CAIRO: On Jan. 30, Nadia Lotfy received a frantic phone call from her brother Ashraf from inside the Appeals Prison in Old Cairo. “He told me they’re shooting at some of the prisoners downstairs … I could hear chants of ‘Allahu Akbar’ and a lot of havoc in the background,” she recalled.
A few days later she found his dead body in the morgue.
But first, Lotfy went to the Appeals Prison to see her brother on Jan. 31, where she was turned away by the army who had cordoned off the area and allegedly threatened her and other families to shoot if they do not leave.
In another attempt to see him the following day, she was told by the residents of the area that the police had been shooting the prisoners.
“There were bullet holes all over their balconies; they told us the police didn’t want them to film what happened,” she told Daily News Egypt in an interview last month.
In the days to come, Lotfy found herself on a wild goose chase when the police said that her brother had been taken to hospital to be treated for a leg injury.
That was when she decided to go straight to the morgue where she eventually found him, covered in bruises and cuts, with a bullet hole through his chin and head.
“His name was at the bottom of a long list of dead prisoners brought in from the Appeals Prison,” she said.
Lotfy said her brother’s body was completely bruised, his wrists and ankles had marks on them indicating that he had been cuffed and dragged across the floor and a bullet hole, with an entry wound in his chin and an exit wound in his head.
She said that other inmates had called to tell her that he had been taken from his cell, along with two other prisoners, was cuffed, beaten and eventually shot dead.
A report issued in April by an official fact-finding commission created at the behest of Prime Minister Essam Sharaf estimated that 189 prisoners were killed and 263 injured since Jan. 25.
The report suggests two possible scenarios for the chaos that ensued inside the prisons during that period; either due to the security vacuum or as a result of armed attacks on facilities to help prisoners escape.
Both scenarios, along with the estimated number of causalities, were however challenged by a report titled “Martyrs Behind Bars” issued by the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights (EIPR) on Thursday, Aug. 25 saying the commission only visited five prisons, whereas EIPR collected evidence that suggested violence occurred in at least nine. EIPR’s report also stated that it is likely that by the time the fact-finding commission’s report was issued, not all corpses had been identified.
“As a whole, the fact-finding commission’s report did not offer a comprehensive picture of what happened inside the prisons they visited, and did not assign responsibility for the killings and wounding of prisoners,” EIPR’s report said.
The EIPR’s report mainly focused on five different prisons; Al-Qatta in Giza, Shebin El-Kom in Menufiya, Al-Abaadya in Damanhour, Tora and the Appeals Prison in Old Cairo.
A security source at the Ministry of Interior confessed to DNE, on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the media, that only prisoners who attempted to escape were shot, but only after they received several warnings.
According to Hoda Nasrallah, a lawyer with EIPR, if a prisoner attempts to escape, the law stipulates that officers first fire warning shots in the air and then shoot in the leg to stop them.
EIPR’s report states that most shots reported in Al-Qatta Prison for example were in the head and chest.
“If you have thousands escaping, it is difficult to aim specifically at the leg,” the interior ministry source told DNE.
However, many refute the claim that the prisoners were killed during their attempt to escape, saying these were “intentional killings.”
“It doesn’t add up,” Magda Boutros, researcher at EIPR’s Violence and Bodily Integrity Program, told DNE. “There are prisons where a lot of deaths were reported, but no escapes.”
“If a prisoner only has two months left to complete his sentence, why would he want to escape? Many prisoners refused to escape,” Nasrallah said. “They were shot at inside their cells, there are bullet holes on the walls to prove it,” she added.
According to EIPR’s report, the information collected reveals a pattern across different prisons “suggesting that there were clear directives given to all security officers at the prisons under examination.
“The available evidence suggests that most of those were intentional killings, and had nothing to do with attempted escapes,” the report read.
Lotfy also vehemently denies that her brother, who was due to be released this year, was attempting to escape.
“It’s a small tower-like building in the middle of a residential area, the Cairo Security Directorate is nearby and the whole area was surrounded by military police … it is impossible to escape,” she explained.
Shaaban Metwally, who was released on special amnesty after the January uprising months before completing a five-year sentence in Al-Qatta prison, said he was shot at with metal pellets both in the arm and back. He insisted that violence had erupted even though no one was attempting to escape.
“When we saw protests on TV, the prisoners were riled up, but no one tried to escape … They used tear gas first and then live ammunition even though we were inside the prison yard which is allowed,” he told DNE.
“We were being treated like war prisoners — if we were taken by Israelis they would’ve been more merciful.”
While several videos have surfaced online showing officers shooting inside prison cells, the interior ministry source maintains that no shootings occurred inside cells, suggesting that videos like that “are easily fabricated.”
One video allegedly taken on Jan. 30 and obtained by EIPR shows officers at the Appeals Prison firing machine guns through the metal bars and into a prison cell. Dead bodies seem to appear at the end of the video piled up inside the cell.
According to the interior ministry source, groups of Bedouins took advantage of the security vacuum that followed Jan. 28 and headed to prisons to free their family members. He also attributed the prison breakouts to elements from Hezbollah and Hamas who attacked prisons to free their kin.
“It was clear they were following a devised plan that was ready for execution in the security vacuum … they used tools to break into prisons and destroy the locks on the gates. They also used machine guns and other weapons,” he said.
The weapons used were identified by the bullet holes on the walls as well as empty shell casings that were found on the scene, he added.
In prisons like Borg Al-Arab, he continued, security forces attempted to thwart the attacks until reinforcements from the armed forces arrived — which is due to the small distance between Borg Al-Arab prison and the armed forces’ units.
However, in other prisons, security forces had to surrender after they ran out of ammunition, he said.
Metwally said his, as well as other prisoners’ injuries were left untreated for over five days, after which they were taken to Tora Hospital where they were only given painkillers.
They were then transported back to prison to face inhumane conditions, Metwally said. “There was no food or water. They told us to go get the food ourselves from the storage rooms and then accused us of raiding the storage rooms,” he recounted. “They would tell us to come out and fetch water then shoot at us.”
According to the EIPR report, “water and electricity were cut off, no food was delivered, and visits were prohibited. Injured prisoners were denied medical care and in some cases, corpses were left to rot among prisoners in their blocks for days.”
“This pattern of cutting off electricity, food and water indicates that there were instructions given,” Boutros said, “This was not a spontaneous reaction to the unrest [inside the prisons].”
The lack essential utilities triggered fights between prisoners, according to testimonies by Metwally as well as other prisoners documented by EIPR’s report.
“We would fight over the small amount of food we had, and the police would take videos of us on their cell phones to show around and call us thugs,” Metwally told DNE.
Meanwhile, the interior ministry source claimed that the prisoners in Al-Qatta prison were riled up and broke the water taps and cut the electricity wires themselves, not allowing anyone in to fix them, claims that were clearly refuted by the report.
Unanswered complaints, misleading reports
While complaints have been filed with the general prosecutor since Feb. 9, Nasrallah said, no legal action has yet been taken.
The coroner’s office is also reported to have been misleading in its reports, with regards to the number as well as the cause of death. According to Nasrallah, some of the reports forged the cause of death, but rectified it after pressure from prisoners’ families.
Boutros also blames the prosecution’s foot-dragging on the sacked chief coroner El-Sebaei Ahmed El-Sebaei.
“El-Sebaei would give inconsistent and contradictory statements,” she said. “He also said they didn’t have time to inspect every single body so they would simply take a look and determine the cause of death.”
El-Sebaei was sacked last May and was under investigation for corruption allegations related to the Khalid Saeid case and the autopsies conducted on those killed during the 18-day uprising that toppled president Hosni Mubarak.
“The prosecution is dragging its feet and is covering up for the officers,” Lotfy said.
“This is worse than Abu Ghraib … When I hear the gruesome stories about how other prisoners were killed, I thank God my brother died the way he did,” she said.