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‘Refrigerator’: a nightmare which haunts detainees in Egypt

March 14, 2023 at 5:43 pm

Egyptian prisoners can be seen behind metal bars [CJPME/Twitter]

“Refrigerator” is a term used to describe small rooms inside the Egyptian police stations affiliated with the Egyptian National Security Agency (an internal intelligence agency), which hosts many detainees in inhumane conditions, without being subject to any judicial or legal oversight.

The “refrigerator” term bears a clear connotation to the detainee stating that he is forcibly disappeared and that presenting him to the Public Prosecution (a judicial authority) is a dream in itself, to escape the status of waiting, and the freeze that paralyses his legal status and deprives him of his natural right to meet with his lawyer or his family.

Before entering the “refrigerator”, the detainee is stripped of his official documents, his phone and the belt of his trousers for fear of using it to commit suicide; then he is detained with others, whom he does not know, from different ages and several professional groups, to begin a cruel journey in the cellars of prisons.

The dimensions of the “refrigerator” are three meters wide by five meters long, which means 15 meters in area. It has cement walls, equipped with a “local” toilet (squatting toilet) that has no door, except for a cloth curtain, dim lighting that remains on for 24 hours and a cement floor that the detainees sit on, with poor quality blankets. The detainees are accompanied by small insects that escape from holes in the walls of the room, such as ants and cockroaches.

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When you look up at the ceiling, you see the movement of a small fan that moves hot air particles, and then the thoughts and questions increase inside your head: what did you do, what is your fate, how long will you stay behind the walls?

You may stay in the “refrigerator” for days, a few weeks or months, which may be interrupted by hours of interrogation, blindfolded and barefoot, to answer the interrogators’ questions. Do you pray? Did you participate in the January Revolution (popular protests that toppled the regime of the late President Hosni Mubarak in 2011), who did you elect in 2012 (Egypt’s presidential elections that brought the late President Mohamed Morsi, who was overthrown one year after his first presidential term on 3 July, 2013)? Do you belong to a party or group? Did you participate in demonstrations against El-Sisi (the current Egyptian President)?

Egyptian policemen at the entrance of a prison in the Egyptian capital Cairo, 27 May 2020 [KHALED DESOUKI/AFP/Getty Images]

Egyptian policemen at the entrance of a prison in the Egyptian capital Cairo. [KHALED DESOUKI/AFP/Getty Images]

You may receive insults during the investigation, which usually takes place at night. You may also receive a threat of including your name in a case that results in imprisonment of 3, 5 or 10 years. You may be lucky when you are not subjected to physical harm. The matter depends on the mood of the officer, the charges attributed to you and the nature of the answers he wants to get.

Then you go back to lie in the corner of the cell, with a breeze of air that touched your face after you were deprived of the sun and air for days. You only see the world through a small window that does not exceed 10 cm and is covered with thick iron bars, through which you see what is outside the walls.

Death Refrigerator

The small and frightening room actually blocks you from seeing the sun and the moon, the day and the night and, as the days go, your awareness of time is lost; you may not know what day you are in. There are no newspapers, books, clocks, radio or television; nothing but intimidation, pain and fear of the unknown.

The silence is interrupted by the voice of the jailer, when, every day, he throws loaves of bread, small pieces of cheese and Halawa Tahinia, pretending to have a bit of mercy, asking about your condition and reassuring you, sometimes, that you will see the light soon.

You may be allowed to buy food from abroad at your own expense if the “pasha” (officer) agrees, and your request may be repeatedly refused, and you may be allowed a dose of hot tea that is passed to you through the “refrigerator” window.

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The mercy of the jailer is limited to seconds and minutes, but they are significant moments, with which the door opens, and bear the hope that we can see the world again, and then the door is closed again, waiting for those moments the next day.

Unfortunately, one of the detainees may spend days alone inside the “refrigerator” as if it were a solitary cellar, and this is what happened with “H.M.” (48 years), who stayed for days in a “refrigerator” in Minya Governorate (southern Egypt), without a companion. He started to talk to himself, cries sometimes, sings, prays and reads the Quran. He also started walking back and forth in the room, pretending to sleep, trying to spend time, or escaping from the reality in which he lives.

We have concealed the data of the speakers to preserve their identities and personal safety so that none of them would be exposed to any possible harm from the Egyptian authorities.

AF, 20, told Middle East Monitor that dozens of people shared the “refrigerator” with him, in which he stayed for months at the Helwan Police Station (south of Cairo). They stayed for days or weeks, some of them abandoned pieces of their clothes for others to wear, and some granted money to help those coming to the same fate. But the most important thing is that they relieve him a little bit by exchanging conversations and sometimes laughing, in addition to learning some experiences from holders of higher degrees and people of high professions.

In the “refrigerator,” you can find a doctor, engineer, accountant, lawyer, journalist, teacher, businessman and craftsman. You may find a sixty-year-old man or a fifteen-year-old child. You may meet an old friend, and you will certainly come out with a new friend; however, fear remains the common denominator among those who visited the death cells.

Memories Wall

On the walls, the detainees write their concerns and pains using a pen that was surreptitiously smuggled. One writes his name and his area; another writes the date of his arrest and a third complains about his condition to Allah. Some record their telephone numbers for contact later, upon their release, or to assist another detainee who was released in informing their relatives that they are still alive.

You may read lines of a prisoner who remained alone for several weeks and months, without companion except for Allah, or lines of another one who was sentenced to rigorous imprisonment (15 years) or a third who was transferred to a remote prison, but what is painful is when you read lines of a detainee who later died.

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Tears come into your eyes at the moment of the painful feeling of the cruelty of injustice, the oppression of detention, and the pain of absence behind the walls; in a “refrigerator” that is not visited by representatives of judicial bodies, or delegations of human rights organisations and is not seen by media cameras and satellite channel correspondents.

The charges differ from one person to another, but “spreading false news”, “joining a banned group” and “misuse of social media sites” are the common charges to be brought against the residents of the “refrigerator”, with editing “posts” from your Facebook and Twitter accounts, as well as your phone, or fabricating what you did not commit.

Prisoners in Mahalla, Egypt [Hossam el-Hamalawy - Flickr]

Egyptian prisoners [Hossam el-Hamalawy – Flickr]

B.A., 50, confirms that, after he was released from the Prosecution House in Fayoum Governorate (west of the country) on bail, he was forced to take off his pre-trial detention clothes (white) and wear new clothes to start a new case, as he was released, and that he was charged with participating in a demonstration against the ruling regime, although he did not see light at all.

According to his statements to Middle East Monitor, he was humiliated and beaten in what is known as the “reception” when he was transferred to Tora Prison (south of Cairo), where new prisoners are received with a campaign of torture, beatings with batons and a humiliating search even of their buttocks, on the pretext of the fear of concealing sharp tools, razors that might be used to commit suicide later.

Behind the Sun

The “refrigerator” is not just an ordinary room or a small cell inside a police station; it is a slow-death room that summarises the nightmare of “behind the sun” between its walls, which is an expression spread among the Egyptian people to describe the state of a citizen who is detained and forcibly disappeared under mysterious circumstances.

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It is not an exaggeration to say that leaving the “refrigerator” to be summoned before the Public Prosecution is tantamount to a new birth, which gives the detainee papers proving his existence, and his detention pending a case, compared to his previous condition which is not proven by any papers or official records and gives the administration of the police station or the department the right to deny the existence of this person.

It is not known precisely the number of “refrigerators” belonging to the Egyptian National Security Agency (formerly State Security), and the number of people who are detained in them at the level of the governorates of the Republic, as they are not subject to any supervision from any party.

J.S., 30, explains saying that over days, he started to memorise the mobile phone numbers of several detainees to reassure their relatives that they are alive and that they are detained in a national security prison (in the centre of the country), confirming that he was chosen to perform this task because he was likely to be released first.

It is a feeling of joy mixed with fear when you call the family of a forcibly disappeared to tell them that “your son is alive and in a good condition in this place”. The joy comes from reassuring his parents, wife and children that he is alive, and the fear comes from the possibility of your calls being tracked and your communication with the families of detainees being monitored, which may threaten you to return to the “refrigerator”.

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