Monday,19 February, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1258, (13 - 19 August 2015)
Monday,19 February, 2018
Issue 1258, (13 - 19 August 2015)

Ahram Weekly

Deaths in custody

The death of an Al-Gamaa Al-Islamiya leader in prison this week highlights the deteriorating conditions in Egypt’s detention facilities. Khaled Dawoud reports

Deaths in custody
Deaths in custody
Al-Ahram Weekly

While the Interior Ministry says the death on Saturday of Essam Derbala, the 57 year-old leader of Al-Gamaa Al-Islamiya who was being held at the maximum security Aqrab prison, was due to natural causes his family says he died due to the appalling conditions in Egypt’s overcrowded prisons and because he was refused proper medical care.

Aqrab is part of the Tora Prison Complex in south Cairo. Derbala is not the first detainee to die while being held there. On 1 August the Interior Ministry announced that Al-Gamaa Al-Islamiya leader Ezzat Salamoni had died while detained at the prison. Four days later came the announcement of the death of Morgan Salem, a leader of the Jihad Group.

In the same week there were four reports of deaths in police stations, two in Alexandria, one in Cairo and one in Hurghada.

On 7 and 8 August two suspected members of the Muslim Brotherhood, detained days earlier during anti-government protests in Alexandria, were pronounced dead. The Interior Ministry said the two died as a result of heart failure. The dead prisoner in Hurghada was a criminal suspect. The Interior Ministry says he committed suicide. The Interior Ministry says a fourth young man, found dead at Imbaba police station after being stopped at a checkpoint, died after swallowing drugs.

In his hometown of Malawi where Derbala was buried thousands of supporters attended the funeral. While his family did not contest that he had died of natural causes they claimed his health had been neglected by the authorities.

“He died because of illnesses he suffered in prison,” said Hussein Derbala, his cousin. “Sheikh Essam couldn’t bear the conditions in prison. They ignored the fact he was diabetic and had dietary requirements.”

Derbala played a key role in Al-Gamaa Al-Islamiya’s decision to renounce violence 15 years ago. Arrested in the aftermath of the assassination of Anwar Al-Sadat in 1981 he spent 25 years in prison before being released. Derbala was detained for a second time on 13 May while delivering a lecture in the town of Qena and charged with inciting violence. Al-Gamaa Al-Islamiya claims the charges were trumped up.

“While Al-Gamaa Al-Islamiya mourns its leader and martyr [Derbala], it holds the political and security authorities responsible for his martyrdom, which amounts to premeditated murder. For months the prison authorities deprived him of medicine and medical care and refused to transfer him to hospital despite his deteriorating condition,” the group said in a statement. “Derbala’s blood and that of each martyr who falls in the struggle for freedom will follow the killers and torturers wherever they go.”

Since Mohamed Morsi’s ouster the number of inmates in Egypt’s 43 official prisons has been reported to have increased dramatically. The Interior Ministry has not released figures of the number of detainees being held though it denies reports by the Muslim Brotherhood and local and international human rights organisations that more than 40,000 people have been detained.

Major-General Abdel-Karim Abu Bakr, the assistant interior minister for human rights and public relations, insists all detainees face criminal charges and are held courtesy of rulings issued by prosecutors and judges. He also says prison authorities and the Interior Ministry thoroughly investigate cases of death while in custody.  

Human rights groups, including the National Council on Human Rights (NCHR), whose members are appointed by the president, have long expressed concern over the way administrative detention orders are automatically renewed, meaning detainees can be held for months pending investigation.

“There are hundreds of cases of people being held for two years or more in prison without their cases going to trial,” says NCHR Deputy Chairman Abdel-Ghaffar Shukr. The problem, he says, was compounded when interim president Adli Mansour issued a decree in 2013 cancelling earlier laws that limited pre-trial detention to a maximum of two years.

The NCHR’s latest annual report, issued on 31 May and covering the period between Morsi’s removal on 3 July, 2013 and the end of 2014, caused a furor by noting that while the Interior Ministry said 36 people had died in detention during the period covered local human rights organisations believe the figure to be 98. The deaths, said the report, were “mostly due to deteriorating living and health conditions and overcrowding in police stations and prisons”. The report said that while “there was no evidence that any deaths were a result of torture there was also no proof that this was not the case.”

According Mohamed Abdel-Wahed, a university student who spent 13 months in administrative detention, the worst time is usually inside police stations.

“Our only hope was to leave the police station and get moved to an official prison,” he says.

Most torture cases reported occur in police stations where overcrowded cells lack proper ventilation and medical care is seldom available.

Negad Al-Borai, a lawyer and human rights activist, believes an independent judicial committee should be formed urgently to investigate all cases of deaths in prisons and police stations.

“We need convincing reasons for why so many are dying. As it is complaints to the Interior Ministry and prosecutors are generally ignored,” says Borai. The authorities, he adds, should allow local human rights organisations to visit prisons. As it is, he says, even NCHR officials face problems in making prison visits.

Shukr confirms that NCHR requests to visit prisons, including Aqrab, have been either refused or delayed.

“Egyptian prisons are extremely overcrowded and disease spreads quickly among inmates. There is also lack of proper medical care, especially at Aqrab. We need proper doctors in prison hospitals,” says Shukr.

A number of deaths, he says, have occurred because of delays in transferring seriously ill prisoners to hospitals.

Both Shukr and Borai say human rights organisations face a difficult task in attracting attention to the problems in Egyptian prisons against the backdrop of the ongoing war against terrorism. Last week’s deaths in detention were overshadowed by reports of bombs and anti-government attacks in Cairo, Fayoum, Suez and Sinai which claimed the lives of several police officers and soldiers.

“Many members of the public consider conditions in prisons as insignificant given the other problems Egypt is facing. It is not uncommon to hear television commentators and columnists saying we should not raise issues related to deaths of terrorists in prisons while our officers and soldiers are dying on a daily basis across the country,” says Borai.

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