On 6 March 2014 Mahmoud Wahba and his friend Khaled Askar were in the car making their way to meet Khaled’s mother to break their fast together. It was a Thursday, one of two days in the week on which the Sunnah recommends Muslims fast.
As they drove towards Khaled’s house the two young men were stopped by security forces in Mansoura, one of Egypt’s largest cities located on the east bank of the river Nile.
The families heard nothing from them until later that evening when Mahmoud’s mother, Fatima Al-Issawi, received a phone call from the police station.
“Doctor, your son Mahmoud is here at the station,” said a voice on the other end of the line. “You should call someone to make it easier on him.”
As she replaced the receiver, Fatima knew her son had been arrested and that he was being tortured.
Sure enough, a video was later circulated on YouTube and various satellite channels in which Mahmoud, Khaled and Ahmed Al-Walid confess to killing a policeman, Sergeant Abdulla Al-Motweli, the previous month.
Al-Motweli was part of the security detail protecting the judge that presided over ousted President Mohamed Morsi’s trial. In addition to his murder they were accused of arms possession and forming a terrorist cell with the view to target security forces.
When they appeared in front of the camera it looked as though they were reading from a piece of paper. Mahmoud’s face was swollen, recalls his mother, and the marks of torture were visible on his skin.
The fact that the video was aired at all is against Egypt’s penal code for the trial had not even started. In fact, right the way through the judicial process has been a farce, from family members being prevented from the hearings to lawyers being intimidated. Many gave in under pressure and abandoned the case.
When the trial did come around in 2015 the verdict was a foregone conclusion. Mahmoud, Khaled, Ahmed and three other young men –Ibrahim Azab, Bassim Mohsin and Abdulrahman Attia – were sentenced to death by Egypt’s highest criminal court in what became known as the Mansoura Six case.
Around 21 days after Mahmoud was arrested Fatima visited her son in the notorious Al-Aqrab prison, known as the Scorpion. He stayed there for around a year and a half, she says, until he was transferred to the execution block in Wadi Natrun Prison.
Conditions inside are grim: Mahmoud only leaves his cell for one hour a day to exercise and use the toilet. For the rest of the time, when he needs to relieve himself, he uses a plastic bag.
His family visits him once a month; books and most medication are banned. Mahmoud has asked for an eye exam because he needs glasses but his request has been rejected.
“Given the large number of those sentenced to death,” says Fatima, “he is sharing his cell with three other prisoners.” This is despite the fact that his cell is big enough for just one person.
It’s no wonder there’s no space left in Egypt’s dungeons given that over the course of his reign Al-Sisi is thought to have locked up some 60,000 political prisoners, sentenced 1,700 to death and executed 90 of them. In 2013 – when Al-Sisi came to power – there were no recorded executions in Egypt yet there has been a sharp increase since then, reaching 44 cases in 2016.
As the figures climb, it’s important that the people pushing them upwards don’t get forgotten. Mahmoud is an engineering student, a young man with the same interests as many others his age: “He likes football and plays for his school’s team,” says Fatima. “He has a nice voice and sings in school celebrations and assemblies. He liked to read.”
When the car was stopped that day in early March it was actually Khaled Askar the security forces were after. But once police had identified Khaled they started poking around into Mahmoud’s history where they found what they fear the most: that Mahmoud was a member of the Muslim Brotherhood, opposed the coup and that he was active in politics at university.
Khaled’s closest friend, Abdullah Adel, has set up a Facebook page, the Six Oppressed, to try and draw attention to the Mansoura Six and their cases. It’s filled with photos of the men in prison overalls and handcuffs. Abdullah has made several short videos – tributes to the six men and campaigns to secure their freedom – and posted them on his wall.
Read: Sisi’s terrorism
Abdullah tells me that although Khaled was a chemist he was also a budding actor and a keen student of Islam. All of them studied hard and were successful, he adds; Ibrahim Azab, for example, was one of the best teachers there was.
Abdulrahman Attia, a fourth year medical student at Al-Azhar medical school, dreamed of becoming a cardiac student. It certainly looked as though he was heading in the right direction – he passed the third year of his studies with honours and dedicated most of his time and energy to securing this goal.
But the beginning of the end of this dream seemed as though it was near when he was arrested on the metro in Cairo on 8 March 2014.
His mother, Amal Nazih Soliman, tells me that Abdulrahman was forcibly disappeared for days following his arrest. During this time he was tied up, given electric shocks and forced to confess to his part in killing Abdulla Al-Motweli. He held out, maintaining his innocence in an accusation he insisted was politically motivated rather than based on solid facts and evidence.
When authorities threatened to rape his mother and his sister he confessed to killing the policeman.
Abdulrahman is also being held in Wadi Al-Natrun’s maximum security facility in a small cell with two other people. “He cannot sit or stand properly,” says Amal, “there is no ventilation. He is allowed out only half an hour a day and even if he requires medical attention a doctor is not sent to him. He has lost a lot of weight and suffers from colon and stomach pain.”
“He is well-mannered and anyone who knows him loves him,” she continues. “He would never abandon anyone who asked for his help.”
Abdulrahman is the eldest of his siblings – his brothers have been threatened with arrest and denied travel permits, in an increasingly repressive system that strengthens its iron grip over a nation by punishing through association.
Like Fatima, Amal is adamant her son is innocent:
It was easy for the lawyer to prove Abdulrahman’s innocence, as well as the others, but the sentencing was clearly politicized.
On the far left of the confession video is Ahmed Al-Walid, who is being held alongside Mahmoud, Khaled and Abdulrahman in Wadi Al-Natrun. On camera Ahmed takes responsibility for pulling the trigger on the policeman.
Ahmed’s case has attracted a lot of attention because with Ahmed’s arrest his mother lost all three of her sons. One of Ahmed’s brothers was killed during the Rabaa massacre in August 2013 and another was forcibly disappeared after he questioned his brother’s death.
“We are ordinary families,” says Amal summarising what has been a tragic ordeal for all six families. “We do not lean towards violence. We were treated unfairly by the unjust arrest of these young men, for no reason other than their opposition to the government.”
“All we hope now is for Abdulrahman’s freedom and the freedom of his friends,” she adds. “And for them to receive their most basic right: life.”
Marwa Assem contributed reporting