|Al-Ahram Weekly On-line
12 - 18 April 2001
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Fair treatmentA fatwa from Egypt's mufti recommending conjugal visits for prisoners is easier said than done. Rana Allam chases the divide between conviction and implementation
Dipping into a delicate debate, Egypt's mufti, Nasr Farid Wassel, demanded that security authorities investigate how conjugal visits can be implemented in Egyptian prisons. Confirming that the practice is legitimate under Islamic law, Wassel indicated that arrangements should be made by the Ministry of the Interior "to put things in their rightful order." The mufti noted that incarceration is intended to limit freedom with the aim of rehabilitation, and reasoned that depriving prisoners intimacy with their spouses can lead to psychological stress. He added that those who are married to someone serving a prison term should not be punished for the mistakes of their spouses, "especially since such punishment could lead to [his or her] deviation into sin."
Speaking to Rose El-Youssef weekly magazine, Wassel claimed that organising conjugal visits would preserve a prisoner's bond to his family and encourage him to maintain a "decent social life", rather than alienate the people who care for him. Though the Prisons Authority has refused to comment on the matter, those familiar with Egypt's prison system are sceptical that such a programme will ever be realised. Setting up facilities for conjugal visits would require a significant restructuring of the existing facilities and, more importantly, the logistics of the visits -- searches, privacy, illegitimate visits -- would be overwhelmingly complicated in light of the sensitivities of Egyptian culture.
Numerous Arab countries, including Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Libya, Yemen, Sudan and Tunisia, allow conjugal visits, but the practice has proved difficult to implement given traditional values and the awkward circumstances involved. In Saudi Arabia, for example, a woman must be accompanied by her father or a brother, and most women are too embarrassed. In other Arab countries, women have simply refused to go.
Former Assistant to the Interior Minister Sami Abdel-Gawwad, who until last month was in charge of the Prisons Authority, declared that given the current state of Egypt's prisons, implementing conjugal visits would be impossible. "There is neither space nor money to build guest rooms," Abdel-Gawwad told Al-Ahram Weekly. The standard room for such visits is isolated and equipped with two doors -- one that opens into the prison, and one which can be accessed from outside, through which the visitor enters. A bed is not enough; there must be clean sheets, a bathroom, and other basic amenities.
"Practically speaking, it is not feasible to implement conjugal visits," admits Mohamed Zarei, director of the Human Rights Centre for the Assistance of Prisoners, noting that prisons are overcrowded and the number of daily visits is enormous. Ahmed El-Magdoub, former head of the National Centre for Social and Criminological Research, agrees. "Although it is a noble goal to lessen the suffering of the prisoners, in this case, it will not happen." But Wassel begs to differ, contending that with some concerted effort a suitable system could be set up. The mufti called on the relevant authorities to see to it that such a system is developed, since relations between married couples are not "just a form of entertainment -- but a duty, just like praying."
One prevalent argument for conjugal visits suggests that it would temper the reported spreading of homosexuality in prisons, but El-Magdoub disagrees, saying that it is the close quarters that lead to such cases. He suggested that funds which would go towards building guest houses would be better spent building new prisons with enough room for sleeping, showering and exercise. He noted that there are also more complications than simply building facilities.
"Women would not allow themselves to be searched, and they would feel humiliated by the guards' looks and taunts," El-Magdoub explained. He added that bribery is rampant in prisons and that "illegal entries" -- prostitutes, for example -- could become a problem. Zarei echoed El-Magdoub's concerns, saying that women would be too ashamed to visit their husbands and prison guards are not capable of handling such a delicate situation.
Though the debate over conjugal visits has been resurrected by the mufti's fatwa, the practice was unofficially tolerated up to the early 1990s by some prisons. Prominent Islamist activists Omar Abdel-Rahman and Ahmed El-Rayan both fathered children during their incarceration and it is claimed that other Islamist leaders, like Aboud El-Zumur, Nageh Ibrahim, Osama Hafez and Hamdi Abdel-Rahman were permitted conjugal visits. Zarei claims that in some prisons, like Torah Prison, Islamist prisoners would meet their wives in tents made up for this purpose. "It was a matter of fact, though not officially legal." One famous case regarding conjugal visits was the 1952 imprisonment of Defence Minister Hussein Serri Amer, when a decree by the king allowed Amer to meet with his wife.
The liberties permitted prisoners are regulated by the Ministry of the Interior, which is responsible for the Prisons Authority. According to El-Magdoub, in the 1970s, when former Prime Minister Mamdouh Salem was the interior minister, a committee was formed to look into allowing conjugal visits. The committee, consisting of officials from the ministry, the Prisons Authority and the Centre for Social and Criminological Research, concluded that the problems resulting from conjugal visits were endless. They determined that the only solution was to allow house-visits for prisoners who have a record of good behaviour.
The Ministry of the Interior's Abdel-Gawwad told the Weekly that "no such thing ever happened", but El-Magdoub, who was a member of the committee, insists that a ministerial decree by Salem instituted the house-visit system and that the programme was very successful. "No prisoner would be allowed a house-visit except those who had proven their good behaviour," El-Magdoub explained. Naturally, the idea of getting out for a few days appealed to all prisoners and many were on their best behaviour. El-Magdoub says that out of hundreds of prisoners who went out under the system, only one tried to escape. If the system was ever implemented, which is a matter of dispute, it no longer exists, and has not been implemented since Salem left office.
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