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Medical neglect: The gateway to slow death in Egypt prisons

May 22, 2023 at 10:00 pm

Correctional and Rehabilitation Centre in Badr city, Egypt. [KHALED DESOUKI/AFP via Getty Images]

Amid inhumane conditions, medical neglect in Egyptian prisons opens the door to further suffering that could lead to a deterioration of political prisoners’ health and possibly reaching to their death.

Behind the prison walls, there are stories and tales, confirmed by numbers and human rights data, about a different kind of torture against political detainees, especially elderly ones. It is reflected through depriving them of medical care and medicine, besides intentionally delaying the necessary medical intervention.

Last week witnessed the death of two prisoners within 24 hours; they were Madyan Hussein, (63 years old), and Sameh Mansour, (58 years old), due to medical neglect, according to the Egyptian Network for Human Rights ENHR.

Since the beginning of this year, 2023, and up to the writing of this article, the number of deaths inside prisons and detention centres in Egypt, due to medical neglect, has reached twelve.

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Roubi and Sultan

Concerns are growing about an increase in the number of victims, especially after human rights reports confirmed that Egyptian activist, Sherif Roubi, is suffering from deliberate medical neglect in Abu Zabal 2 Prison, located in Al Qalyubia Governorate (north of Cairo), after he was infected with a severe inflammation of the seventh nerve, according to the Egyptian Commission for Rights and Freedoms (ECRF).

Academic, Salah Sultan, who has been imprisoned for about ten years, is also facing the danger of sudden death in Badr 1 prison (east of Cairo) due to depriving him of the proper medical care, although he suffers from serious heart and liver diseases, according to Human Rights Watch.

A recently released prisoner spoke to Middle East Monitor, saying that in the cell where he was detained, the treatment of a liver patient was delayed to the extent that the patient died. Another prisoner suffered severe respiratory pain, and then his condition worsened, leading to a malignant lung tumour. The released prisoner confirmed the bad conditions in the New Valley Prison (southern Egypt), the mistreatment and the serious violations against prisoners, such as beatings and torture.

Medical care is not available for prisoners in police departments and national security centres (an internal intelligence agency). However, providing medical care is limited to public prisons, which numbered 78 prisons until April 2021, housing about 120,000 prisoners, including around 65,000 political prisoners and approximately 54,000 criminal prisoners, according to a report by the Arabic Network for Human Rights Information (ANHRI).

Inadequate Medical Care

An informed source has told Middle East Monitor that there are some forms of medical care in the hospitals affiliated with public prisons, such as external check-ups and the provision of medication for patients with hypertension and diabetes. The source confirmed that the specialist doctor visits at night to give insulin injections to diabetic patients.

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On condition of anonymity, the source said, “Neglect often occurs in cases of emergencies, such as heart attacks or strokes, which often lead to death. On the other hand, political prisoners are often accused of feigning illness; accordingly, this leads to depriving them of proper medical care.”

Egyptian prisons lack the basic features of human life, including health facilities, healthy food, proper ventilation and lighting. The abuse of political detainees could reach the extent of reducing the amount of food provided to them, cutting off water, depriving them of personal hygiene materials, forcibly shaving their hair, confining them in solitary cells, subjecting them to dragging and beatings and depriving them of exercises and visits for years.

According to eyewitnesses, the situation becomes different upon opening the doors for visits. They allow entering good quality food after check, and sometimes obtaining necessary medications from prisoners’ families, along with depositing amounts of money for them in the canteen (selling outlets within prisons) to buy the food and drink they need.

According to Article No. 16 of the Egyptian Prison Organisation Law: “Pre-trial detainees are allowed to bring their necessary food from outside the prison or purchase it from the prison at the specified price. If they do not wish to do so or are unable, their assigned food must be distributed.”

Psychological Suffering 

The suffering in Egyptian prisons is not limited to the deprivation of an injection, a pill or medical examinations. It goes beyond that, when it involves subjecting detainees to psychological war, through acts which degrade their dignity, aiming at undermining their morale and psychologically humiliating them.

Political prisoners may be subjected to obscenities, slaps, tearing of their clothing, confiscation of personal belongings, handcuffing and blindfolding. These violations, as recently reported by a released prisoner (who requested anonymity), are enough to turn their health condition into ongoing and severe deterioration.

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This “blockade” is further confirmed by a report issued by the ENHR, which emphasises that subjecting prisoners to physical and verbal humiliation, as well as denying them the basic necessities of humane life, increases the risk factors for various psychological disorders. It also alters neurotransmitters, thus it leads to disparities in hormonal levels in the blood, leading to fluctuations in blood pressure and glucose levels, and potentially causing blood clots, immune system illnesses, and malignant tumours, ultimately resulting in death.

In 2022, 52 prisoners died due to medical neglect, compared to 60 deaths in Egyptian prisons and detention centres in 2021. While 73 deaths were recorded for the same reason in 2020, according to local and international human rights reports.

However, the Egyptian Assistant Minister of Interior for the Prisons Sector, General Tarek Marzouk, previously claimed that “the sector is facing a deliberate defamation campaign to depict a distorted image of the country’s prisons,” affirming that the “social and healthcare services are provided to prisons in a humane manner based on the application of the law,” as reported by Egyptian newspapers.

Possible Victims

Activists say that hundreds of prisoners, including journalists, lawyers, doctors and former MPs, including women, are at risk of losing their lives due to medical neglect.

Among those prisoners is lawyer, Huda Abdel-Moneim (63 years old), who has been detained for over three years and is experiencing a slow death in her cell at Qanater Prison (north of Cairo).

In late October 2022, Amnesty International issued a statement stating that Egyptian authorities continue to deprive Abdel-Moneim of contact with her family and access to adequate healthcare, despite her serious health problems, including kidney failure and heart disease. The organisation demanded her immediate release, without any prior conditions or restrictions.

Statement link: 

مصر: معلومات إضافية: حرمان محامية حقوقية من الرعاية الصحية مع اشتداد مرضها: هدى عبد المنعم

Another prisoner is the former presidential candidate and leader of the Strong Egypt Party, Abdel Moneim Aboul Fotouh, (72 years old), who has been detained for over five years and has repeatedly suffered from heart attacks. The Egyptian authorities refuse his family’s request to provide him with the necessary medical treatment at their own expense.

The list also includes journalist, Badr Mohamed Badr (65 years old), who has been imprisoned for over six years and suffers from hepatitis and other illnesses.

In the past two months, opposition-affiliated websites circulated leaked messages about suicides that took place inside the Badr Prison Complex (east of Cairo), also known as the “New Scorpion Prison”. These suicides are seen as a response to constant violations, prohibiting visits for years, reducing food rations and the starvation of detainees.

Human rights activist, Hussam Bahjat, founder of the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights, said on his personal Facebook page that prisoners who were transferred from the Scorpion Prison to Badr Prison had been deprived of sunlight and lighting for years. The sudden change in their situation and the intense lighting in their cells, which continues 24 hours a day, have caused them to suffer nervous breakdowns and sleep deprivation.

Over the past ten years, dozens of detainees have lost their lives due to medical neglect, the most significant of whom was the former President, Mohamed Morsi; former Muslim Brotherhood leader Mohammed, Mahdi Akef; former deputy leader of the Freedom and Justice Party, Essam El-Erian; former MPs Farid Ismail and Abdel Azim El-Sharqawi; Islamic Group leader, Mohamed Essam El-Din Darbala; Director, Shady Habash and others.

Article No. 36 of the Prisons Organisation Law No. 396 of 1956 stipulates: “Any sentenced prisoner who is diagnosed by the prison doctor with a life-threatening illness or complete disability shall be referred to the Director of Prisons Medical Services Department along with the forensic doctor for examination, and to consider releasing them. The release decision shall be executed after approval from the General Director of Prisons and the consent of the Public Prosecutor, and the relevant administration and prosecutor’s office shall be notified.”

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A human rights source, who preferred to remain anonymous, said that the authorities’ response in such cases often comes as “You are pretending”, in reference to accusing the prisoners of “feigning illness” until they die. The source emphasised that medical intervention is often slow and inadequate for critical cases, especially among the elderly.

Over the past years, the number of deaths in detention centres from July 2013 until the end of 2022 exceeded a thousand prisoners, according to the human rights Committee for Justice organisation.

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