On Thursday December 10th 2015, one of my friends responsible for human rights situation inside Egypt sent me an alarming message describing the violations occurred in the Egyptian infamous Aqrab (Scorpion) prison. These violations, which were taking place specifically in the H4 section Wing 4 at Tuesday and Wednesday 8th and 9th of December, involved torture ceremonies lasted for two days, resulted in many injuries between the political prisoners, and accounted for bones fractures as well as sexual abuse.
I contacted my private sources to verify what happened, for my surprise these sources confirmed the occurrence of violations in the same day as reported, and provided me a list containing violations linked with names of detainees subjected to this acts, and the names of some officers who supervised such violations.
The beginnings of Scorpion Prison
Prison's official name is "Tora Prison 992 Maximum-security". Originally, the idea of the prison derived from a group of Egyptian security service officers who returned from US training course at late 80's.
Scorpion Prison is part of Tora prison complex located in Tora area southwest of Helwan, south of Cairo. It is the latest prison that was built in Tora complex, which was created in 1928 during the era of Monarchy in Egypt under the supervision of Wafdist Interior Minister Mustafa El-Nahhas. The creators back then were keen that large swathes of the prison overlook the course of the Nile, and in time more prisons were created inside Tora, forming a complex of prisons and the last one was Scorpion prison. The initial construction of Scorpion prison started in 1991, during the reign of Interior Minister Hassan al-Alfi under the rule of Hosni Mubarak, and was completed on 30 May 1993. Officially, the prison opened its doors on 26th June 1993 during the reign of Interior Minister Habib al-Adli.
Scorpion prison description
I tried to draw a picture of prison's interior based on satellite maps and testimonies of some former detainees and their families, whom I met personally, and was imprisoned during the period of Hosni Mubarak, or the reign of Adli Mansour and Abdel Fattah El-Sisi, and this is how it looks like:
- Tora prison is located 2 kilometers away from the main gate of Tora complex, and has extra additional surrounding fences.
- The prison is composed of 4 main detention buildings forming the shape of an (H) letter, in addition to two-storey administrative building, and a follow-up extension containing small medical clinic and two buildings include officer's rest lounge, library, laundry and central kitchen.
- H1 and H2 sections are located on the right of main entrance, surrounded by an internal wall and have two entrance doors made of iron grids and iron sheets to block the inside vision from the outside courtyard. In addition there is a playground in front of the main entrance gate. H3 and H4 sections are located on the left of the main entrance, also surrounded by an internal wall and have two entrance doors made of iron grids and iron sheets to block the vision.
- Each H section consists of ground storey which holds detention cells and underground cellar which homes water and drainage pipes. The H1 and H2 section are linked via horizontal corridor, so are the H3 and H4 sections.
- Each H section consists of four Wings, and each Wing contains 20 detention cells, 3 cells with vertical iron bars doors called "Grille Cell", one cell with cast iron door used as a warehouse for the storage of cleaning and other tools, and a shower room contains from four to six shower places.
- The size of each cell is nearly 3×3.5 m2, and contains a small bathroom fixed by poured cement concrete, small basin without covering beside the bathroom, and deck concrete for sleeping. The cell door has horizontal slot called "Naddara" or "Glasses", through which the food is put to the detainee. In addition, each cell has an upper ventilation slot with metal bars and grids, overlooks the rear corridor which separates the cell from the outside yard.
- Cells' ventilation slots overlook the rear corridor, which has its own ventilation slots made in opposite direction of the cells' ventilation openings, making it difficult to see the sky through these slots.
- Internal corridors between the cells in each wing are nearly two meters wide, and the roof in each wing has three openings, through which the sun's rays cover only the internal corridor.
- The whole building, including internal walls, external walls, roofs, cells' floor, and basement, are constructed of poured cement and reinforced concrete.
- Each H section has exercise yards dedicated to take the detainees out for sun exposer, between each 2 leg of the letter H there is 4 exercise yards separated by vertical wall without doors, while the horizontal wall has doors to distribute the detainees around the 4 yards.
- There is a rear corridor, which can be accessed through few up-stairs, passes behind the cells in each wing, in order to spy on detainees without them noticing.
- There is a solid door leads to the outside in the rear corridor in every wing.
- There are two rooms inside Scorpion prison allocated to visit the detainees; the first room is located in the corridor linking H1 and H2 sections, and the second one in the corridor linking the H3 and H4 sections. The visit rooms have their own separate external corridors, which is used to get the visitors in and out, and equipped with two solid glass barricades and phones to communicate with the detainees.
- 14. The prison has an external wall, of an approximately 7 meters high, made of reinforced concrete and guarded by guard towers, beyond this wall there's another wall of iron and barbed wire. In addition, recent works of a new surrounding ditch is taking place outside the prison; and no one knows if it is aimed to be a wall or a new security procedure, not to mention the nearly two or three meters area paved with construction aggregate, which makes noises in case of any movements.
- Prison gates are armored from inside and outside, and all officers' and prison officials' offices are located behind closed metal bars and barriers.
What is happening inside Scorpion Prison: Testimonies of former detainees
Initially, we can start with testimonies – personally met – of former detainees. They fall into two categories:
- Some of those were arrested under the rule of former President Hosni Mubarak.
- The rest were arrested under the rule of Adly Mansour and Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi.
First, I met two former detainees both jailed in Scorpion prison. "M.A" and "M.S" were arrested since early 90's until the January 2011 revolution, one of them spent 11 years in Scorpion prison, during which he visited every H's: H1, H2, H3 and H4 sections.
He told me how he was transferred to Scorpion prison; how he, and the other detainees, were stripped of all their clothes except for the "Boxers", right after they got off the deportation's car at the prison gate, and how they were severely beaten with batons and ordered to running in front of their torturers.
"They treated us like animals when dragged to barns, we were discovering our way through by avoiding the lashes, and so, we were running almost semi-naked while haunted by soldier's batons, we ran left and right until we entered the cells, and after a period of our entry, we used to tell what happened to us – through cell's slots – to the former detainees, and they said: "they treated you better than us; back then, they stripped us completely from our clothes and forced us to crawl naked on the asphalt and then to the inside while beating us".
He told me: "one of the worst officials we had was prison warden, Major General Nabil Arafa, dubbed (Devil), we asked God in our prayers to punish him. He used to confiscate our belongings and food, which our families brought during the visits, just to eat them in front of our eyes to humiliate us, and he was always a part of torture ceremonies, where he hit us with his bare hands", he pauses for a moment, then goes on with clear grief saying: "this treatment was meant to cause us psychological humiliation".
"Then Major General Arafa was replaced, the days passed, and one day one detainee named Muhammad al-Aswani suffered from a stroke, and he was transferred to Qasr al-Aini hospital, there, he met Arfa on a bed who was totally paralyzed", said the former detainee.
"Another Major General from State Security was appointed as prison warden, Major General Mohammed El-Faham, he alleviated the torture a bit, and he once told us: "I am surprised how you could survive until now! This prison is designed to get the detainees either dead or crazy!"
The other former detainee told me how the officials of the prison banned the prisoners from eating food salt and from going out to the exercise yard, which led to some teeth falling cases, and resulted in spreading diseases including tuberculosis and scabies.
Major-General Ibrahim Abdul Ghaffar, former prison warden at Scorpion prison, assured that these testimonies are not exaggerated, during an interview with private-owned Egyptian TV channel, "Alhayat", he affirmed:
- Sun and air do not enter Scorpion prison, the ventilation system is so much bad so there is barely enough air to inhale, and sometimes in hot summer days, the atmosphere becomes rotten. This prison is designed so that nobody gets out alive.
- First prisoner I met was Hisham Abdul Zaher, a freshly graduated engineer, and when I first opened his cell door, it was the first time he saw the light since 8 years.
- Everything in Scorpion Prison is done under the supervision and guidance of the State Security, Minister of Interior, and Hosni Mubarak.
- State Security used to take prisoners from Scorpion prison; this is entirely against the law. They take them without any warrant from the Minister of Interior, holding them for a period of fifteen days, and returning them half dead, lying on the ground for a week or ten days, because they were not be able to stand on their feet, due to the torture they suffered in the State Security.
- Inspection campaigns visit the prison under the supervision of the state security, accompanied by officers from the latter. They humiliate prisoners, beat them, lay them on their feet, and let the dogs bite them.
Major-General Ibrahim Abdul Ghaffar interview on Alhayat TV channel.
Second, I met a young man who was arrested after the third of July 2013 and asked him about his story. He, initials "Sh.A", is an engineering student at one public university, and was arrested in December 2013 by a police ambush, "The police patrol stopped me, searched me and opened the camera application on my cell phone, they found some pictures of demonstrations; I got arrested and deported to the police Department, then they moved me to the State Security headquarters in Blazawgli along with other young men. There, they blindfolded us, tortured us during the interrogation, and one officer put out his cigarette into the head of a young man, it was a kind of humiliation, not only torture", said "Sh.a".
He added "The worst day of torture was when they contacted my faculty, and the college official told them I was one of the young men organizing demonstrations during the rule of the military council after the revolution; that day the officer came to me and beat so harsh that even some of my teeth fillings had fallen. A day later, we were deported to the Supreme State Security Prosecution, and I appeared before prosecutor Ahmed Abdul Aziz without a lawyer, who interrogate me, then decided to put me in detention for further investigations. Then I was deported along with other young people to Scorpion maximum security prison".
"The main concern in Scorpion prison is to break your spirit, you are already physically devastated, so the most important thing for the political prisoner is to destroy his morals, because they cannot change your opinions, or the way you think, they can't get rid of your objection on wrong things, no matter what was you leanings, way of thinking, or the plans you hold in mind", said "Sh.a".
"During my time at Scorpion prison i met doctors, engineers, respectful businessmen, and students, these are the types of detainees in that prison, and those people are considered a threat to the national security of Egypt, students, doctors, engineers, faculty members, and counselors".
"Of course, as soon as you arrive to the prison, you will be greeted with a torture ceremony, and the cruelty of torture depends on what reason you entered the prison for. These ceremonies, dubbed "El-Tashrifah" or "greeting ceremony", are likely attended by the detective chief and the detectives", he said, and continues saying sarcastically, "At the beginning, we noticed the beautiful playground, but later we realized that it's there to fool visitors from National Council for Human Rights or any foreign delegation".
The former detainee turns then to talk about the prison cafeteria and the policy of banning the visits "Goods are sold in prison cafeteria with an increase of 25% from original price; they take advantage of the conditions of the detainees and their needs. Sometimes they forbid visits to force detainees to buy items from the cafeteria, this is how they do business, and the earnings is divided between all staff, officers, and even the wardens".
"In front of the cafeteria there is a roofed building, which is supposed to be a hospital, but this word is not suitable to describe it, in fact it is a clinic, consisting of 3 small beds, dental chair, and modest place for medical inspection. Doctors in there don't act like regular doctors, instead they are more like officers, they treat the prisoner like an enemy, and it's up to you to imagine the rest".
"Besides that hospital there is a large hall, we used to get in there before 25th of January 2014. It consists of a table for up to eight people, but usually there is only 5 people sitting on it, and 12 contiguous tables. Inside there is a library, the sign outside says it is "Exam hall for students", so it shall be dedicated for students to submit their exams, but this did not happen long time ago. There is also a closed library containing books, its only open when there's a visit of Human rights organizations, next to the library is a clinic, and administrative building is next to them, this building looks like a box in the center, it is two-storey building; the first floor serves as safe deposit box, storing the belongings which the detainees hand over when they first enter the prison, the ground floor on the other hand, contains prison warden, deputy prison warden, and chief of the detective offices, it also has an unnamed office, which is used by state security agents during investigations".
"Besides the administrative building there is a small building involved in presumed cases of torture, people get dragged there, not knowing where they are going, and because it is a closed area with no openings, nobody knows what is taking place in the inside, furthermore, nobody can enter this building unless authorized from the prison administration. It is true, that area is located within Scorpion prison, but what is going inside has nothing to do with the prison, I know a lot about Scorpion prison, but what is happening inside this place remains unknown, some people presume severe torture taking place there, or instances of final investigation to extract information from the detainee prior to his appearance before the court. Once, I entered the building for some reason, and noticed some people sitting there looking in deep fear, as if they were waiting in horror the entry of their torturer, and of course, the detective responsible for taking us in was subjected to sharp rebuke".
Breakfast: Piece of cheese, few small bean beads, and 3 loaves of bread, except on Friday and Sunday when beans is replaced with 2 boiled eggs.
Lunch: Meat is served only on two days, chicken also is served on two days only, some young people cannot eat it, so they throw it for cats roaming in the corridors, and they refuse to eat it neither.
There are three meals called "black meal", which consists of an eggplant soup, spinach soup, zucchini soup, or lentils with some rice and a little unclean salad.
Books and students
One former detainee describes what is like to be a student in Scorpion prison:
"There is a lot of students in jail, medicine and engineering students, however, they are not allowed to read books in the library, because it is only there for presumed human rights, representatives of human rights council come to prison to make sure the playground and library are safe and sound, then they go away, the library remains closed and books, no matter what they are about, are not allowed to enter the prison. One time, they opened the library, and got some books in there, alas, they was pornographic, or inappropriate novels; in another words, they allow books, but of a particular type, it's kind of ideological persecution, they know readers tendencies, and they realize that they oppose these books' ideas. Moreover, the opening of the library did not last more than one week, after that the books were removed and the library reclosed".
"When a lot of students asked to apply for their exams, the officer answered: what exams? Are you students in the first place? You're not! You are terrorists, you cannot apply for exams here, Stop this nonsense, your future is lost, your world is stopped, and you will stay in prison for the rest of your pity life, or you will be executed".
"Students began writing petitions and complaining once they appear before judges in courts, therefor allowed to apply for exams, and here where problems arose, for example, if the applying student study medicine, they only allow him to read 4 or 5 books. English books or references on the other hand, undergo intense security review; in general, getting books inside the prison is extra difficult and a complicated progress".
"Prison officials gave one pen for each student, the latter is asked to keep it safe, and if he entered the hall without his pen, they would ask him about it, even if it has no ink left, student must keep the pen. They shiver out of fear once they notice a paper and pen, carrying a pen and paper in their eyes is similar to holding arms against them, one time the officer got crazy when he entered our cell and found a pen and a piece of paper, he started wondering about how they got here, a big problem happend back then".
Testimonies of one detainee's mother and one detainee's wife.
Mrs. "A.H" describes the families' suffering saying:
"We must reach the gates of Tora prison complex early in the morning; the gates open from 6:30 am until 11:00 am, and people get stacked in front of the gates, because they only allow 5 people to cross at a time".
"In order to enter Scorpion prison, we have to wait for the internal transportation mean, called "El-Taftaf", to take us to the gates of Scorpion prison, fare is 1 Egyptian Pound per person, we usually reach the gates at around six in the morning, and we wait there until of 10:00 am and 1:00 pm, then an officer comes out to take our visit permits issued by the Prosecutor's Office, and goes in again afterwards".
"Some of us are allowed to enter, but sometimes nobody is allowed, if they allow us to enter, we enter the gates, hand over the food we brought to be searched, pass through metal detector doors, and then women enter a side room for security self-inspection, and men enter a different one on the other side, during which violations occur by guards every now and then. After that we are left in a waiting room for an hour or two, just to take us after that to the visit room which consists of cabins equipped with two solid glass barricades- prison officials reduced the number of visit cabins inside the visit room from 8 to 4 cabins -; a bit later they bring the detainee to the other side of the glass, which is not equipped with a chair, so he must stand there the whole time on his feet, as for the visitors side, they provide only one sitting chair, so the rest of the family have to stand on their feet too".
"In the past, visit periods were between 10 and 15 minutes, but now they shorten it to 3 minutes, if they allowed us to visit in the first place".
"Some families were banned from visiting their loved ones, and they didn't allow them to visit even when they opened the exceptional visit to H2 section after the last visit of the National Council for Human Rights; Dr. Abdullah Shehata, Mohamed El-Zawahiri and counselor Hassan El-Najjar families were subjected to this restriction".
"Other families are banned permanently from visiting their loved ones, because the former counselor Hisham Barakat restricted the authority for issuing visit permits in the hands of Supreme State Security Prosecution, which refuses to give allow visits to some families, such as Dr. Abdel Moneim Amin's family, who have not visited him since 10 months, and know nothing about him since then".
Another important testimony is Mrs. Thana' Shaheen's about her son, Amr Rabea, a student detained at Scorpion prison, after he was tortured at Alazouli military jail and the headquarters of the State Security in Blazawgli. She told me the story of her suffering during the visits, saying:
"Mothers won't despair no matter how long they detain our beloved sons and husbands, but tears froze in our eyes, and our hearts wept in blood, especially when we were allowed to see our sons for only two or three minutes after banning the visits for several months. We struggle to get one visit permit after another, and they simply take it from our hands after standing at the main gate in long queues for five or six hours, I don't have enough words in my vocabulary to describe this Image of suffering mothers; some of them needed to get out of home at 3 or 4 o'clock in the morning, so they can enter the prison early, because at eight the queue reaches the street, not to mention the quarrels and fights between criminal prisoners' families, the situation goes out of control sometimes to the extent that once one woman tried to stab another with a knife, because she wanted to enter the prison before her, but people got in, and managed miraculously to break them off".
"Visit permissions must be handed over to prison officials before 10:00 am, but in fact, they sometimes close the door without sending anyone to collect the permissions until time passes 10 o'clock, and then get out to say time is up, after all this misery time is simply up! Some visitors come from distant locations, and once I witnessed a mother who came from Luxor and after waiting for hours, some guard told her: "you can't visit your son today", she answered: "you told me that when I came yesterday, which is why I came today", and despite her crying he did not let her in, that was when the visits were open".
Interview with Mrs.Thana' Shaheen by the Egyptian newspaper "Elmasry Elyoum", Mrs.Shaheen talks about her son's suffering at Scorpion prison.
One former detainee talks about torture in Scorpion prison, he says:
"When the detainees complain of mistreatment, prison administration uses strike force to strip us our clothes, and confiscate our blankets, leaving us half naked in cold weather, and if any resistance or objection occurred, the use special armed forces equipped with Shotguns to threaten us while we are constrained, then they fire us sonic bullets on us, its fragments scatter to reach your eyes, and it leaves a small scratch on the face, in few cases, scratches persisted on the face of some detainees for a month or more, another person almost lost his eye, he is barely able to see through it now. Detainees always claim their rights, though they are aware that they will not obtain any, nevertheless, they try as hard as they can, hoping to obtain the least of them".
"Detainees are determined to resist injustice and tyranny inside the prison, for so many times strike force enters the cell, and drag more than one detainee before the eyes of his inmates, they beat them in the small corridor, which is located in front of the cells, without taking into account how old the tortured is, or if he suffers from diabetes or high blood pressure; there is no difference in their eyes between a doctor or any normal person".
"After such events, the officials lock the doors of the cells for a week or two, banning us from going out to exercise yard, and give us barely enough food to eat".
"Prisoners in criminal cases help us a lot, for example, when a political prisoner gets ill, they take out the medicine from their own secret hideouts, and smuggle it within the food. They hate the officers and curse them, even though they don't fight for noble cause, but they fully respect the political detainees, and try their best to help them".
"All the incidents taking place inside Scorpion prison, happen in the presence of Deputy Interior Minister, Mohammed Rateb, Director of Prison Investigations, Mohammed El-Khulusi, Sheriff Hisham, and Chief Detective Tamer Gad, there are also other officials which were transferred, but in general these people treated us in a very brutal manner. They appointed someone to supervise the state security agents, Mohammed Abdel-Hafiz, who oversees every detainee, orders state security agents how to treat each one of them, and also guides them on how to deal with high or low ranked officials".
"Sometimes strike forces enter the cells accompanied with dogs to frighten the detainees, they also take the detainees outside, put them in a in a particular distant place, and shoot them, the bullets remain in the detainee's body for two or three days, making it difficult for him to sleep or to rest, these incidents happen every now and then, but there are other cases, very important cases, happening in military prisons; I met 30 cases, each case is different from the other, but all of them agree on the incidents that are taking place inside military prisons, these people came from S8 section inside Alazouli prison, and Battalion 101 north Sinai".
"Most of the time, People who came to Scorpion prison from military prisons suffered from multiple fractures, and there were some cases with compound fracture injury, they didn't get any kind of special treatment, there is no mercy, all kinds and methods of torture are allowed".
"Looking at the marks tortures left on the detainees, motivated me to join the field of documenting torture, I may have not witnessed the torture process, but I lived with the tortured for almost six months in Scorpion prison, I felt their suffering, saw sadness in their eyes, and touched their strain and fatigue. I couldn't find the appropriate word to tell them, but when our eyes meet, I can see the oppression and injustice through their eyes, despite all, they smile, and are satisfied with their destiny, and swarming with joy and pride, because they were able to stand against the tyranny and oppression, their life means less to them compared to their dignity, country, home, and freedom".
"Whatever I say can't be enough to describe those people, they are pillars of the revolution, who was forgotten in the media and ignored internationally; no one speaks about them, and human rights organizations do not mention their sacrifices, they don't aspire wide international recognition, nor they seek to acquire it. What happened is something very personal for them; they do not care about fame, which they deem as flashy play, what motivated me the most to document torture, is that I wanted to bring the truth to all people".
"I may have spent a day or two in State Security prison, but this is nothing compared to those who stayed for months in military prisons; whenever they cross my mind I can feel the chill going through my body, and whenever I remember the oppression they suffered I feel the same oppression eating me from the inside".
"Out of all the prisons, military prisons are the worst. No matter how hard I try, I can't describe what is happening in there, reality is something else. My whole testimony was about some cases I saw, and some stories I heard".
"Detainees who came from Alazouli prison usually suffer from fractures and signs of horrible torture, some of them even come with paralysis, bruises, and serious injuries that take months of treatment to heal. The goal of all that torture is forcing detainees to make certain statements or to extract confessions from them. One detainee, who came along with a group of detainees transferred from Alazouli to Scorpion , told me about one prisoner arrested with his 3 sons in Alazouli prison; the officer asked him to talk, and when he refused, they shot his first son dead in front of him, the very next day same argument went on, and the prisoner refused to talk again, just to see his second son killed before his eyes, and the third son was killed the day after in the same way; after that the father got fully paralyzed, and his inmates had to help him going to the toilet or shower".
"Personal hygiene in Alazouli prison is out of question, they only grant you with 5 minutes to use the bathroom or to shower throughout the whole day, despite this, some prisoners sacrifice their 5 minutes in order to carry the paralyzed man to the bathroom to clean him, taking lashes from the guards all the way in and out".
"The officer came repeatedly to the paralyzed man, pressuring him frequently by saying: if don't talk I will leave you like this forever, even if you asked to die I won't let it happen, this is how you will live until you talk, and when you do that, I'll give you mercy".
"He was willing to die, but he didn't allow anyone to kill him, and he didn't commit suicide, he wanted to get killed by their hands. This is real incidents happening in Alazouli, the prison which holds doctors, engineers, faculty members, including very well-known doctors on a global scale".
"Sometimes children, ranging between 8 to 11 years old, are brought to Alazouli prison; they are locked in solitary confinement to blackmail their parents to surrender".
"The size of each cell in Alazouli is nearly 8×9 m2, and up to 50 prisoners live within. When the officer enters the cell to call the names of prisoners, they don't know what is waiting them outside; it could be investigation, torture, death, or deportation? Some prisoners who have been deported to Scorpion prison told me that they were granted a new life here, in spite of all the above-mentioned problems, prisoners of Alazouli see Scorpion as a reborn".
"Some detainees told me about what is happening inside the Battalion 101, they mentioned a mass grave inside three wells in the Battalion, bodies of the detainees are thrown into those wells after torturing them".
This is a brief summary of one of the worst known prison in Egypt, and it is up to you to imagine what is happening in secret prisons.
I started this investigation after incident of torture happened inside H4 section wing 4 on 8 and 9 December, it resulted in severe injuries, fractures and wounds for many of the detainees. After 4 days, detainees' families organized a protest in front of Journalists Syndicate on Sunday, 13th December 2015. One expert lens captured the image below; a daughter of one detainee at Scorpion prison, crying for her father whom destiny is still obscure.
Here are some posts on Facebook, written by families of the detainees and documents their suffering.
Finally, we should not forget about those who died while detained in Scorpion prison as a result of medical negligence, those names include:
- Farid Ismail
- Nabil El-Maghriby
- Morgan Salem
- Essam Derbala.
- Imad Hassan, who died at Scorpion prison, on the second day of Eid al-Adha 2015, of stomach cancer, as a result of medical negligence.
All images from Noonpost.net, videos from their own respected owners. This report was first published on Noonpost.net on the 16th December 2015.