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Egypt's prisoners are denied their rights and prison authorities appear to be above the law

Inmates are seen inside an Egyptian prison on 19 November 2019 [MOHAMED EL-SHAHED/AFP/Images]
Inmates are seen inside an Egyptian prison on 19 November 2019 [MOHAMED EL-SHAHED/AFP/Images]

On 9 March last year, the Egyptian Ministry of the Interior banned prison visits under the pretext of curbing the spread of Covid-19. Three months into the ban, 69-year-old Amira Tawfiq could no longer stand being unable to communicate with her son in jail. She travelled from Alexandria where she lives, to Tora Prison (known as "Scorpion Prison") in Cairo and waited for hours at the prison gate, but was not allowed to see her son. She lost consciousness while on her way back home, and died without hearing from him by letter or phone.

Egyptian authorities prohibit family contact from the moment a person is arrested. On 23 December 2018, Ahmed Abdel Nabi, 60, called his grandchildren from inside an aircraft bound for Cyprus, telling them that it was about to take off and that he was coming to visit them. The call was ended abruptly after one of the crew members asked him to step off the plane. He was arrested and detained in Tora Prison 2, which is reserved for political prisoners and criminals. According to human rights organisations, Abdel Nabi remained there until his death on 2 September 2020.

"During my father's detention," explained his daughter Nasiba, "the prison authorities banned any contact with him. It denied him visits, correspondences and phone calls." His family filed a lawsuit in May 2019. However, the prison's Internal Planning and Research Department told the court that due to "security reasons", "inmates in cell block B were denied visits for three months, including Ahmed Abdel Nabi."

READ: Egypt denies reports Ola Qaradawi is on hunger strike

The Ministry of the Interior and the Prison Authority have denied hundreds of detainees their constitutional right to contact their families and lawyers by any means (visits, letters, phone calls) based on vague legal texts with no explanation of the reasons why. Some court decisions were also ignored with the support of the Public Prosecution office. Some detainees have passed away before they could have the chance to meet their families.

The author of this report conducted interviews with relatives and lawyers of 11 inmates, during which they recounted their efforts to re-establish contact with the prisoners inside Egyptian detention facilities. In addition, a questionnaire was completed containing 11 sample cases which has demonstrated a complete severance of contact during a visit ban imposed by the Ministry of the Interior ostensibly to combat the coronavirus from early March until August 2020.

When banned from visiting, the families of inmates do not receive a written refusal. When they raise their case at the administrative court, the Ministry of the Interior cites security reasons for curtailing inmates' contacts with their families, without clarifying what these security reasons are, or naming the party that issued the ban. The prison administration informs families orally that the National Security Agency is the party entirely responsible for bans and permits. Human Rights Watch (HRW), which monitors violations around the world, confirms the statements made by the families.

From March-August 2020

    • 51 inmates died without a chance to contact their families
    • 11 were denied visits even before this period
    • Seven others died outside of that period
    • At least 50 inmates who were denied visits during different periods died before 2020

    According to the Committee for Justice

Every three months, the Ministry of the Interior issues a decree banning inmates from receiving visitors, thus extending the period that separates them from their families and lawyers. These measures have been in practice for decades using "terrorist threats" as an excuse, according to a study by the Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy (TIMEP) entitled "Effective Communication between the Lawyer and Defendant and the Right to a Fair Trial".

Article 42 of Egypt's Prison Regulation Law allows for visits to be restricted or banned completely due to health or security reasons. According to a HRW report, Interior Ministry officials rely on this vaguely worded article, unchanged since 1956, to prevent visits at any time without explaining the reasons.

READ: Egypt: Second political prisoner attempts suicide in a month

For example, the court overturned the decision to deny Abdel Nabi any visits, as the prison did not provide evidence of any visits by any of his family members even prior to the decision to deny inmates of cell block B the right to receive visitors. The court even ruled that the decision to deny him visits was absolute and indeterminate, in violation of the laws and constitution.

Seven years ago, the family of the leader of Al-Wasat Party, Essam Sultan, was surprised by a decision to ban regular visits for inmates in cell blocks two, three and four in the Tora Prison, and the automatic renewal of the ban. For this reason, Sultan's family referred the matter to the Public Prosecutor who granted them permission to see him, provided that he is not detained in the prohibited blocks. Hence, the Public Prosecutor approved of the detention and visit ban, and any permission granted to the family was pointless.

The Public Prosecutor having failed them, Sultan's family turned to the judiciary, which recognised the unconstitutional nature of these decisions, as was stated in the verdict: "A permanent visit ban denies a prisoner his basic right as a social being by nature, which is detrimental to his humanity and morally harmful to his well-being. It is also inconsistent with the constitution."

Despite the court rulings that did justice to Abdel Nabi and Essam Sultan, the director of prisons and the warden of the Scorpion Prison flouted the decisions and continued to ban visits. The families referred the court's decision to the Ministers of Justice and the Interior, but nothing changed. Abdel Nabi died without meeting his family and grandchildren.

READ: Egypt: Wives, children of detainees forced to walk barefoot in blazing heat for visits

Two weeks before his death, he could no longer eat. His eyes would bleed, and blood clots would come out from his mouth. In prison, he developed diabetes, hemiplegia on the left side of his body and kidney stones. He suffered a stroke, not to mention his long term liver disease, but he was still denied access to adequate medical care in jail. The Forensic Medicine Authority stated on the burial certificate that the cause of death was "under investigation", according to a statement by the Egyptian Front for Human Rights.

Sultan's lawyers wanted to file a lawsuit against the Minister of the Interior for failure to implement a court ruling, but they didn't for fear of arrest, according to one lawyer who preferred to remain anonymous.

The Director of the Legislative and Judicial Reform Project at the Egyptian Commission for Rights and Freedoms (ECRF), Mohamed Obeid, says that a blanket visit ban is a double punishment and torture, not only for prisoners, but also for their innocent family members. It is like giving the prisoner a new sentence, not through a court ruling, but rather by virtue of administrative decisions issued by the executive power represented by the Ministry of the Interior.

'Unconstitutional'

In 1994, a court ruled that the visit ban inside the Scorpion Prison was unconstitutional. However, the Ministry of the Interior ignored the court's order to restore visits and kept the ban in place for nearly a decade, despite the issuance of 112 rulings against it, according to HRW.

Ahmed Mufreh, Executive Director of Committee for Justice, said, "From our continuous follow-up, (64/2017 military, 123/2018 military, 148/2017 military), the Prison Authority continues to renew the visit bans for 20 detainees by virtue of decisions by the Public Prosecutor. These inmates are divided between Tora High Security Prison (Scorpion), Tora Istiqbal (reception), and Tora investigation."

Hunger strikes

In mid-June 2019, 130 detainees went on hunger strike in the Scorpion Prison for more than six weeks as a protest against the denial of family visits. Many of those on strike had been arrested more than two years earlier and had not been allowed a single visit from their families or lawyers. The authorities responded by beating them. At least ten hunger-strikers were blindfolded and transferred to special cells where they were locked up all day without any breaks.

Several detainees had previously gone on hunger strike in October 2017 and February 2018 and ended their protests on the basis of assurances that they would be allowed family visits. According to Amnesty International, these promises were never kept.

The Egyptian Coordination Committee for Rights and Freedoms documented that in 2019, detainees in several prisons went on hunger strike to express their anger over several violations, including denial of family visits.

Strike Date

Prison Name

10 March 2019

Tanta Public Prison

21 July 2019

Scorpion

23 July 2019

Scorpion 2 (Military Issue 64)

22 October 2019

Scorpion

23 November 2019

Mansoura Public Prison

Since the start of the lockdown due to Covid-19, thousands of inmates have been kept in detention without access to the outside world. The authorities often deny detainees permission to receive letters from their relatives, alleges HRW.

From 9 March to August 2020, detainees were reportedly infected with Covid-19. Eleven people and a lawyer confirmed that they were denied the right to visit inmates during this period, and nine confirmed that they did not even receive a single letter from their loved ones in prison.

For three consecutive weeks, the administration of Tora Maximum Security Prison 2 (Scorpion) banned Laila Soueif from receiving any "letters" to assure her of her son's health. Visits were suspended to stem the spread of coronavirus, with no means of communication other than letters.

On 21 June, 2020, she began a sit-in at the prison gate. She spread a mat and held a banner declaring "I want a letter." She was later joined by her two daughters. At dawn, a group of unknown women beat, dragged them on the ground and robbed them in full view of prison personnel.

They headed to the Public Prosecutor's office to showcase their injuries and file a complaint accusing the prison administration of orchestrating the assault to force them to end their sit-in. Policemen took Laila's daughter Sanna Seif from the vicinity of the office for investigation, and she was subsequently sentenced to one and a half years in prison for "spreading false news".

"Sanna was not the only one," said Mufreh of the Committee for Justice. He explained that the documentation team had found that security forces had arrested five female relatives of detainees. The Maadi Prosecution office convicted them of several charges including staging an "illegal" gathering. Then they were released on bail of 2000 Egyptian pounds ($127). They were also sentenced in absentia to one month in prison.

The Public Prosecutor and the Ministry of the Interior agreed 13 years ago to provide inmates with a telephone service, but that is still unavailable. Karim Taha of the Egyptian Front for Human Rights said there were at least three recommendations from Germany, the Netherlands and Britain insisting on the right of prisoners to communicate with their families, but to no avail.

The rights organisation published a sample of the statements of defendants who proved their complaints during their detention renewal hearings before the Public Prosecutor's office.

Prisoner Hilal Omar Muhammad said: "I want to prove that I am on hunger strike because I am being ill-treated. I accuse the prison administration of committing systematic violations against me, and of flouting the decisions of the Public Prosecutor's office regarding visit permits."

Ahmed Bashar informed the Public Prosecutor of the following: "I want to see and speak with my family as visits are prohibited. I have not communicated with them since the day I was detained."

Some 190 defendants distributed across seven prisons, charged in seven cases, filed a complaint during their detention renewal hearings before the Public Prosecutor's office against the prison administration for banning them from seeing their families, and for refusing to carry out the orders of the Public Prosecutor regarding permits of visits and contact.

Several defendants informed the Public Prosecutor that the prison administration was tearing up the Prosecutor's permits.

The complaints of the defendants elicited no response, even when repeated, which provoked 33 defendants to go on hunger strike.

At the time of writing, prisoners are held in a prison like the Scorpion, in cells for which visit bans are predetermined, deprived of any human right to communicate with the world, without any consideration for court decisions.

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