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Abused and oppressed, Egyptian political detainees fast behind bars

March 19, 2024 at 1:37 pm

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

A few bites may easily satisfy the hunger of those fasting behind bars in Egypt, but food will not relieve the bitterness of being unjustly imprisoned in political cases. One Ramadan after another, they wait for a glimpse of light that may help get them released.

Ramadan in Egyptian prisons brings political opponents a mixture of hunger and illness, and pain and suffering, but it may also bring them a few moments of hope and tears from supplications made to God amid hopes that one day they will get a fair trial that will allow thousands of innocent people to return to their homes.

Local and international human rights organisations estimate the number of political detainees in Egypt at about 60,000. These include journalists, human rights defenders, academics, doctors, former parliamentarians and activists from Islamic, liberal and leftist movements.

13 hours

On one of the days of Ramadan, some detainees were being transported between prisons and they refused to break their fast on account of them being travellers on the road, so they stayed for 13 continuous hours inside a metal box, carrying their own water bottles and some dry food that won’t spoil on the way.

Mohamed Sayed, a pseudonym he asked us to use, says that he was getting transferred from Fayoum Prison to New Valley Prison, southwest of the country, to serve his one-year sentence on charges of demonstrating against President Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi’s regime.

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During that trip, towards the prison near the Egyptian-Libyan border, detainees were scared and tired. Some of them had to urinate inside the car, using plastic bottles they had, after they were denied access to bathrooms.

He told MEMO: “One of us had diarrhoea and had to use the bathroom. We surrounded him with a curtain made up of our clothes so he wouldn’t get exposed. He had to defecate in the car, cleaned himself with some water he had and collected the faeces in a plastic bag. He was in so much pain: the pain in his stomach and the pain of injustice and oppression.”

About an hour after sunset, the deportation car arrived, carrying ten detainees of different ages. They took sips of water and ate some dates, before beginning a second journey into  one of the country’s most infamous prisons.

Officials in this prison, named Al-Manfa, or the exile, are known to “honour” new detainees by torturing, abusing, beating and insulting themupon their arrival. The prison has 216 cells and the abuse is often directed at opponents of Al-Sisi.

Fasting inside refrigerators

Another experience for detainees fasting Ramadan in Egyptian prisons is what’s called fasting inside a refrigerator, in reference to very small cells that are under the Supervision of National Security. These cells are distributed among police stations and security headquarters throughout the country.

The “refrigerator” is usually assigned to those who have been forcibly disappeared. They stay there before being brought in front of the Public Prosecution and they may be there for days, weeks, or months. It is a room made of concrete walls with no windows. There is no fresh air or sunlight. These cells are often infested with bugs; cockroaches and ants among others.

An eyewitness requesting to remain anonymous said that the most difficult days of fasting were in the “refrigerator”, where visits were strictly prohibited, as was the entry of food from family members which made things worse.

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“I used to fast alone, eat suhoor alone, and break my fast alone,” he continued, but sometimes, in a moment of compassion, the officer in charge would allow me to buy food from outside the prison, at my own expense.

Detainees, he explained, would ask the Public Prosecution to renew their detention and not to release them so they can stay in the main prison and not be placed in the “refrigerator” for fear of being tortured and abused or have their file be recycled in a new case.

The term recycling basically refers to recycling prisoners into new cases after the end of their prison term. This means those who have been released or acquitted are re-detained and charged in new cases in what is often termed Egypt’s revolving door policy for political detainees. Prisoners may also be added to a new case before they’re released from their first case, in order to ensure they remain in pretrial detention.

One of the people suffering the most from the recycling issue is the former presidential candidate and head of the Strong Egypt Party, Abdel Moneim Aboul Fotouh, and his deputy, Mohamed Al-Qassas. They have been recycled/rotated since their arrest in 2018, on charges of joining a terrorist group, financing it and spreading false news.

Compared to fasting inside the deportation vehicle and the “refrigerator”, the situation seems better inside the main and central prisons, which numbered approximately 168 in 2021, not including police stations and secret detention centres, according to the Arab Reform Initiative, a research centre based in Paris.

Inside the main prisons, which are affiliated with the Prison Service and the Security Directorates, there are large rooms and wards equipped with refrigerators to store food. Detainees are given time to exercise daily. They are also allowed to receive visitors, receive food from their families, or purchase goods from the canteen.

The canteen is a place designated by the prison administration to sell goods and food to detainees, using cards given to them in exchange for sums of money, which are deposited for them in the prison secretariat by their families.

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Saber Al-Sharqawi, another pseudonym, says that families provide breakfast and suhoor meals for their relatives during Ramadan and other days and leftovers are kept in the ward’s refrigerator. They also benefit from meals provided by the prison administration, which include rice and a type of vegetable in addition to meat which is offered twice a week. Eggs and moussaka (fried eggplant) are available on other days. The suhoor meal includes beans and tahini halva.

Inside the main prisons, Taraweeh and Tahajjud prayers can be performed, while religious and scientific lessons and reading the Holy Qur’an are permitted, provided that this is performed in each room separately. These activities are monitored by the prison administration, through cameras distributed throughout the wards, according to Saber’s statement.

A journalist and eyewitness, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said that he spent more than one Ramadan behind bars before being released years ago. He pointed out that he suffered from hunger and fear as he fasted. Hunger when the food would spoil because of high temperature and he would have to break his fast with some dates and water only, and fear when the cell door was closed.

“We had no lifeline other than being close to God and contemplating the verses of the Holy Qur’an. We would pray and stay up all night, and we would repeatedly complete reading the entire Qur’an, and we would cry a lot. It was solitude with God, had it not been for that, we would’ve died of fear, injustice and oppression.”

Joint meals

During Ramadan, detainees’ family members incur large expenses as they prepare for their visitations. They prepare food for their incarcerated relatives, which is an additional expense and is getting very expensive in light of the collapse of local currency and the rise in prices that affected all food commodities. There is also the hardship of travel where families must travel from distant governorates for long hours to see their loved ones in prisons near the borders, only to be with them for half an hour.

Detainees’ families participate in preparing meals that are enough for the total people in one cell, which is 25. Each family will have a turn to bear the cost of preparing meals on the day of their visit, which ensures regular delivery of food to the detainees throughout the week in that cell.

However, umm Ahmed, the wife of a recent detainees, says she cannot prepare food for her husband who was detained just before Ramadan. She does not know where he is being kept or where he was sent, after he was forcibly disappeared. She contacted the Public Prosecutor and other concerned parties, but has received no answers.

Of course, the life of prisoners during Ramadan varies from one prison to another. It also varies depending on whether he is in pre-trial detention, forcibly disappeared, or if a final sentence was issued against him. Hunger and fear, however, remain overwhelming feelings felt by all those being detained in Egypt’s prisoners this, and every, Ramadan.

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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.