved 16 new prisons, some which have opened, while others are still under construction.

According to the Arab Organization for Human Rights, Egypt has 42 prisons and 282 detention facilities in police stations. AOHR said that many Egyptians have died of torture in secret prisons in camps and intelligence headquarters.

“The overall count of prisoners in Egypt is 100,000, 10% of which are political prisoners and 15% debtors,” Atef Makhalif, deputy of parliament’s Human Rights Committee, told Al-Monitor. Makhalif said he obtained the data from the Prisons Authority.

He added that the committee will visit prisons and police stations, starting with Al Mazraa, one of four facilities in the Tora prison complex. The committee will develop in upcoming meetings a full plan for the next field visits.

Sisi’s administration denies that the new prisons are needed because of the rising number of inmates. Rather, the facilities are being built to reduce the number of prisoners per cell and provide space for more visiting rooms and exercise, officials say. 

Activists and families of prisoners recently used a Twitter hashtag that translates to “QanaterSnakes” to describe prison conditions. Yasmin Abdel Fattah, a Facebook user, wrote about the presence of snakes that terrorize inmates at El Qanater women’s prison. According to Abdel Fattah, prison administrators refused to remedy the problem and threatened the women with solitary confinement if they mentioned it again.

“Female prisoners at El Qanater have long complained about snake eggs in the cracks inside the cells and the large snakes they couldn’t kill,” Salma Ahmed, a relative of a prisoner, told Al-Monitor.

She added that prisoners’ families are willing to cover the costs of getting rid of the snakes, cleaning the cells and filling the cracks so the snakes would not come back again. However, the prison administration was indifferent and took no action.

Khaled Sahloub, a mass communications student, has become another example of the conditions in Egypt’s prisons. He was arrested Jan. 1, 2014, and faced charges of “possessing a camera,” in what is known as “the Marriott Cell case.” He was sentenced to three years in prison, and his name was added as a suspect in the “Helwan Brigades” case.

According to El Nadeem Center for Management and Rehabilitation of Victims of Violence, Sahloub’s health deteriorated severely after he was jailed in El Aqrab Prison and lost about 80 pounds. He also suffers from cartilage erosion in his spine and the lumbar vertebrae, osteoarthritis in the left knee and a heel spur. He cannot stand for more than a few minutes. He also suffers from a gastric ulcer, toothache and bone pain all over his body.

Meanwhile, the Prisons Authority website publishes a compendium of “prisoner's rights” that is totally contradicted by the reality of what is happening, according to testimony from prisoners’ families.

According to Makhalif, prison regulations Law No. 396 — including amendments Sisi made in 2015 — is a good law, but it is not enforced. “Most policemen working in the Prisons Authority have their own rules and conventions that have nothing to do with the prison regulations,” he said. And unfortunately, wardens follow precedents, not state-established laws, he added.

Makhalif told Al-Monitor the Human Rights Committee’s visits to prisons and police stations will aim, ultimately, to enforce the law. He added that he intends to present amendments to the prison regulations through the parliament, including one concerning visiting time for families. The Prisons Authority will be compelled to allow visits once every 15 days, with a minimum of 30 minutes and a maximum of 90 minutes per visit. The current allowance is 60 minutes, but that isn’t being met because of an inadequate number of meeting rooms.

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