Human Rights Watch (HRW) released a report Wednesday strongly criticising Egyptian authorities for failing to improve detention conditions or to independently investigate reported detainees’ deaths as a result of physical torture inside prisons.
HRW spoke to the families of five members who have reportedly died in police custody between 2013 and 2014. Relatives of the deceased detainees claimed deaths were caused by inhumane conditions in prisons, police beating in one case, and the prison authorities’ denial of necessary medical care in the four others.
Eyewitnesses also accounted for their ill detained relatives’ treatment journeys, reporting that “Egyptian prison hospitals are not equipped for surgery, and authorities often put pressure on regular hospitals to return admitted prisoners as quickly as possible, sometimes preventing follow-up treatment or recovery time.”
A cousin of Tarek Mahmoud al-Ghandour, a professor at Ain Shams University and member of the Muslim Brotherhood who died last November of liver failure, told HRW that intransigence from authorities prevented Ghandour from obtaining necessary treatment, despite going back and forth to hospitals.
“I know that all hospitals in general don’t admit political prisoners easily. They receive instructions not to admit them,” he told HRW. “The doctor at that time said it’s difficult for them to admit political prisoners because it means a lot of problems for them and the hospital.”
Citing local Egyptian NGOs and media reports, HRW said that some detainees appear to have died after being tortured or physically abused, but “many appear to have died because they were held in severely overcrowded cells or did not receive adequate medical care for serious ailments.”
As for reported death numbers, human rights’ lawyer Yasmine Hossam told Daily News Egypt Wednesday that no precise figures can be established because many prisoners are “unknown of”.
“Men, children and women are being held in custody at military camps that are not legally supposed to be detention centres for civilians, referring to Al-Azouli military camp in Ismailia, and other similar camps on the Cairo-Alexandria highway and in Mansoura, north east of Cairo.
Last June, a report by The Guardian said hundreds of “disappeared” Egyptians were being tortured and held outside of judicial oversight in the secret Al-Azouli military prison, estimated to hold at least 400 detainees.
“In torture allegation cases, police tries to prevent relatives and lawyers’ visits to prisoners until the bruises are gone, in addition to blindfolding them during the process so that they do not recognise the perpetrators,” Hossam said.
Meanwhile, Hossam confirmed the inflexibility of prison authorities in allowing medical care to prisoners, which she says becomes more intense when dealing with political activists.
“For example, detained activist Ahmed Douma whose health deteriorated in jail in addition to his hunger strike, was denied hospital transfer by the judge of the case Nagy Shehata, although the decision is in the hands of prison authorities,” Hossam said.
She added that it was not until the National Council for Human Rights (NCHR) interfered that Douma was finally granted permission. He was only taken to the hospital for tests, then returned to prison, despite his condition requiring careful medical follow up.
Hossam was also part of the defence team of two political activists, Nagy Kamel and Khaled El-Sayed, detained in the Azbakia police station in Cairo last February. Kamel had spoken upon his release the following month in a video interview on “systematic torture practices, such as electrocution, constant beating with sticks, and denial of food or bathroom access,” in the Azbakia and Qasr Al-Nil police stations, then in the prison of Abu Zaabal where they were taken.
Their case had sparked controversy among human rights activists, pressuring authorities to investigate torture allegations. “When we were allowed to visit them, police surrounded us with arms and threatened both sides not to speak of torture,” Hossam stated, adding that they saw their fresh bruises.
Hossam continued, saying that the detainees with marks of physical abuse were examined by the Forensic Medicine Authority, and based on its medical report a lawsuit was filed, but prosecution authorities did not take action.
Meanwhile, a pro-Muslim Brotherhood channel named Al-Sharq ran Monday a video claiming that Central Security Forces (CSF) in Kafr El-Sheikh were getting beaten as a punishment for refusing to torture civilians.
While there was no proof of the truthfulness of the claims, Hossam argued that it is not unlikely, recalling the protests that erupted in the cabinet of 2011, where security forces were holding protesters “hostages” in the cabinet.
“It happened in front of everybody. The soldier who refused to assault a protester was assaulted himself by his supervisor,” Hossam said.
According to the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights (EIPR) end-of-year report last December: “[T]orture, inhumane treatment and worsening living conditions are all recurring themes prompting hunger strikes across Egyptian prisons.”
More than 100 deaths in custody cases have been reported in the media, and by human rights groups in 2014, mainly as a result of torture, medical negligence, and inhumane and unhygienic detention conditions, the report said.
“Serious indications that show an alarming escalation in the excessive use of force, brutality, beatings, verbal abuse and other forms of cruel and degrading treatment or punishment for prisoners by law enforcement officials, especially in Wadi al-Natroun and Qanater prisons and the Koum al-Dikka juvenile facility.”
Looking back at the early sparks of the revolution in 2011, activists grouped under the “We are all Khaled Said Movement” were among the first and most influential callers for protests on 25 January, which coincides with the Police Day.
The movement was active through its page on Facebook, which activist Wael Ghoneim had founded in support of Said, the young victim of police abuse who was beaten to death by two policemen trying to place him under arbitrary arrest.
Calling on people to take to the streets, the page posted ten days before the revolution: “25 January is the police’s official day off. If 100,000 of us protested in Cairo nobody will be able to stop us.”