Tuesday,21 November, 2017
Current issue | Issue 1269, (5 - 11 November 2015)
Tuesday,21 November, 2017
Issue 1269, (5 - 11 November 2015)

Ahram Weekly

Behind closed doors

Groups concerned about the welfare of prisoners are disappointed by a new presidential decree regulating the operation of prisons, writes Ahmed Morsy

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Al-Ahram Weekly

On 25 October, President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi decreed a series of amendments to the law that regulates prison conditions. Human rights groups, in Egypt and internationally, have welcomed some of the changes and criticised others.

In the decree, Al-Sisi amended 13 articles and added four new ones to Law 396/1956. Among the changes, prisoners in pre-trial detention are to be held apart from prisoners already convicted. Women who give birth in prison are now allowed to keep their children for four years, as opposed to the earlier two years.

The same article was also amended to stipulate that pregnant women who have been issued a death sentence will now have the sentence deferred for two years from the date of their giving birth, rather than the current two months.

Article 38 of the law has been changed to allow prisoners to make paid phone calls to their families, and now enshrines the right of prisoners to receive visits twice a month.

“Some of the changes herald a significant improvement in prison conditions,” said George Ishaaq, a member of the National Council for Human Rights (NCHR).

Abdel-Ghaffar Shukr, vice president of the NCHR, also welcomed changes that allow pre-trial detainees to stay in furnished cells, though they will have to pay a daily fee of LE15 for the privilege.

Shukr called for the innovation to be extended to serving convicts and argued that furnished cells should be standard in prisons.

“There should either be no charge or a nominal fee. As it stands, a payment of LE15 per day favours wealthier detainees who can afford the LE450 or so a month.”

The Interior Ministry has said it is committed to ensuring that the changes in the prison law are applied.

While some of the changes were hailed as positive, others were roundly criticised. In a statement issued on 27 October, Al-Karama, a Geneva-based NGO, denounced what it described as “repressive” amendments.

“The amended law now grants the Interior Ministry the final say in denying visits to prisoners,” said the statement. “And instead of reducing periods of solitary confinement the presidential decree has extended the period of punitive solitary confinement from 15 to 30 days.”

Al-Karama also expressed concern over provisions that allow prisoners to be transferred to maximum-security cells for up to six months. According to the group, several of the decreed amendments violate international treaties and charters to which Egypt is a signatory.

Changes to Article 8 have come in for the greatest criticism from groups concerned with prisoner welfare. The amendments allow the “use of force” against prisoners in cases where prison staff feel the need to defend themselves, to foil an attempted prison break, in the case of “physical resistance” or if prisoners fail to adhere to orders.

“Article No 8 legalises the use of force against prisoners yet fails to specify the kind of force wardens may use,” Ahmed Mefreh, Al-Karama’s representative in Egypt, wrote on his Facebook page. The vague wording, claimed Mefreh, may “allow wardens to torture prisoners or fire live bullets at them.”

NCHR member Salah Sallam shares Mefreh’s concerns. “By failing to specify the cases in which force may be used and by setting no limit on the kind of force that can be applied the law appears to be inviting abuses against detainees,” he said.

In May, the NCHR reported that 80 detainees had died while being held in prisons and police stations between June 2013 and December 2014. In a report issued in June, Human Rights Watch said a total of 124 deaths in custody have been documented by Egyptian human rights organisations since August 2013, the majority a result of “medical negligence, torture or other ill-treatment.”

“What’s especially worrying about the amendment is that it opens the door to physical punishment of prisoners for any sort of insubordination,” Reda Marey, a lawyer who handles prison issues at the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights, told AP.

“This might mean if the prison administration brings the prisoner food and orders him to eat it and the prisoner refuses force could be used to make him to obey the order.”

“The phrasing is too vague,” said Marey. “We always come back to a single, basic point: if there is meaningful oversight and inspection of prisons many problems would be resolved.”

The NCHR has repeatedly asked to be allowed to make random inspections of prisons. The 25 October presidential decree brought it no closer to achieving this goal. Article 73 simply repeats regulations already in force, requiring the NCHR to first apply for a permit from the General Prosecution, which has the final say over if, and when, a visit may take place.

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