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Egyptian political prisoners face a 'slow death' say observers

264 Egyptian political prisoners have died in detention since July 2013 according to reports
Demonstration in Cairo against killing of Khaled Said who was beaten to death by police in Alexandria in 2010 (AFP)

Essam Derbala's body was handed over to dozens of his supporters from the Jamaa Islamiya group, who came to the Torah prison complex on the outskirts of Cairo on Sunday following news of his death. 

Derbala’s funeral was held in Upper Egypt's Minya governorate on Monday, a day after the leading political figure died in Cairo’s high security Scorpion prison. Mourners carried pictures of Derbala, who was chairman of the group's shura council, and signs describing him as a "martyr".

The group, which renounced its violent past a decade ago and took part in Egypt's first democratic elections following the 2011 revolution, hired buses and cars to carry mourners to Derbala 's home village. It blames the Egyptian authorities for Derbala's death and says their leader was denied access to healthcare while all attempts to have him hospitalised had failed.

Derbala’s lawyer Adel Muawad had requested on Saturday that his defendant receive medication for diabetes and high blood pressure, but a court had refused. Muawad said Derbala, who had been in prison for three months, died because he was denied his medication, reported the Arabic news website Almesryoon.

The Egyptian Ministry of Interior, however, denied those claims saying that Derbala had experienced fatigue on Saturday. Upon being examined, it turned out he had a fever, low blood pressure and high blood sugar and was “immediately” provided with first aid, said the ministry.

After his body was inspected late on Sunday, an official from the south Cairo area prosecution, Tarek Abu Zeid, said that Derbala died a "natural death" and that there are no signs of torture.

Derbala was arrested in May following an arrest warrant issued by the state security prosecution, a branch of the Egyptian prosecution services which focuses on issues of national security.

Along with his group and other opposition figures, Derbala had called for the reinstatement of former president Mohamed Morsi, who was ousted by a military coup in July 2013 led by now President Abdel Fatah al-Sisi, which was followed by a violent crackdown on opposition groups.

“Slow death” in Egyptian prisons

The death of Derbala brings the number of fatalities among political prisoners in Egyptian detention facilities to five since the beginning of August, said observers.

“Four political prisoners have died in detention including Muslim Brotherhood members Ezzat Salamouny, Ahmed Gozlan, Morgan Salim Gohary and Mahmoud Hanafy since the beginning of August,” reported Rassd news agency on Sunday.

The National Coalition to Support Legitimacy, an opposition group formed after the overthrow of Morsi, said in a statement on Sunday, “Derbala’s death is part of a wider, systematic campaign by the Egyptian authorities to inflict a slow death on political detainees.”

Since July 2013, 264 Egyptian political prisoners have died in detention due to torture or medical negligence, according to a report compiled by on-the-ground activists and published by Rassd.

In documents seen by Middle East Eye, relatives of those incarcerated warn that political prisoners in Torah’s high security Scorpion Prison, are subject to conditions “unlike those in any prison run by the Interior Ministry”.

In a report submitted to the state-run National Human Rights Council on 6 July, the detainees’ families complain that raids in March 2015 stripped prisoners of their belongings, prayer mats and documents relating to their cases.

Additionally, detainees are only allowed to access medication after it is inspected by prison staff, which often leads to medicines being mixed up, and sometimes delivered in plastic bags.

According to the report, medical negligence recently also led to the deaths of two detainees, Farid Ismail and Nabil al-Maghrebi.

Ismail, a former MP with the Muslim Brotherhood, died in May 2015 in the prison hospital while Maghrebi died in similar conditions in June.

The Egyptian Medical Syndicate has previously called on the Interior Ministry to allow detainees in Torah Prison access to medication, and permit a delegation from the syndicate to visit “to be reassured of the health conditions in the facility”.

Egyptian soldiers stand on a tank positioned outside Turah prison in December 2013 (AFP)

'Graveyard for the living'

While several reports have documented severe torture in Egyptian prisons, recent accounts show further abuses faced by political prisoners in Egyptian detention facilities.

In a report collated by the Egyptian Coordination Committee on Human Rights and Freedoms, human rights violations against political prisons include a variety of abuses that range from physical and psychological torture to being denied access to food, water, ventilation and life-saving medication.

The report focuses specifically on the situation in Torah’s Scorpion Prison and the Wadi al-Natroun prison complex.

“Prisoners have for several months been completely denied access to any medication, despite most of them suffering from chronic illnesses and others requiring immediate surgery,” said the eight-page report.

According to the report, political prisoners’ access to food and water is limited, while prison cells lack ventilation and electricity.

“The provision of food from families and money to buy food from the cafeteria have been banned. Prisoners are given a single meal a day, without any salt or sugar,” said the report adding that many times the food provided is not fit for consumption.

“The prisoners do not have access to running water or any cleaning products. With no lights in their underground cells or any means to keep track of day and night, they have no way of knowing time,” added the report.

Esraa re-emerges 

In a letter written by Esraa al-Taweel from her prison cell and published by several Egyptian newspapers on 5 August, the 23-year-old freelance photographer details the human rights abuses she suffered at another facility called the Qanatir prison.

Taweel went missing for several weeks on 1 June when she went for a walk with two friends along the Nile. She later appeared in Cairo prison and has been held without charge since.

In her letter, Taweel describes her prison facility as “a graveyard for the living”. She says she has been denied essential physiotherapy to help her walk again - rehabilitation she has been receiving after was shot in her back last year.

Taweel also complains of the lack of water. “We are not allowed bottled water and the water in the prison facility is not fit for drinking - it smells of sewage and causes inflammations on the body,” she wrote.

In a piece written about political prisoners in Egypt in March by deputy Middle East and North Africa director at Human Rights Watch Joe Stork, he describes the conditions they face as inhumane.

“President al-Sisi and his entourage have put in place a highly repressive order that, with the revival of arbitrary arrests, torture in custody, disregard for civil and political rights, and extremely limited tolerance for public criticism, is doing more than anyone to damage Egypt’s reputation,” wrote Stork.  

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