Inside a filthy police van near Al-Azhar University an officer points to a fragment of light shining through a tiny opening: “See this bit of sun?” he asks Amena Yasser and the 16 other young men and women inside. “We’re going to put you behind it and we’ll see if you ever see the light of day for the rest of your life.” According to the Egyptian expression, when you put a person behind the sun they disappear.
It’s 24 December 2014 and 17-year-old Amena has been protesting against the removal of elected President Mohammed Morsi outside Egypt’s oldest university. Just moments into the march, state forces stormed the campus and attacked demonstrators with live ammunition, rubber bullets and tear gas. Amena was pounced on by a “thug”.
“He grabbed a wooden stick filled with nails and hit me really hard on the leg,” she tells MEMO. “I fell and he grabbed my hand. He and my friends pulled me back and forth for a few minutes and he beat us until I said to him: ‘Stop beating us. Take me and stop the beating’.”
A security officer bundled her into the van and Amena was taken to Nasr City police station where she was confronted with an exhausting list of charges: attacking an officer and stealing $36, setting fire to the university, illegal protesting, affiliation with a banned group, terrorising students, burning trees, preventing students from taking their exams and the use of weapons.
Amena believes the real reason she was arrested is because she stands up for what she believes in: “I defend the truth and confront unjust tyrants. They are dogs and they want the people to be obedient, be silent, eat and sleep. Nothing else.”
Whilst Amena has now been released there are still thousands of other young Egyptians languishing behind bars. It’s hard to know the exact figure because neither the government, the prison authorities nor the prosecutor general’s office provide statistics, but the human rights organisations Alkarama estimates at least 3,200 children have been detained since the overthrow of Egypt’s first freely elected President Mohammed Morsi as part of a concentrated effort to silence those who speak out against the coup.
As part of this sweeping crackdown, last year Egyptian President Abdel Fatah Al-Sisi introduced a decree to enable individuals accused of damaging public infrastructure to be tried before military courts where basic due process rights, independence and impartiality are even worse than for those held under the authority of civilian judicial authorities.
Observers consider the decree to be a ruse for targeting peaceful protests against Al-Sisi – which have been ongoing since 2013 – because the decree states that demonstrating undermines public order and public infrastructure.
“Children are part of the community. Tyrannical regimes are the only regimes that make every effort to thwart any protest movement, even if children under the age of 18 participate,” Alkarama’s Egypt researcher Ahmed Mefreh tells MEMO.
Sixteen-year-old Seif Al-Islam Osama Shousha is the youngest Egyptian to be tried in a military court, says Mefreh. Seif was arrested on 8 March last year in the port city of Damietta, badly beaten, wounded in the head and bleeding heavily. Injured, he spent all night at the police station without medical assistance, legal advice or being able to contact his parents. His detention has since been renewed more than 10 times.
In some cases the children disappear, Mefreh says, and are then “exposed” to the public as terrorists. Fifteen-year-old Obada Gomaa was abducted from Nasr City on 17 July this year, the first day of Eid, whilst playing football with his friends. At the time of his arrest he was severely beaten by police.
His family heard nothing until a few days later when the police shared a picture of Obada blindfolded and handcuffed in front of a table laid out with weapons, which he confessed to owning. Authorities have used the image to claim Obada is a dangerous criminal held on charges of making and producing firearms. Obada told his family on a recent visit that he was electrocuted until he confessed the charges. This is the second time he has been arrested.
According to Egyptian law, children under 15 cannot be placed in temporary custody. Egyptian Child Law and the Egyptian Constitution prohibit torture and detention without legal grounds. Furthermore, Egypt was one of the first countries to sign up to the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC), an internationally recognised agreement that calls for freedom from violence, abuse, exploitation and the provision of adequate health care.
Egypt’s disregard for these treaties is staggering: “Egypt does not only fail to implement or uphold the terms of the agreement,” Mefreh says of the CRC, “but also completely disregards its articles. It does not even implement the articles of Egyptian Child Law.” A closer look at the conditions these young prisoners are held in and it’s easy to see this is true.
Shortly after her initial interrogation at Nasr City police station, Amena was placed with another detainee in a cockroach-infested cell that was 1.5 square metres. It was six hours before an officer came to ask if they needed anything.
“We said we needed to use the toilet, but he said no. This happened three times in an attempt to provoke us. Asmaa Mady was my cellmate and she is still imprisoned,” says Amena of the third year dentistry student who was also arrested at Al-Azhar University last year. “The situation got worse and no one would let us out to use the bathroom so we found bags with old food in them, emptied them onto the floor and relieved ourselves in the bags out of desperation.”
Amena was later locked up with older detainees, which is prohibited by the CRC, and threatened by them: “One of the inmates constantly threatened me with rape while I was asleep and would describe what would happen to me while I slept, so I was unable to sleep all night whenever she was in my cell. They continued to add people and the numbers reached 49 in a cell that barely fit 10. We slept in turns; some slept while others stood.”
One day Amena’s family were waiting outside the prison to see her when she was handcuffed and taken to the hospital where she was forced to take a pregnancy test. “When it was my turn to take the blood test, I completely lost consciousness and couldn’t speak,” she says.
Seif’s father has also described the poor treatment his son receives at the hands of police officials where he is being held at the Farscor police department. He says they throw the prisoners’ belongings outside their cells, shave their heads daily and allow visitation times of barely a minute throughout which two soldiers sit between Seif and his family, Mefreh explains.
For young prisoners psychological and sexual abuse and torture inside prison is widespread: “The detention centres in Egypt, especially for children, do not comply with the minimum standards. They are merely torture chambers for children… we documented 52 cases of sexual abuse and rape in Alexandria’s Koum El-Dekka,” says Mefreh of the prison that has been dubbed “the slaughterhouse”. This has a damaging, long-term effect on children, or “the assassination of their futures” as Mefreh puts it.
It has been almost a year since her release but Amena says she still has nightmares. “I wake up frightened and I cry until my mother comes and comforts me.” For a while after she was released Amena would sleep on the floor and avoided walking alone in the street, taking public transport or taxis, or passing officers, soldiers and military institutions.
She is currently living with her mother in Turkey, but says she spends “every waking moment” wishing she could go home to see her father, siblings, nieces and nephews. “I wish for just a moment to see them and hug them,” she says. “We must all return to our homeland because it’s the place of our origin, our roots and our cause. It is our duty to liberate it from the hands of unjust tyrants – Al-Sisi and those helping him.”