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The internal exile of Egyptian detainees

Policemen standing guard at Borg el-Arab prison near the Egyptian city of Alexandria on 20 November 2019 [MOHAMED EL-SHAHED/AFP via Getty Images]
Policemen standing guard at Borg el-Arab prison near the Egyptian city of Alexandria on 20 November 2019 [MOHAMED EL-SHAHED/AFP via Getty Images]

Hundreds of detainees in Egypt's many prisons woke up last week to arbitrary decisions by the prison authorities to move them to other prisons very far from their homes. They have been sent into internal exile.

Gamasa Supreme Security Prison had the largest share of prisoners affected, with more than 100 detainees exiled by the authorities without prior warning. No reasons were given for this arbitrary and unjust decision.

The exile of detainees is a phrase adapted from the well-known Palestinian-Syrian TV series, The Palestinian Exile, which embodied the suffering of the Palestinian people after the Nakba, and showed how thousands of Palestinian families suffered from a life of asylum, camps and forced exclusion from their homeland.

In Egyptian prisons, exile does not mean leaving the homeland. It is a horrific level of oppression and injustice that has been imposed under the rule of Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi over the past eight dark years. The exile of detainees basically means exiling prisoners who are detained unjustly, taking them from the prison with which they are familiar and stripping them of all of their belongings. They are taken by force to a vehicle that takes them on a journey into the unknown.

In Egypt, laws are supposed to regulate the places and conditions of detention. If you are in pretrial detention, Egyptian law obliges the Prisons Authority to place you in the prison nearest to your place of residence. So, for example, if are a detainee in the Alexandria governorate, you'll be held in Wadi Natrun or Burj El-Arab, or if you're from Damietta, you will be in Gamasa Prison, and so on.

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What has happened is that the Prisons Authority has exiled a number of detainees from Gamasa and placed them in Minya and other prisons, such as Al-Wadi Al-Gadid, hundreds of kilometres away from their homes.

The distance between Damietta Governorate, for example, and Minya Governorate is about 600km, which is a 6-hour car ride. If visitors don't own a car and have to travel by public transport, it can take 7-8 hours. This is further torment and distress for the detainees' families.

The infamous Scorpio Prison in Cairo, Egypt - Cartoon [Sabaaneh/MiddleEastMonitor]

The infamous Scorpio Prison in Cairo, Egypt – Cartoon [Sabaaneh/MiddleEastMonitor]

The exile of detainees contains many aspects of torture for them and their relatives. The detainees have to go through the difficulties of a new environment and conditions all over again; it's like the start of another sentence, with a different cell, different guards, and more interrogation, torture and insults. They also have to adapt to a new prison's way of working. Such instability puts them on edge and afraid. All of this is added to their original suffering, the lack of freedom and lack of justice in a political detention imposed by the coup regime in Cairo.

The detainees' families suffer no less than the detainee who has been exiled. Wives and mothers have to search through the lists of names that lawyers and human rights activists publish every day in order to know the fate of their husbands and sons. Has he been exiled? Which prison did he go to? Is he near or far away?

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Then the second stage of suffering begins, which is calculating the distance to the new prison. How will we go to visit it? Are visits even allowed? Do we take a taxi? How much does it cost? Who can bear to travel for several hours? Shall we prepare food for him? Does the food travel well? Most importantly, will they allow us to visit once we've arrived? The latter will depend on the humanity of an often inhuman prison official, who might conduct immoral and intrusive searches of the visitors, with no guarantee that a visit will be allowed at the end of the process.

The exile of detainees is a new crime against detainees and their families to be added to the foul record of the Egyptian regime. It needs to be publicised far and wide so that pressure may be applied on the regime in Cairo until its many heinous violations of human rights, especially those of detainees, are brought to an end.

This article first appeared in Arabic in Arabi21 on 19 December 2021

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

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AfricaArticleEgyptOpinion
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