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Corona and Egypt's detainees

March 20, 2020 at 1:49 pm

Prisoners are seen during a court case in Cairo on 28 July 2018 [Khaled Desouki/AFP/Getty Images]

Due to the spread of the coronavirus, the voices of human rights organisations and political activists are growing louder, calling on the families of the prisoners to continuously send telegraphs to the Public Prosecutor to demand the release of the detainees in Egypt’s 68 prisons, in addition to the 382 detention centres inside police stations, and secret prisons in its military camps. According to a report issued by the Egyptian Organisation for Human Rights, these prisons hold over 100,000 prisoners, detainees and forcibly disappeared individuals, contrary to the official narrative.

Human Rights Watch recommended that governments in countries affected by the spread of the virus release unlawfully detained prisoners. The Egyptian regime is following the example of Italy and France in not releasing prisoners and prohibiting visits, considering that all those imprisoned are criminals. The government states on every occasion possible that it does not have prisoners of conscience, after the judicial system fabricated terrorism charges against them all in order to evade international accountability.

Whenever international rights organisations point a finger at the Egyptian regime, blaming it for torturing prisoners, it rushes to produce a lowly film about the prisons, portraying them as living in five star hotels. Meanwhile, many letters from the prisoners of conscience smuggled from detention centres and the testimonies of those released describe the miserable conditions they are in and how  they are deprived of the most basic humans rights, such as lighting, clean drinking eater, hygiene, the use of toilets, warm water for showering in the winter, sanitary napkins for women, medical treatment, exercise, visitation, clothing, bedding, reducing crowding in the cell blocks, ventilation in the summer, heating in the winter, protection from insects, mice and snakes, and positive response to the repeated hunger strikes that always result in further torture of those who engage in this type of protest. The prison administration deprives prisoners of their rights in order to force them to pay money in exchange for any ‘privilege’.

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The Egyptian regime uses medical negligence as a means of killing and liquidation that is safe of consequences. They cause the prisoner to become sick and then state their death is a result of cancer, kidney failure, diabetic coma, or heart attack, as was the case with President Mohamed Morsi. A year ago, the number of victims of medical neglect inside Egyptian prisons, since the coup staged on 3 July 2013 reached 826 people. In a joint statement, nine human rights organisations expressed grave concern over the escalating number of deaths in Egyptian prisons since the beginning of this year as a result of the continuing policy of denying prisoners of health care, and the escalation of medical neglect. Over ten people were killed as a result of negligence since January 2020. It is worth noting that the vast majority of those who died were in good health before their detention. If this is the situation in prisons before the coronavirus, what will the situation be after finding the first case inside Wadi Al-Natroun Prison north of the capital, Cairo? The prisoner was quarantined under tight security, and orders were issued to the hospital administration not to reveal the existence of the case.

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A study by infectious disease specialists from Canada’s University of Toronto said that the number of people infected with coronavirus in Egypt is much higher announced by authorities. The numbers were estimated at about 19,000, according to official data on travel and the numbers of those who left Egypt over the last few weeks. The Egyptian Health Ministry disputed this and it announced that the number of those infected is no more than 200 so far. The ministry considered the circulation of these numbers as a conspiracy aimed at damaging the country’s reputation and spreading panic amongst its citizens.

If we rule out the Canadian study, we must still pose some legitimate questions: First, how can the number of infected be 200 in a country that has a population of 100 million? Secondly, should we believe the Ministry of Health or the isolation of infected people in four governorates where the virus has spread? Thirdly, How can a country with exhausted medical capabilities, no rights for doctors, no value for its research, and which was late to take the coronavirus pandemic seriously only have 200 infected individuals when developed and advanced countries with smaller populations, more capabilities and a better ability to contain it have been unable to control it?

Coronavirus is affecting the whole world, will it unite us - Cartoon [Sabaaneh/MiddleEastMonitor]

Coronavirus is affecting the whole world, will it unite us? – Cartoon [Sabaaneh/MiddleEastMonitor]

With the denial and intense secrecy surrounding the numbers of those infected in Egypt, with the weak capabilities to detect and treat the virus, and with the deliberate negligence to limit the disaster from the beginning, it has become difficult to predict the true numbers of those who were infected. The Egyptian regime did not have to admit the spread of the virus until after some countries revealed receiving cases from Egypt, after the World Bank announced financial aid to countries facing a crisis with the spread of the virus, and after international airlines stopped their flights to Egypt. Therefore, it is also difficult to obtain accurate information about the extent of the virus’ spread inside prisons.

The regime also arrested four women during a silent protest in front of the cabinet headquarters, where they held banners calling on the regime to release detainees for fear of the outbreak of the virus. Police tore up their banners, detained them and then released them on bail of 5,000 Egyptian pounds ($317) each. On the next day, only 15 political prisoners were released to whitewash the regime’s image globally.

What the Egyptian regime does not realise is that insisting on amassing detainees in light of such a disease is not only a crime, but a time bomb that will blow up in its face first, because officials have the most contact with them.

Even if officials are criminals, then at least they should be rational.

Rights group: Coronavirus outbreak in Middle East prisons would be a ‘tragedy’

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.