Geopolitics

What Is Killing Egypt’​s Political Prisoners?

A protest last month in support of Egyptian photojournalist Ahmed Ramadan, who was arrested on charges of belonging to the Muslim Brotherhood
A protest last month in support of Egyptian photojournalist Ahmed Ramadan, who was arrested on charges of belonging to the Muslim Brotherhood
Mostafa Mohie

CAIRO â€" In the past two months, at least five people have died in Egyptian police custody after being arrested on politically related charges. Four of the detainees belonged to the conservative Jama'a al-Islamiya group, while another was accused of belonging to the banned Muslim Brotherhood. Three of those Jama'a al-Islamiya members died over just a 10-day span.

Police say the deceased were already in poor health before they were detained. But families of the victims accuse prison authorities of deliberate medical negligence.

Jama'a al-Islamiya leader Essam Derbala died Aug. 8 after he was jailed pending investigations into charges that he belonged to the banned National Alliance Supporting Legitimacy (a coalition of groups organized in support of former President Mohamed Morsi after his ouster).

A few days earlier, on Aug. 5, Jama'a al-Islamiya leader Morgan Salem died in the maximum-security Aqrab Prison. Two months before that, their colleague Nabil al-Maghraby died in the same prison. Ezzat al-Salamouny died on Aug.1, the same day that Ahmed Ghouzlan passed away in Abadeya Prison in Damanhour.

The official Facebook page for the Construction and Development Party â€" Jama'a al-Islamiya's political arm â€" published a statement denouncing "the assassination of Essam Derbala" through medical negligence. The page also published a series of tweets from people affiliated with the National Alliance Supporting Legitimacy accusing the Prisons Authority of withholding access to Derbala's diabetes medication, and refusing to transfer him to the hospital when his health deteriorated.

Medical sources told the privately owned Al-Masry Al-Youm newspaper that the preliminary forensic report listed diabetes and high blood pressure as the causes of Derbala's death, and that prison doctors had been checking on Derbala throughout his detention.

Authorities face the same accusations of negligence in the recent deaths of the four other detainees. In each case, families and colleagues claim the Interior Ministry was reluctant to give prisoners access to medication, and refused to transfer them to a hospital when they were in serious condition, leaving them to die in their jail cells. Similar charges were levied when former Muslim Brotherhood lawmaker Farid Ismail died of a heart attack in his jail cell in March.

Policy of intimidation?

Al-Nadeem Center for the Rehabilitation of Victims of Violence released a report in June to mark the first anniversary of President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi"s election. The report alleged that in addition to the 272 people killed by police forces during Sisi's first year in office, there were also at least 97 cases of serious medical negligence during that period in Egyptian jails and prisons (though not all cases resulted in death).

Due to this negligence, detainees and prisoners suffered from liver and spleen problems, bleeding, lung disorders such as pneumonia, heart attacks, muscular atrophy, kidney failure, scabies, food poisoning and other ailments â€" all cases that were reported in just the first six months of Sisi's presidency, the report said.

The growing number of deaths inside jails and prisons raises the question of whether this negligence is a deliberate strategy employed by the authorities, or a flagrant indication of deteriorating infrastructure and services in the Egyptian prison system.

Al-Nadeem's Suzan Fayyad believes that both scenarios could be valid. Random arrests and long pre-trial detention periods ultimately lead to packing small prison cells with far more prisoners than they're designed for. That, in turn, increases the risk of spreading disease, she says.

She also believes that the Interior Ministry is adopting a policy of intimidation by withholding medication and access to treatment at hospitals. In addition, prisoners may be thrown into purposely neglected, unsanitary cells as a form of punishment. Fayyad says that Al-Nadeem also has documentation of the authorities refusing access to sanitary materials such as trash bags and cleanin supplies, thus preventing prisoners from cleaning their own cells. She cites these issues as deliberate violations of prisoner rights.

In its recently released annual report, the National Council for Human Rights (NCHR) said that jail overcrowding has increased by 400%. The report also said that there was a brief period when no deaths were reported in detention facilities (though that period was undefined) but that this number is again on the rise.

The NCHR demanded a quick solution to the crisis, saying that most of these deaths are due to worsening living conditions. The council didn't rule out torture as a potential cause of some of these fatalities. "Nothing proves that the deceased actually died from torture, but nothing proves the contrary, either," it said.

Poor hygiene in jail and prison facilities and the refusal to provide basic sanitary materials can lead to widespread skin diseases among the inmate population, while overcrowded cells foster respiratory problems, and the lack of clean water leads to kidney and liver problems, Fayyad says.

And if detainees or inmates already had a prior condition, then it would likely be exacerbated in this context, potentially resulting in life-threatening conditions such as kidney failure. This situation is then compounded by the unwillingness of authorities to provide proper medical treatment, Fayyad argues.

"Go back to your cell"

The reasons why detainees are denied access to medication or proper medical treatment aren't always clear.

Esraa al-Taweel, a photojournalist who has now been detained for more than 70 days pending investigations into terrorism-related charges, said in a letter published by the privately owned newspaper Al-Shorouk that her 15-square-meter cell is filled with maggots and cockroaches. She wrote that the prison doctor hasn't allowed her to continue physiotherapy sessions under the pretext that she suffers from a permanent disability that can't be treated.

Taweel suffers from a back injury incurred when she was shot during a protest. The wound resulted in temporary paralysis, but her condition improved after intensive physiotherapy treatment before her arrest. Her family says the condition has worsened since the treatment stopped.

Since publishing the letter, Taweel has faced more restrictions and threats of being transferred to another prison, according to her family. As additional punishment, she was asked to drink from a water tap that smelled like sewage water, they said. She has since been examined for a second time by the same doctor. When Taweel told him that he couldn't give her an adequate diagnosis because he's an orthopedist and not a neurologist, he replied, "You know nothing about medicine. Go to your cell."

A mural dedicated to Sambo, arrested in 2012 by Cairo authorities. Photo: Gigi Ibrahim

A similar account comes from Ranwa Youssef, whose husband, journalist Youssef Shaaban, is currently serving a 15-month sentence for protest-related charges. In a statement posted to her Facebook account, she claimed that her husband is being refused treatment for Hepatitis C.

In her last visit to the prison, Ranwa asked what the procedure was to get medical tests for Shaaban. She was told that doctors were available to perform those tests, but did not have the medical equipment they needed. Prison authorities urged Ranwa to bring the needed equipment on her next visit. But when she did so upon her return to the prison, officials refused to allow the tests to be conducted, claiming it was illegal to take medical samples inside of prisons.

"For four or five hours, moving from this officer to that officer, we failed to do the tests for Youssef," Radwa wrote.

Security versus health

Reda Marey, a lawyer at the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights (EIPR), says that prison bylaws do in fact allow prisoners to receive medical treatment inside prisons, and the Interior Ministry is obliged to provide them with all necessary medical equipment.

But Marey says prison authorities complain about a shortage of equipment and medications. He thinks it would be only logical, therefore, for the Interior Ministry to allow family members to bring these items into the prison during visits. Usually, though, ministry officials refuse prisoners access to medications brought from the outside, typically claiming that the nature of the medications are unknown, or that prison doctors are unavailable to determine their suitability, or administer them and provide aftercare.

"The real problem is that medical resources inside prisons are very poor or non-existent," Marey says. "The law stipulates that at least one doctor should be present in every prison hospital, but with the rising numbers of prisoners, one doctor is not enough."

"Prisoners register for medical treatment, and they each wait too long for their turn," he warns. "If someone's condition is seriously deteriorating, this wait could result in death â€" especially given that doctors are not present inside prisons all the time."

The issue of transferring seriously ill inmates to hospitals, whether inside or outside the prison, is yet another problem, Marey explains. "This is not in the hands of prison doctors, who can only recommend that a certain patient be transferred," he says. "The recommendation is then sent to the Prisons Authority, which makes the final decision. Security considerations have the upper hand here."

Amending prison bylaws hasn't solved that problem, the lawyer continues. Older bylaws stipulated that in case of conflict between the prison officials and the doctor, the issue would be referred to the head of the Prisons Authority. In the new bylaws, the medical department of the Interior Ministry has the final word â€" but despite this change, the ultimate decision is still based on security calculations, not on medical grounds.

Furthermore, "prison doctors are police officers who studied at the faculty of specialized policemen, so they belong to the Interior Ministry, and thus they won't necessarily fight to transfer patients to hospitals when needed," Marey claims.

No cooperation or accountability

Ultimately, though, prisoners are under the responsibility of the Prisons Authority, meaning that if an inmate dies after failing to receive treatment for a worsening medical condition, then this is a case of negligence. In Fayyad's words, "death due to negligence is premeditated murder."

Rashwan Shaaban, an assistant coordinator at the Doctors Syndicate, says that the syndicate has the right to refer any doctor to a disciplinary committee, including prison doctors. "But the syndicate is not willing to use its powers unless it receives a certain complaint against a specific doctor in a specific case," he says. "And most of the complaints we received in these cases of negligence did not include names of doctors."

According to Shaaban, the syndicate sent several appeals to the prosecutor general and to the interior minister to investigate these recent allegations, but received no response. The syndicate also coordinated with the NCHR to conduct joint visits to prisons, but these efforts were rejected by the Interior Ministry.

"Finally, the syndicate board decided to refer the head of the Prisons Authority's medical department to investigation. He was notified with the date of the inquiry, but he did not attend," Shaaban claims. "There is zero cooperation from the Prisons Authority or the Interior Ministry. They deal with us as if they are above the law, and above medicine."

Keep up with the world. Break out of the bubble.
Sign up to our expressly international daily newsletter!

Running of the Bulls in Tafalla, northern Spain

Anne-Sophie Goninet, Jane Herbelin and Bertrand Hauger

👋 Здравейте!*

Welcome to Monday, where an apparent coup is underway in Sudan, Colombia's most-wanted drug lord gets caught, and Michael Jordan's rookie sneakers score an auction record. We also focus on a report that the Thai government is abusing the country's centuries-old law to protect the monarchy from criticism (lèse-majesté) to target pro-democracy activists and protesters.

[*Zdraveite - Bulgarian]

🌎  7 THINGS TO KNOW RIGHT NOW

• Developing: Sudan leaders arrested amid military coup reports: Soldiers have arrested several members of Sudan's transitional government as well as civilian leaders, and Prime Minister Abdallah Hamdok has reportedly been put under house arrest, in what the information ministry called a military coup. Pro-democracy protesters have taken to the streets of the capital city Khartoum where there are reports of gunfire and clashes.

• Colombia's most wanted drug lord to be sent to U.S.: Colombia's most dangerous drug trafficker, known as Otoniel, was caught after a joint army, air force and police operation and faces extradition to the U.S. He led the country's largest criminal gang, and was on the U.S. most wanted list for years.

• Xi speech marks China's UN anniversary: China's President Xi Jinping marked the 50th anniversary of Beijing's entry into the United Nations with a speech calling for greater global cooperation, adding that issues like climate change, terrorism and cyber security needed multilateral solutions. Taiwan was not mentioned.

• German ISIS bride jailed for crimes against humanity: A German court has sentenced a German woman and former member of the Islamic State to 10 years in prison for letting a 5-year-old Yazidi enslaved girl die of thirst in Iraq. The case is one of the world's first trials to prosecute a war crime against the Yazidis.

• COVID update: The Beijing marathon scheduled next weekend has been postponed until further notice as China seeks to stamp out Delta variant outbreak and return to zero cases ahead of the Winter Olympics next February. Meanwhile, coronavirus cases in Eastern Europe have surpassed the 20 million mark as the region fights against its worst outbreak since the pandemic started and vaccination efforts lag.

Goodbye, Gunther: U.S. actor James Michael Tyler, best known for his role as the barista Gunther on the TV show Friends, has died at 59 of prostate cancer.

• Sneakers record: A pair of Michael Jordan's white-and-red Nike shoes, which he wore during his rookie season with the Chicago Bulls in 1984, sold for $1.47 million — a new record price for sneakers at auction.

🗞️  FRONT PAGE

"The end of a boss," titles Colombian daily El Espectador, reporting on the arrest of drug lord Dairo Antonio Usuga, known as Otoniel, who had led Colombia's largest criminal gang and had been on the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency's most wanted list for years. He was captured in a raid and will be extradited to the U.S.


#️⃣  BY THE NUMBERS

$57,789

A Georgia man is being prosecuted for wire fraud after spending most of his business's COVID relief loan to buy one Pokémon trading card for $57,789.

📰  STORY OF THE DAY

How Thailand's "Lèse-Majesté" law is used to stifle all protest

Once meant to protect the royal family, the century-old law has become a tool for the military-led government in Bangkok to stamp out all dissent. A new report outlines the abuses.

👑 Thailand's Criminal Code "Lèse-Majesté" Article 112 imposes jail terms for defaming, insulting, or threatening the monarchy, with sentences of three to 15 years. This law has been present in Thai politics since 1908, though applied sparingly, only when direct verbal or written attacks against members of the royal family. But after the May 2014 military coup d'état, Thailand experienced the first wave of lèse-majesté arrests, prosecutions, and detentions of at least 127 individuals arrested in a much wider interpretation of the law.

🚨 The recent report "Second Wave: The Return of Lèse-Majesté in Thailand," documents how the Thai government has "used and abused Article 112 of the Criminal Code to target pro-democracy activists and protesters in relation to their online political expression and participation in peaceful pro-democracy demonstrations." The investigation shows 124 individuals, including at least eight minors, have been charged with lèse-majesté between November 2020 and August 2021. The new wave of charges is cited as a response to the rising pro-democracy protests across Thailand over the past year.

💻 The more than a century-old law is now largely playing out online, where much of today's protest takes place in Thailand. Thai student activist Juthatip Sirikan says people are willing to go further on social media to expose information such as how the king intervenes in politics and the monarchy's accumulation of wealth, information the mainstream media rarely reports on them. Not surprisingly, however, social media is heavily monitored and the military is involved in Intelligence operations and cyber attacks against human rights defenders and critics of any kind.


➡️ Read more on Worldcrunch.com


📣 VERBATIM

"Children are going to die. People are going to starve."


— The United Nations warns that Afghanistan verges on a "total breakdown" as millions of Afghans, including children, could die of starvation unless urgent action is taken by the international community. The agency calls for the release of frozen assets to avoid economic and social collapse, despite concerns over the Taliban government. A recent report said that about 97% of Afghanistan's population may sink below the poverty line, and World Food Programme (WFP) Executive Director David Beasley warned that more than half of Afghanistan's population of 39 million were facing acute food insecurity and "marching to starvation" in comparison to 14 million two months ago.

🕌 🔍 IN OTHER NEWS

Dutch cities have been secretly probing mosques since 2013

At least ten Dutch towns and cities have secretly used a private agency to probe mosques and other local religious organizations, Amsterdam-based daily het NRC reports in an exclusive investigation.

The clandestine operation — funded by NCTV, the National Security Services, the Netherlands' leading counter-terrorism agency — was prompted by the social unrest and uncertainty following multiple terror attacks in 2013, and a rise in Islamic radicalization.

The NCTV, which advises and financially supports municipalities in countering radicalization, put the municipalities in touch with Nuance by Training and Advice (Nuance door Trainingen en Advies, NTA), a private research agency based in Deventer, Netherlands. Among the institutions targeted by the investigations, which came at a cost of circa 500,000 euros, were the Al Mouahidin mosque in the central Dutch town of Ede, and the Nasser mosque east of the city of Utrecht, according to NRC.

Unlike public officials, the private agency can enter the mosques to clandestinely research the situation. In this case, the agents observed activity, talked to visitors, administrators, and religious leaders, and investigated what they do and say on social media.

All findings then wound up in a secret report which includes personal details about what the administrators and teachers studied, who their relatives are, with whom they argued, and how often they had contact with authorities in foreign countries, like Morocco.

It is unclear whether the practice is legal, which is why several members of the Dutch Parliament are now demanding clarification from the outgoing Minister of Justice and Security, Ferd Grapperhaus, who is said to be involved.

"The ease with which the government violates (fundamental) rights when it comes to Islam or Muslims is shocking," Stephan van Baarle, member of the leftist party DENK, told De Volkskrant, another Dutch newspaper.

Leaders of the Muslim organizations that were secretly probed say they feel betrayed. Hassan Saidi, director of one of the mosques investigated, said that the relationship with the local municipality had been good. "This puts a huge dent in the trust I'd had in the municipality," he told the Dutch public broadcaster NOS.

✍️ Newsletter by Anne-Sophie Goninet, Jane Herbelin and Bertrand Hauger

Are you more Chicago Bulls or running of the bulls? Let us know what the news looks like from your corner of the world! info@worldcrunch.com info@worldcrunch.com!

Keep up with the world. Break out of the bubble.
Sign up to our expressly international daily newsletter!
THE LATEST
FOCUS
TRENDING TOPICS
MOST READ