Detainee’s death raises concerns on conditions of prisoners in Egypt

Egyptian artist Shady Habash died under strange circumstances in a prison cell where he had been in pretrial detention since 2018, raising criticism from local and international rights organizations.

al-monitor A picture taken during a guided tour organized by Egypt's State Information Service on Feb. 11, 2020, shows an Egyptian policeman near watchtowers at Tora prison in the Egyptian capital. Cairo.  Photo by KHALED DESOUKI/AFP via Getty Images.

May 13, 2020

CAIRO — "Prison doesn’t kill but loneliness does. I need your support in order not to die. I tried to resist on my own … so that I get out the person you’ve known; but I can’t take it anymore." An Egyptian artist wrote these words a few months before he died in the early hours of May 2 in a Cairo prison.

Independent filmmaker and photographer Shady Habash's gloomy words have seen light through his friends and are providing people of a reminder of his ordeal.

“To resist in prison means to resist and preserve yourself and your humanity from the negative impact of what you see or survive every day. The simplest [thing] … is to go crazy or to die slowly being held in a room for two years and forgotten about,” he wrote.

Habash — who was detained after directing a music video satirizing Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi in 2018 — died at age 24 inside the maximum security Tora prison.

Social media users and local and international rights groups were quick to call for opening an investigation into his demise, which was blamed on alcohol poisoning.

During a May 5 parliamentary session that followed Habash’s death, member of parliament Nadia Henry also called for opening a probe into the cause of Habash’s death.

She further called on the general prosecution to look into the procedure of pretrial detention; she said it is supposed to be “a precautionary measure rather than a punishment.”

Habash’s detention was renewed by a judge every 45 days until he spent 777 days in pretrial detention, even though the Egyptian criminal law says a detainee cannot be jailed without trial for more than two years.

“Pretrial detention is not a legal penalty. Rather, it is a precautionary measure taken by the prosecution to hold a suspect until an investigation is conducted. Usually the prosecution turns to it to prevent the suspect from escaping when it comes to crimes such as murder,” lawyer Fahd el-Banna told Al-Monitor.

“Exceeding the legal time of pretrial confinement is a crime. The question now is who will hold the judiciary and the public prosecution accountable,” he said.

On May 5, the public prosecutor ordered an autopsy to be performed on Habash’s body, which had already been buried.

A five-page statement released by the public prosecutor’s office said Habash informed the prison physician that he accidentally drank ethyl alcohol the day before his death instead of water, and complained of stomach problems as a result.

“The physician gave him antiseptic and antispasmodic drugs and sent him back to his cell as his condition was stable,” the statement added.

According to the prosecution, the prison doctors examined Habash more than once throughout the day and gave him the necessary drugs.

“But when his condition deteriorated at night, a physician decided to transfer him to a hospital outside the prison,” the statement read. But Habash died before leaving the prison.

Nevertheless, the statement entailed conflicting witnesses’ accounts. Three inmates were questioned about the incident; one of them said Habash told him he had ingested ethyl alcohol in order to feel the effect of an alcoholic beverage. He said Habash was in a weird psychological state afterward and complained of poor vision, abdominal pain and vomiting.

The autopsy report confirmed that Habash died of alcohol poisoning and respiratory failure. The public prosecutor’s office released a statement May 10 saying the coroner found traces of ethyl alcohol in his body.

Habash’s tragic death drew widespread criticism on social media.

A Twitter user named Abdelfattah Fayed tweeted, “Who is behind providing alcohol to an inmate who is denied everything, while [even] prison visits are not allowed? Why wasn’t he transferred to a good hospital? Why was he remanded in custody in the first place after the pretrial detention limit was over?”

Since March 9, the Egyptian authorities have not allowed the lawyers or families to communicate with inmates at Egyptian prisons due to the coronavirus pandemic.

Mahmoud Kassab tweeted, “They say [he] died after drinking an alcoholic substance by mistake in prison. Is there anyone sane that buys this?

A physician who spoke with Al-Monitor on condition of anonymity questioned the authorities' version of Habash's death, saying, “Habash should have first undergone gastric irrigation within the first six hours of drinking a poisonous substance, not just given medications to ease his symptoms. What happened definitely indicates medical negligence.” 

The doctor added, “The fact that his inmates said he vomited several times means his body started to release the toxins that he ingested. Usually the body adjusts itself through time. That’s why I rule out the possibility that he died of alcohol poisoning.”

Banna agreed with the physician. “The cause of death is illogical. The authorities who investigated the incident have themselves violated the law by extending his detention, which discredits them,” Banna said.

Neither Habash’s family nor his lawyer would comment on the prosecution’s statements.

In March 2018, Habash and six others, were arrested two days after the release of the video of a song he directed for the singer Ramy Essam titled “Balaha.” Essam is currently in self-exile in Sweden.

The song was released around the time of the vote on Sisi's reelection. Even though the song lacked artistic value, it attracted over 5 million views on YouTube.

The nickname "Balaha" was given to Sisi by his detractors in reference to a funny character appearing in a single scene in an Egyptian comedy who personified an arrogant madman treated at a mental institution.

Habash was accused of being involved in a terrorist group, misusing social media and insulting the military institution, among other charges. 

The regime has been using the oppressive tools of pretrial detention and the charge of involvement in a terrorist group to persecute its opponents after the coup that overthrew Islamist President Mohammed Morsi in 2013.

Habash’s death was the third of an inmate in the same cell over the past 10 months, which led several human rights organizations to question the legal status and the medical conditions of pretrial detainees and political prisoners in Egypt in light of the coronavirus pandemic spreading in the country.

A 2019 joint report from various rights groups, including the Geneva-based Committee for Justice, says 449 prisoners died in Egypt from June 2014 to the end of 2018. And a follow-up Committee for Justice report says the number of deaths from June 2013 to November 2019 is 917, including 677 prisoners who died of medical neglect.

Two days after Habash lost his life, a number of human rights groups demanded that Egyptian authorities immediately release pretrial detainees, especially prisoners of conscience. 

“The death of Shady Habash is yet another harrowing reminder of the wasted futures and talents of Egypt’s creative class: Artists, directors, writers, poets, publishers, bloggers and others who exercise their right to free expression are often prosecuted, imprisoned or forcibly disappeared. Some are released on strict probation and/or after a lengthy period of confinement,” the statement read. 

Most recently on May 7, Amnesty International called for releasing 1,600 defendants whose detention was renewed by the criminal court “arbitrarily.”

Sisi and his supporters have frequently denied that Egypt holds political prisoners; rights groups estimated the number of such prisoners to be 41,000 in 2019.

Continue reading this article by registering at no cost and get unlimited access to:
  • Al-Monitor Archives
  • The Week in Review
  • Exclusive Events
  • Invitation-only Briefings