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At 14 Haitham was one of Egypt’s youngest political prisoners: ‘They forgot I was a child’

Four years on from his arrest one of Egypt’s child political prisoners Haitham Abdel Rahim recalls 50 days of torture.

August 24, 2019 at 11:00 am

Former Egyptian child prisoner Haitham Abdel Rahim

At 2 am on 3 October 2015 Osama Abdel Rahim had just returned home from work and was taking a shower. His elderly grandmother was in her room, his mother and father were out, and his older and younger brothers were asleep.

He stepped out of the bathroom to see ten masked officers and four plain-clothed police in the hallway.

“Where’s Haitham?” one of them asked. He paused as he tried to register what was going on, then pointed towards his brother’s bedroom.

Inside the room Haitham, who was then just 14 years old, woke up to see a tall, angry man with a huge moustache surrounded by officers holding machine guns.

“Are you Haitham?” he asked. He lent closer and whispered in his ear: “I know you have a nickname and I know you attend and lead protests. I know everything.”

The officers instructed the boys to get their phones, following them from room to room as they collected them. Amr was reluctant to give his up – he hadn’t deleted his images from the Rabaa sit-in two years before and he knew the Egyptian government was taking punitive measures against any member of the opposition.

In its crackdown the regime has not distinguished between young and old, in fact thousands of children have been arrested since the coup and are tried alongside adults. According to the London based human rights organisation Reprieve, death sentences have been issued to ten children under the regime of current President and coup leader Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi.

Read: Husband and son in prison. Daughter shot in Rabaa. Asmaa Beltagi’s mum speaks on the massacre

When they had collected their mobiles the officer with the moustache said he would take Haitham downstairs to talk to him for five minutes. When Amr, then 20, protested they took him as well.

It was dawn by then, around about time for the fajr prayer. Inside the microbus Haitham looked around at the other passengers – some were his friends who had been forcibly disappeared a week before.

They pulled away from his apartment and then stopped outside another friend’s house. The boys waited downstairs as the officers went inside and arrested him also. As the bus left they looked out of the back window and saw his mother crying and running behind the van, begging the officers not to take her son.

After making several further arrests they eventually arrived at Nasr City police station where the boys were bundled into the state security investigation room known as the fridge. It was big enough for five people but there were more than 20 detainees inside, recalls Haitham. Nobody knew where they were there for the first 40 days of their arrest – it wasn’t until 9 November that they were brought before the state prosecutor.

Former Egyptian child prisoner Haitham Abdel Rahim (R) in 2015, (L) in 2019

Former Egyptian child prisoner Haitham Abdel Rahim (R) in 2015, (L) in 2019

Under Egyptian Child Law children under the age of 15 cannot be placed in detention without legal grounds. Egypt has also signed up for the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC) that calls for freedom from abuse for children, but this mattered little to Egyptian authorities who allowed Haitham and the other detainees out to use the bathroom twice a week and for the rest of the time gave them plastic bottles to urinate into. There were no mattresses, duvets or pillows.

On the third day prison officers blindfolded them and took them one by one out of the room. When they returned each told the others they had been tortured with electric shocks.

Haitham was sleeping when his turn came. “Tell us everything you’ve memorised since your birth up until the moment you came here,” the officer asked him.

Read: UN backs out of torture conference in Egypt after pressure from rights groups

The next day Haitham returned to the fridge to see his eldest brother Ahmed, a dentist, who he says never attended the protests. “The police came back to the house, took all the laptops and arrested me as well,” Ahmed told him.

On the sixth day Amr was taken from the fridge. When he didn’t return over an hour later Haitham grew increasingly worried. “I heard his voice, he sounded scared and broken,” he recalls.

They came back for Haitham and covered his eyes again. “Tell us all your friends names and where they live or we will do to you what we did to your brother.”

The policeman began to read out a list of names. Haitham recognised one and the policeman said that he would never go home again if he did not tell them where he lived. “I didn’t know his home address,” he recalls.

“At last and sadly, out of my fear of torture, I had to tell him about one of my friends who was two years older than me. His only crime was to protest against tyranny. They took me in a police car while covering my eyes, and then they removed the cover and asked me to guide them to my friend’s house, and I did.”

Sisi Era - Cartoon [Latuff/MiddleEastMonitor]

Sisi Era – Cartoon [Carlos Latuff/MiddleEastMonitor]

But they still didn’t release Haitham.

On the seventh day in the fridge Haitham and Amr were blindfolded and once again bundled into a minibus. When the doors opened for them to get out they heard dogs barking, police were pushing them and shouting. Haitham took off his blindfold to look at where he was.

“I saw a scene I’ve only seen in horror movies. I saw detainees lined up on the left and right with signs of torture all over their bodies, some were completely naked.”

One of the detainees saw him remove his blindfold: “Quick, cover your eyes,” he said. “There are cameras everywhere, they might harm you.”“Where are we?” Haitham asked someone else.

“Don’t speak to me,” he replied. “We will both be tortured.”

Read: Egypt detains ex-advisor to Palestine’s Arafat

Haitham learnt later that they were in the state security building in the Lazoughly district of Cairo. One prisoner told him he had been blindfolded with his arms cuffed for 30 days, another for 50 days. The food was minimal, small pieces of bread and cheese, a spoonful of rice and beans.

“Your number is 33,” an officer came to him to say. “If they call 33 say I’m here.” Haitham could hear screaming and shouting. “Don’t worry you will leave tonight,” he told him, but Haitham stayed there for over a month, all the time cuffed to another person, wearing the same clothes, and blindfolded even whilst he was sleeping.

The officers didn’t care that he was only 14-years-old:

They forgot I was a child. I was crying, I was hungry and freezing, it was so cold, and they didn’t give us any cover.

Haitham remembers one of the officers who took pity on him and gave him two cans of juice. He gave one to his brother. “I will never forget Mr Mohammed, who was a kind officer who offered me once a cucumber and once dessert. Yes it seems funny but that meant a lot to me.”

Authorities wanted Haitham to admit he had distributed flyers against the Sisi regime, that he had spray painted anti-government slogans in the streets and that he was a member of the banned group, the Muslim Brotherhood: “He forced me to confess with a video looking at a camera and told me, never look at me while I’m recording you.”

By this time he had been beaten and one of the officers had promised to remove his clothes. He had been imprisoned with other adults, with criminals and political detainees, which is against the CRC.

Remembering the Rabaa Massacre

One of the guards eventually asked for his father’s number and he came to collect him. “I hugged him while I was crying,” recalls Haitham. “I hadn’t seen him for 50 days. There was a camera recording us as well.”

Finally, all the brothers were allowed to return home, but the nightmare wasn’t over for the family. Several days later security forces came to their home to arrest Osama for a Facebook post he had written about his brothers Haitham and Amr.

After his release Haitham was traumatised and suffered nightmares. But he had to focus – he only had one month before his end of year exams. His family moved house, afraid he would be rearrested, and he studied at home in case he was kidnapped again: “That was difficult for me because I was a teenager, and I loved going out with friends. I studied at home, and I passed the exams.”