Suspicion mars death of Egyptian activist in custody

An activist has died while in pre-trial detention at a prison in Cairo, shedding light on the state of human rights in Egypt and the fate of thousands of political prisoners.

al-monitor A picture taken during a guided tour organized by Egypt's State Information Service shows an Egyptian policeman standing guard at Tora Prison, Cairo, Egypt, Feb. 11, 2020. Photo by KHALED DESOUKI/AFP via Getty Images.

Aug 27, 2020

CAIRO — The suspicious death of an activist at a Cairo prison Aug. 10 has cast doubt on the actual causes of death of other political prisoners and pre-trial detainees

Mostafa el-Gabrouny, 34, was the first member of the April 6 Youth Movement to die behind bars during the reign of Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi.

After the Interior Ministry recently allowed visits to prisoners about six months following the eruption of the coronavirus pandemic in Egypt, Gabrouny’s brother went to Tora Prison on Aug. 17. He was informed that his brother was declared dead one week earlier by the prison’s hospital, and his body had been moved to a Cairo morgue without his family being notified of his death. 

“The prison’s officials claimed that my client was electrocuted when he touched a kettle inside his cell with his wet hand, which is rather illogical as prisoners aren't allowed kettles,” lawyer Nabeh el-Genadi told Al-Monitor. “An autopsy of his body has been conducted, but the cause of death has not been declared officially. We are still waiting for the coroner’s report and will take it from there."

Gabrouny was transferred from a detention center in Damanhur city in Beheira governorate where he lived, northwest of Cairo, to the Tora maximum security prison in the capital, also without his family’s or his lawyer’s knowledge.

“Gabrouny’s transfer from Damanhur to Cairo has never been officially justified,” Genadi said.

The deceased was among a group of detained dubbed by the media the “coronavirus detainees,” who were arrested either after questioning the government’s competence in handling the coronavirus pandemic or after they had called for releasing pre-trial detainees and political prisoners to limit the spread of the virus that causes COVID-19 at prisons and detention centers. They include 34 medical personnel, activists and lawyers. 

Gabrouny was forcibly disappeared for about a month, before he appeared at the state security prosecution’s office May 10. The prosecution charged him with spreading false news, misusing social media tools and being involved in a terrorist group — the same set of accusations used against the regime’s opponents. He was kept in pre-trial detention until he died.

The primary cause of death was subject to criticism by political groups and social media activists — some even suspect foul play.

Maram M. Moselhy tweeted, “Mostafa el-Gabrouny died. … He lived cheering for freedom and wasn’t treated as a human being. He died without being treated as a deceased, without even being buried.”

Dalia tweeted, “Everyone who supports Sisi has Mostafa el-Gabrouny’s blood on [his or her] hands.”

The Egyptian Social Democratic Party mourned Gabrouny, describing the incident in a statement released on its official Facebook page as being “highly demeaning” to Gabrouny.

The party called on the prosecutor general to open a transparent investigation into the activist’s death.

“How was he electrocuted inside his cell? Why did the prison administration hide [this news] for a week? And what are the kinds of detention conditions that may lead to the death of detainees in custody?” the party officials said in the statement. “Doesn’t this incident as well as previous ones require [the authorities] to tackle the file of pre-trial detention, especially of … members of political groups?”

The statement called on those in charge to have a clear intent to accept political differences without resorting to apprehension and confinement.

Following the coup that overthrew Islamist President Mohammed Morsi in 2013, the regime has been using the oppressive tool of pre-trial detention and the charge of involvement in a terrorist organization to persecute its opponents.

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

“Pre-trial detention is not a legal penalty per se. Rather, it is a precautionary measure taken by the prosecution to hold a suspect until an investigation is conducted,” lawyer Fahd el-Banna told Al-Monitor. “Usually the prosecution resorts to it to ban the suspect from escaping when it comes to grave crimes like murder, not those against activists or members of political groups."

According to Genadi, Gabrouny was not a danger to national security or a criminal to be held in custody. “Or else why didn’t the prosecution refer him to trial rather than renewing his detention on paper without even his or his lawyer’s presence,” he noted. 

Gabrouny’s death is the second to take place at an Egyptian prison in August. On Aug. 13, Muslim Brotherhood leader Essam el-Erian died of a heart attack after he was allegedly engaged in an argument with a fellow inmate. The public prosecution announced one day later that an investigation would be conducted into the incident, but no official statements have been released since then.

In May, Egyptian filmmaker and photographer Shady Habash died under suspicious circumstances in a prison cell, also at Tora Prison, where he had been held in pre-trial detention since 2018. Habash and others were arrested after directing a song that mocked Sisi was released on YouTube.

Such incidents have raised concerns about the conditions inside Egypt's prisons and detention centers. On Aug. 17, the Egyptian Front for Human Rights, an independent group, released a 48-page report in which it documented 300 testimonies of violations committed against prisoners and detainees in Egypt.

The report is divided into three parts: The first part highlights data and details of seven cases of detainees whose testimonies had been documented. The second part has to do with the prosecution’s role and jurisdiction of investigating violations against detainees. The third part reviews the main violations persons are subjected to inside prisons including medical negligence, overcrowding and malnutrition.

The report concluded that “detainees in Egypt suffer from systematic and [severe] violations by Interior Ministry personnel and that these infringements are known by the public prosecution.”

In November 2019, Egypt received 23 recommendations about the state of prisons and detention centers and 26 recommendations on torture and ill-treatment by the Universal Periodic Review (UPR) of the United Nations Human Rights Council.

According to the review, the human rights situation in Egypt has deteriorated since the last UPR conducted in 2014, at a time when “the authorities relied on a state of emergency and repressive counterterrorism laws to suppress freedoms of expression and association and to largely silence peaceful dissent by prosecuting journalists and human rights activists.”

Sisi and his supporters have frequently denied that Egypt holds political prisoners, whom rights groups estimate their number to be at least 60,000.

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