As soon as M.A. stepped outside of the Cairo University metro station, a group of men in civilian clothes asked him for a couple of minutes to interrogate him. Earlier that day clashes had occurred between students and security forces, leaving one student dead and several injured, including the university dean’s son. Suspected of involvement in the events, M.A., who agreed to speak on condition of anonymity, was taken away in the metro to a temporary detention facility. He was released in September, after eight months of detention, charged on counts of rioting and protesting without permission. During his stint in prison, M.A. said he had to endure extremely harsh living conditions and life threatening health conditions.
A total of 52 individuals have died inside detention centres across Cairo and Giza since January, according to the official Forensic Medicine Authority. A further 80 individuals have died whilst in detention across Egyptian cities between July 2013 and January 2014, according to WikiThawra, an independent observatory that documents fatalities in prisons.
“The average of deaths this year is similar to the number we received from prisons last year,” Head of Forensic Medicine Authority Hisham Abdel Hamid told Daily News Egypt. “But what is different this year is that the deaths are happening in temporary places of detention.”
Based on several inspections the authority has paid to detention facilities, Abdel Hamid said the large number of detainees makes it hard for many of them to survive. M.A. said that during the first 45 days of detention in the Central Security Forces (CSF) camps on the 10.5 km Cairo-Alexandria road, “we were 10 locked up in an individual cell. We shared 3 rags and shifted between people to sleep and people to stand.”
On the morning of 26 January, 1,079 people were arrested across Egypt, according to the Ministry of Interior, following the third anniversary of the 25 January Revolution.
M.A. said that what he saw that day when he woke up shocked him. “We saw the new comers crammed in the corridors between cells. The place was so full, whenever you moved you would step on somebody,” he said.
After spending 45 days at the CSF camp, he was transferred to the investigations ward of Wadi El-Natrun general prison, where he spent most of his detention period.
The intense overcrowding did not change, with, he said, a group of 25 in a cell that is three by five metres wide. After four months, he said, “we started getting skin inflammations, and told the officers about it but we never saw a doctor.”Following the 30 June uprisings and ouster of Muslim Brotherhood regime, weekly bloody clashes took place between Brotherhood supporters and security forces. The former interim cabinet issued a new law to regulate protests, the controversial Protest Law, in November 2013. Since the law was enacted, it has been used to build several cases against students and activists, on charges of “illegal assembly”. At least 16,000 people were arrested in Egypt between July 2013 and July 2014, according to Amnesty International.
Ayaat, a student at Al-Azhar University currently doing an internship in a pharmacy, was arrested on December 2013 amid clashes between students and security forces. She spent seven weeks between the Salam CSF camp and the investigation ward of Al-Qanater general prison.
“We were about 30 prisoners in a cell that only had 9 beds,” Ayaat said. “I always had to sleep with my knees bent to ensure that I am not hitting anybody.”
While detainees frequently complain about poor ventilation, finding it hard to breathe in crowded cells, Ayaat had a different kind of problem: the glass on the window of her cell was broken. “It was January, the weather was really cold, and the window gap was an open door for insects (…) coming from a landfill nearby,” she added.
Not far from Al-Qanater prison, Zagazig Prison’s hospital is poorly equipped to receive sick prisoners, according to testimonies of former prisoners who spent a rehabilitation period at the Start Initiative for Community Justice (SCJHR). A common complaint was that the prison hospital did not have enough beds. Detainees had to sleep on the floor, which in some cases aggravated their health conditions. The hospital also lacks oxygen tubes or ambulance vans, and even basic hygiene procedures are typically ignored, according to the former prisoners.
Detention facilities across Gharbeya and Beheira house several prisoners who are suffering chronic diseases and others needing intensive healthcare. The lucky ones depend on medicines provided by their families. The Egyptian Observatory for Rights and Freedom documented among those prisoners 10 with Hepatitis C, 9 who are suffering from post surgery complications, and 2 with cancer.
“Putting the person behind bars is sufficient punishment for whatever crime he committed, there’s no need to escalate the punishment by not providing minimal health care,” said Dr Shereen Ghaleb.
Ghaleb, a Forensic Medicine Professor at Cairo University, said the nature of prisons cells in terms of lighting and ventilation puts the prisoners at risk of getting respiratory diseases.
“Some diseases do not look serious when the patient is diagnosed, but if the patient does not receive the required treatment promptly it might have serious complications,” Ghaleb said, referring to prisoners who suffer from diabetes or respiratory and liver-related diseases.
Concerned about the state of health services inside detention centres, she said, “hazardous health conditions inside prisons will create more non-productive citizens, when they return back to their lives burdened by serious health problems.”
In August, the National Council on Human Rights (NHCR) amended the prisons procedures conduct in collaboration with the interior ministry. The amendment now makes the medical examination bi-weekly rather than monthly, and extends exercise hours and the duration of visits.
After inspecting several detention facilities and receiving complaints from prisoners, NCHR member Hafez Abu Seada said it was necessary to propose a list of recommendations to the prisons directory of the interior ministry, in an attempt to reform the prisoners’ situation.
The Ministry of Interior refused to comment about the issue, despite several trials.
Osama Khalil, director of the Hisham Mubarak Law Center, said the amendments address Egypt’s stance on human rights, without looking closely into what is actually applicable for the prisoners. Referring to the cases he legally examined over the past year, he said: “The health release is not being applied for all sick prisoners, some of which are going through critical health conditions.”
Article 1 of the Prisons Law classifies legal places of detention into four kinds, including “private prisons”, identified by the interior minister and approved by the general prosecutor.
“The law does not explicitly identify certain places as private prisons. CSF camps are not a legal place for detention, but perhaps it’s currently open to absorb the accumulation of prisoners from the other detention facilities,” Khalil said.
Article 1A of the same law states that the general prosecutor is the only person allowed to inspect prisons, while members of NCHR need to issue an approval before going to prisons.
NCHR’s Abu Seada said they are currently proceeding with amending this part in order not to get prior approval, but it is still pending.
Ayaat, the only girl released from the case among her fellow defendants is not yet acquitted, waiting to hear the final verdict next week.
“Just thinking of what my fellows had to go through over the past months pains me a lot,” she says. “The only good thing about going back to the cell, would be sharing their struggle.”
Video by Ahmed Khokha