Khaled Hamdy was arrested on the 27 March 2014 from his home in Egypt. He had been working as a production manager for Egypt 25, a TV channel founded by the Muslim Brotherhood to provide live coverage of the 2011 Arab Spring. Hamdy was accused of spying for Qatar, before being thrown in Cairo’s notorious Tora prison (known in Arabic as Al-Aqrab, or scorpion prison). Though shortly afterwards he was acquitted of the espionage charges against him, he was handed a 15-year prison term for being a member of the Muslim Brotherhood, which was outlawed following a coup against Egypt’s first democratically-elected president, Mohamed Morsi, in 2013.
Khaled’s wife, Fatma Al-Zahraa, told MEMO that her husband remains in Tora prison to this day. “I haven’t been allowed to visit him since April 2017,” she says, explaining: “Since that date he and some other detainees were banned from having visitors, then in March 2018 visits were banned for all Al-Aqrab prison detainees.”
Even these infrequent visits to see her husband were an ordeal for Fatma, who was abused at the hands of the prison’s security forces. “The security inspection we underwent to enter the prison was literally sexual harassment,” she explains, “and even then, after all that, I wasn’t always able to see him on each visit – there were more than 50 occasions when I went to visit the prison but was refused permission to see Khaled”.
If Fatma was lucky enough to see her husband, their time together was often brief and impeded. “The duration of visits used to vary from maximum 15 minutes to sometimes as little as three minutes. We used to have a glass barrier between us and talk via a phone,” she remembers. On one visit shortly after Khaled was arrested, Fatma took their new-born son Thair to the prison. “I was in my first trimester of pregnancy when they arrested my husband,” Fatma tells MEMO: “Thair was just ten days old when we visited his father, but the prison officers banned him from touching his baby.” “Thair only knows his father from photographs, while our eight-year-old daughter Asmaa often cries and asks where her dad is – I try to explain the situation and we pray for him, but it’s not easy,” Fatma laments.
Yet this uncertainty and lack of family visits is just one method of torture used against Hamdy and so many other Egyptian prisoners like him. Fatma tells MEMO that, during his detention, Khaled was transferred to the “discipline room” of Tora prison:
I received a message a month ago saying that my husband was transferred to the discipline room again. He was first sent their two years ago, and when I visited him shortly afterwards it was clear that he had been tortured. His face and body were covered in scars.
She continues: “It was winter when Khaled was sent to that room, and he told me that he was stripped of his clothes, except for his underwear, and then the prison guards threw cold water at him. He went on hunger strike for 21 days until he was transferred back to his first prison cell.”
Stories like Khaled’s are not unusual in Tora prison. In March, the British parliamentary Detention Review Panel (DRP) issued a report claiming that the conditions in Tora prison were symptomatic of institutionalised torture and ill-treatment of prisoners across the Egyptian detention system. The report noted that Tora prison “has been very harshly condemned for its inability to treat prisoners in accordance with both Egyptian and international law,” quoting a 2016 Human Rights Watch (HRW) report in which a former prison warden noted “[Tora prison] was designed so that those who go in don’t come out again, unless dead.”
Several detainees have in fact died during their time in Tora prison. As of March 2018, six inmates had died in custody since 2015, three of whom were prevented from receiving timely medical treatment. Across Egypt as a whole, 300 detainees have died in prison since the coup in 2013.
“The human rights situation in Egypt has been deteriorating since 2013,” Fatma tells MEMO, adding: “In fact, I’d say there’s actually nothing called human rights now.” Though lawyers and human rights organisations have tried to help her and her husband, Fatma says very little has changed. “There are lawyers working on Khaled’s case who have appealed against the decision to ban prison visits, but these decisions come from high-ranking officials so it’s useless.” She continues: “I contacted human rights organisations in Cairo and filed complaints to the prosecutor’s office, the Attorney General and the Prison Service about my husband’s condition, but all in vain.”