Wednesday,15 August, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1261, (3 - 9 September 2015)
Wednesday,15 August, 2018
Issue 1261, (3 - 9 September 2015)

Ahram Weekly

Behind bars

The National Council for Human Rights’ report on prison conditions denies systemic abuse but points to continuing violations of prisoners’ rights, Ahmed Morsy reports

Al-Ahram Weekly

Following weeks of attempts to secure permits from the Interior Ministry, a delegation from the National Council for Human Rights (NCHR) finally visited Al-Aqrab prison last week.

The council has received dozens of complaints about the mistreatment of detainees held at Al-Aqrab, a unit of the Tora Prison Complex in south-eastern Cairo. The highly secure facility contains many Islamists facing terrorism charges.

On Thursday the NCHR held a press conference to announce the findings of its delegation to Al-Aqrab and other prisons. In its report NCHR said it had received complaints from prisoners that they are being denied access to proper sanitation, kept in solitary confinement, prevented from receiving medical treatment outside the prison, provided with an inadequate diet, deprived of essential medical care and family visits. Prisoners’ families say visits last for no more than ten minutes.

The NCHR refuted many of the claims and denied that there was any evidence of torture in Al-Aqrab prison. The report did confirm that family visits are regularly cancelled, that prisoners are denied the right to exercise, not all prisoners have beds and blankets and personal belongings are banned.

“We have visited several prisons and found no evidence of systematic torture. There is a significant increase in the number of prisoners in some prisons and there is a need to improve the medical care,” Mohamed Fayek chairman of the NCHR told Al-Ahram Weekly.

Fayek requested that the law governing the NCHR to be amended to allow it access to prisons and detention centres without prior permission.

“The fact that Egyptian prisons are completely free of systematic torture does not mean that there is no torture at all,” Fayek said. “This is why we are insisting on the council’s right to visit prisons.”

The NCHR delegation included council members Hafez Abu Seada, Mohamed Abdel-Koddous, Salah Sallam, Nabil Shalabi, Islam Rehan and Moataz Khaled.

The report has been criticised by prisoners’ families and rights activists who accuse the NCHR of presenting a distorted picture of Al-Aqrab. The advocacy group Freedom for the Brave republished testimonies of the relatives of prisoners in Al-Aqrab prison under the hashtag Al-Aqrab cemetery on its Facebook and Twitter accounts.

The NCHR’s latest annual report, published on 31 May and covering the period between Morsi’s removal on 3 July, 2013 and the end of 2014, noted 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 this was not the case.”

 “Al-Aqrab prison has been despicable since its construction and until this moment. Its cells are inhuman and its prisoners are treated in a way that undermines all dignity,” NCHR member Nasser Amin wrote on his Twitter account last week.

In a Facebook post Shaimaa Al-Anadouli, daughter of Muslim Brotherhood leader Bahgat Al-Anadouli who is being held in Al-Aqrab, wrote: “The prison only allowed us to bring two of the medicines he needs. They did not allow his heart medicine or calcium supplements for his bones. Prison authorities also refused to let us deliver clothes and other basic goods. Visits are behind glass and last less than two minutes.”

Lawyer Halim Heneish has said that during a recent visit to a client in Al-Aqrab prison it appeared that all the inmates were malnourished.

“I was allowed to meet with my client for 10 minutes, though the law specifies detainees can meet with their lawyers for up to one hour at a time,” said Heneish. He also questioned why the NCHR’s report failed to mention the condition of the cells in which prisoners are held.

NCHR delegation member Mohamed Abdel-Quddous, who refused to attend the press conference, denounced the circumstances of the visit.

“The visit was like a play. The prison was prepared in advance. In the prison kitchen we saw the kind of food a hotel might serve,” he said.

 “The prison administration submitted a number of reports relating to the health care of prisoners. They included the file of Muslim Brotherhood Deputy Supreme Guide Khairat Al-Shater whose medical x-rays had cost a purported LE35,000. The figure is exaggerated to an absurd extent, and does not hide the fact there has been more than once case of death as a result of medical negligence.”

Al-Gamaa Al-Islamiya leader Essam Derbala died last month while being transferred to hospital from Al-Aqrab prison. While the Interior Ministry said Derbala’s death was a result of a sudden drop in blood pressure Al-Gamaa Al-Islamiya members say the prison authorities’ negligence was to blame.

They claim repeated requests to hospitalise Derbala as his health deteriorated were refused.

In March former member of the People’s Assembly and Muslim Brotherhood member Farid Ismail died days after being hospitalised. His family also accuses of the Aqrab Prison authorities of intentional neglect.

Fayek has refused to comment on Abdel-Quddous’s allegations.

“We requested more than once to visit Al-Aqrab prison. Some of the complaints we had received were not true. Other complaints have been dealt with,” he said.

The Interior Ministry and Prisons Department has now agreed to increase the duration of visits by relatives of detainees from ten minutes to forty-five minutes, provide a sufficient number of beds and replace worn out bedding with new materials, says Fayek.

“There are still violations of human rights in Egypt but the situation is far from the desperate picture painted by NGOs affiliated to the Muslim Brotherhood. Progress in the field of human rights is not fast enough but still there is progress,” said Fayek.

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