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A glimpse into Egypt's Al-Qanatar women's prison

July 21, 2014 at 1:30 pm

On 14 August 2013 Omaima Halawa, her brother and two sisters, were caught in the bloody confrontations between security forces and Muslim Brotherhood protesters at Rabaa square. The siblings were arrested, but whilst Omaima and her sisters spent three months at Al-Qanatar female prison before they were released, their brother, Ibrahim, remains behind bars.

In 2013 Omaima, and her two sisters Fatima and Somaia, Irish by upbringing but Egyptian by blood, returned to Egypt on their annual summer visit, unaware that this year’s trip would be nothing like before.

While in Cairo, Omaima, a 20-year-old media student, heard about the Rabaa al-Adawiya Square demonstrations, “We wanted to see what was happening with our own eyes.” The sisters took to the square, where they quickly got involved with the peaceful sit in. “The atmosphere was amazing, I had never experienced anything like it.”

However, the tables were soon about to turn.

When the confrontations between the security forces and the Muslim Brotherhood supporters, calling for the return of ousted President Mohammed Morsi, began, Omaima found herself surrounded by the security forces, bulldozers and army tanks. Then the shooting began. “We thought at first that it was firework, but it was gunshots,” Omaima explains. It was 14 August 2013, a day that would become known as the “Rabaa massacre,” as security forces shot with live ammunition at the protesters. “It became a warzone,” Omaima tells me. “We had nothing to defend us with.” Omaima’s sister soon got hurt and the sisters sought refuge in Rabaa mosque together with hundreds of other demonstrators. However, the mosque became a target and it would take Omaima and her sisters long into the night before they were able to leave.

As the confrontations continued, Omaima, her sisters and her brother Ibrahim, took to Ramses square. “I couldn’t stay at home,” Omaima says, “My humanity didn’t allow me.” As the intensity of the demonstrations rose the sisters ended up in al-Fath mosque where she estimated that somewhere close to 1 000 people were trapped, unable of leave. From within the mosque, Omaima’s sister Fatima was able to inform Al Jazeera English about what was happening around her.

After around twelve hours trapped within the mosque tear gas started to fill the air and Omaima was separated from her siblings and fainted. When she woke up she was outside the main entrance, surrounded by security personnel. “The security forces kept telling me: Don’t worry the girls will be going home,” but before she knew it the security forces started to beat, and sexually harass, her. “I felt how they started to touch me in my private parts and I was pulled to the ground. My dress, t-shirt and pants were ripped off.” They only stopped as Omaima was lying on the street, but before she knew it she was thrown into a police van with other protesters.

Omaima was taken to Tora prison, where she, together with her two sisters, were held for four days. “Tora was the worst place, I can’t even try to make you understand. We were treated like animals.” Omaima describes how 600 men were kept in a cell for an estimated 50 people. “In the middle of the night we were blindfolded and taken into investigation, we were not allowed a lawyer, nor to defend ourselves.”

After the four days they were told they would be going home. But Omaima was not taken home, instead she was brought to Al-Salam Military Campus. “Here we were kept in an underground cell, without electricity.” Omaima and her sisters were united with 15 other girls who had been taken from another Cairo based mosque. “Then, in the middle of the night, we were taken to Al-Qanatar women prison.”

Omaima was detained based on 16 charges, including participation in a demonstration and involvement in a terrorist organization. However, the law against street protesting was only established in the end of November 2013 and the Muslim Brotherhood was designated a terrorist organization in December.

But Omaima and her two sisters were among the 3 000 that, according to Amnesty, had been arrested by the security forces between 3 July and September, accused of involvement with the Muslim Brotherhood. According to Wiki Thawra, which is independently monitoring events in Egypt since the revolution of 25 January 2011, the same figure exceeded 41 000 by 15 May 2014.

Upon arrival at Al-Qanatar Omaima was searched by a nurse. “She started to yell at me to strip naked in front of her and then, without telling me anything she began to search me… even my private parts,” Omaima says and continues, “I was so shocked and I was crying so hard. She told me if I didn’t stop crying she would beat me. I was trying to tell her that I was a virgin but it was so hard to find the words.”

The 18 girls from the mosques were taken to a cell, where they were given a supervisor, a “Mama.” “She is a prisoner like you but she is sentenced to death, she was a killer. She controlled everything – when to go to the bathroom, when we could eat, when and how we were allowed to sit, everything!”

After four days the sisters’ mother was allowed to visit. “My mom got us some food,” Omaima says. But because she and her sisters were politically motivated prisoners the visits were strictly surveyed, no private talks allowed, police officers were listening to each and ever word.

Bribing was also an important part of the visiting system, “We had to give a portion of what we had received from our mother to the police officer, the searcher and to the “Mama.” The “Mama” usually took whatever she wanted.”

Despite the girls’ young ages, Omaima turned 21 within the prison walls and her sisters were 23 and 28, the treatment was harsh. “Anyone who came in for protesting was considered part of the Muslim Brotherhood, so we were all hated and beaten by the other criminals, even the police officer lady who was taken care of our cell screamed at us and called us names, everyday. It was a constant form of mental torture.”

Omaima and her siblings are all Irish citizens, children of Hussein Halawa, an imam at Ireland’s largest mosque. But their foreign passports didn’t help them. “The Irish consulate visited us frequently, but more could have been done,” Omaima sights.

In November 2013, after three months, the sisters were, for the first time, taken to a court. “I hope those three months taught you a lesson” was all the judge told them and they were all of a sudden free to go. Why were they suddenly released? Omaima has no idea. “Nobody tells you anything.”

Omaima’s brother, Ibrahim, taken at the same time as his sisters, remains at Al-Salam Military Campus. “We don’t know why, they say nothing.” Ibrahim was scheduled to have a hearing in mid-July but it was, without reason, postponed to 12 August.

“All I really want now is for my brother to be released,” Omaima concludes.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.