The Plight of Egypt's Political Prisoners

by Nadeen Shaker
published in MER279

On December 2, 2013, Mahienour al-Massry organized a protest on the corniche running along the Mediterranean seafront in Alexandria, Egypt’s second city. The human rights attorney’s raven ponytail and oversized black glasses made her easy to spot amid the dozens of people with their backs turned to the sea and their eyes trained on the courthouse across the busy roadway. Inside the building, two police officers were appealing their conviction for the brutal killing of Khalid Sa‘id in 2010, one of the incidents that galvanized the 2011 uprising that brought down President Husni Mubarak. The protesters shouted: “Down with every agent of the military!”

It was not long before Alexandria’s chief of police led a contingent of black-clad officers through the traffic to the corniche. They stationed themselves not more than three feet from where the demonstrators had taken their stand. “You have ten minutes,” the chief growled into a megaphone, his amplified voice drowned out by the protesters’ calls for the execution of Mubarak and his ruling clique as well as the current president, ‘Abd al-Fattah al-Sisi.

A phalanx of riot police and a few masked officers fanned out facing the protest. “It was barely ten minutes,” al-Massry recalled, before the first water cannon spouted. The tear gas came next. Then the riot police bore down in a formation so tight it appeared they would swallow the demonstration whole. Women screamed as the policemen swung their batons. “The Interior Ministry are thugs,” they shouted in shaking voices. Al-Massry said the police were “beating us senseless. One protester had his head cut open by a masked special forces man with an American stick.” Luckily, she herself was unhurt.

Since Sa‘id’s murder, al-Massry had taken it upon herself to organize annual demonstrations to renew demands for justice in his case. In June 2010, the convicted officers dragged Sa‘id out of an Internet cafe and beat him to death for allegedly having posted a video clip showing them in possession of illegal drugs. Leaked photographs of the young man’s battered face sparked the creation of a Facebook page in his memory. It was called “We Are All Khalid Sa‘id,” and it activated a national campaign against police brutality.

A law banning unsanctioned protests had passed only a few weeks before the December demonstration. At the time, al-Massry was unconcerned about its impact. “We didn’t know whether authorities would use the new law,” she said. She joked that she thought she was more likely to be arrested for wearing a mismatched outfit than staging an unauthorized demonstration.

But the authorities invoked the law to level charges against al-Massry and eight of her peers. Two were released pending trial. Al-Massry was convicted, along with the rest, fined 50,000 Egyptian pounds (a little over $7,000) and sentenced to two years in prison. The sentence was later reduced to six months and then suspended after she had served fewer than three. But al-Massry was soon thrown back in jail on charges related to an earlier protest she had helped to mount outside an Alexandria police station. In January, she spent her thirtieth birthday on the inside, complaining through her sister of food and water shortages and of sharing a tiny cell with 26 other prisoners. She was finally let go in mid-August.

Jails Beyond Capacity

Until her release, Mahienour al-Massry was one of an estimated 16,000 political prisoners behind bars in Egypt. Leading human rights organizations believe the number is considerably higher. Since Sisi assumed the presidency in June 2014, some 41,000 Egyptians have been arrested or faced criminal charges for political reasons, according to the Egyptian Center for Economic and Social Rights (ECESR). Others have been abducted and held incommunicado. The Egyptian Solidarity Initiative reported that 163 dissidents disappeared between April and June alone. Egypt now ranks second in the world for jailing journalists, and in 2013 fell on the Freedom House Index—which measures civil and political liberties—from partly free to not free. In 2015 its score for political freedoms stood at 33 on a scale of 0 to 40, with 40 meaning there are absolutely none. Political prisoners are at risk of beating, starvation and other abuse. In 2015, according to ECESR, more than 100 people died in custody, 59 percent of them due to medical neglect and another 29 percent as a result of torture.

Those who survive languish in deplorable conditions. In the summer of 2015, the National Council for Human Rights, the only semi-independent body authorized to visit Egyptian houses of detention, reported that in 2013 and 2014, prisons were overcrowded by 160 percent and lockups at police stations by 300 percent. Government officials deny the allegations. Abu Bakr ‘Abd al-Karim, the interior minister’s spokesman, told a television journalist that the report was simply “not right,” adding that if prisons really were that packed, inmates would be committing suicide.

Whatever the actual figures, the rapid rise in incarceration is undeniable. The plight of political prisoners is highly visible, outraging scores of human rights activists, lawyers, journalists and staffers of non-governmental organizations. All of these forces are agitating for repeal of Law 107 of November 2013, “the protest law” under which al-Massry was charged and which laid the groundwork for the mass arrests. To hold a protest, this legislation stipulates, an organizer must seek permission from police, but the police have full authority to block any event they deem threatening to public safety. The law bans unsanctioned gatherings of ten or more people; those who defy it face stiff fines and jail sentences of two to five years. The minimum sentence goes up to seven years if the state claims a protester was caught with a weapon. 

Law 107 came into force under ‘Adli Mansour, who served as acting chief executive for 11 months after the armed forces’ ouster of President Muhammad Mursi in July 2013. But it is Sisi who has used the measure to fill the prisons beyond capacity.

Sisters in Unjust Detention

When she started serving her initial sentence, al-Massry feared the worst. It was not yet daybreak, she said in an interview in Cairo between her two prison stints, when she was driven to the Ab‘adiyya women’s prison in the Nile Delta town of Damanhour some 30 miles southeast of Alexandria. The medium-sized facility is tucked between farmland and a primary and middle school. The warden intended to put her in a cell by herself, she recalled, but overcrowding was so severe that she was sent to the debtors’ ward instead. In block 1, cell 8, a 15-by-20 foot space, 18 women were crammed together with only a television set and an electric cooker. There were no beds.

Her cellmates had been warned to expect a firebrand. So they were caught off guard by the sight of the svelte 28-year old, dressed in ragged white prison garb, her hair plaited in a neat braid. “I looked relatively small to them, and I was wearing glasses,” she said. “I was also smiling.” Her cellmates asked how old she was and how to pronounce her given name (Ma-hee-NOUR). They never quite got it right.

Immediately upon arrival, and though she knew her request would be denied, al-Massry asked the warden if she could see the prison charter, which details how Egyptian penitentiaries should be run. The charter is based on legislation and gives prisoners extensive rights to paid labor, health care, rehabilitation and intervention from social workers, along with visitation and personal correspondence. Copies of the document are not readily available to the public, and those that do circulate bear a “no publishing or copying” warning. “The warden told me, ‘I am the charter,’ which meant that he would settle any disagreement between us,” she said. She asked him, “How can you punish me for something I did not know was punishable?”

Al-Massry expected that the debtors’ ward would be full of upper-class women doing time for embezzlement. Instead, she found that most of her cellmates were aging and poor, charged with nothing more serious than default on minor liabilities. Some of the women were unable to pay off bills they had accumulated by supporting sick relatives or purchasing their daughters’ dowries, the household appliances and other items a woman customarily must own to marry.

The young attorney took up the cause of her sisters in unjust detention. At one point, she managed to smuggle out an open letter that explained their plight and cursed the “classist regime” that put them behind bars. The Ministry of Interior was spending 2,000 pounds ($255) per month to keep these women locked up, she said, while the women’s indebtedness was sometimes as little as a tenth of that amount. The missive was printed in the independent newspaper Mada Masr.

One night, as her cellmates gathered around the television to watch a live broadcast of a Sisi speech, she was stunned by their effusive praise for the field marshal turned president. “I only cried two times when I was inside, and that was one of them,” al-Massry recalled. As Sisi spoke, her own mind flashed to the demonstrators martyred by soldiers and police since the fall of Mubarak, the “virginity tests” inflicted upon women protesters, every brutalizing act in which the military has had a hand. “I started screaming, ‘Turn off the TV, turn off the TV!’ The women were shocked,” she said, but then they drew close to offer her comfort.

Many of the women had been imprisoned for so long that they had lost touch with political realities. They believed that Mursi’s removal would mean amnesty for them. One of the older women told her that Sisi was “different” than the rest. Al-Massry replied, “Do you know that [in the eyes of the state] you are more dangerous than Mubarak? You are spending eight years in prison for being in debt while Mubarak did three years” on charges of monumental corruption.

The women in the debtors’ ward did cooking and laundry together. They bartered with cigarettes, and sometimes they were allowed to converse with other prisoners in a covered courtyard outside. Al-Massry petitioned the warden to grant the women at least an hour of fresh air every day, but to no avail. Nonetheless, she said, she managed to gain her cellmates’ trust little by little.

Hunger Strike

Toward the end of August 2014, al-Massry’s sister Maysoun paid her a visit and told her that imprisoned activists elsewhere had launched hunger strikes. Al-Massry decided to do the same. She had come into contact with Samah Samir, a political prisoner assigned to a different cellblock. Samir was a hospital administrator whose case was entangled with that of a band of five students, known as banat al-Azhar, or “the Azhar girls,” charged with unauthorized protesting, violence and destruction of public property. Al-Massry said the Azhar girls were transferred from a Cairo jail to Ab‘adiyya without any personal belongings, not even their shoes.

Samir and the Azhar girls were all ready to join al-Massry in staging a hunger strike. But once prison officials got wind of their intentions, the facility “turned upside down.” Al-Massry was summoned to the warden’s office, where he and representatives of the Prison Authority warned her not to proceed.

“You are a mature person,” the warden told her. “What will a hunger strike change? You will only hurt yourself.” He advised her to write down her grievances instead, to which she rejoined, “But you have banned me from writing!”

Indeed, Al-Massry had been barred from corresponding because of her open letters, two of which got through to the press. She sometimes got around the prohibition by jotting notes in the margins of books that she would pass to her sister when she visited. Or she would dictate the messages. On this occasion, however, she resolved to ignore the officials’ admonitions and go ahead with the hunger strike, along with the Azhar group and some of the women in the debtors’ ward.

Some of the hunger strikers, particularly the diabetics among them, quickly fell ill. Samir and the Azhar girls stayed strong, but al-Massry called off the strike after two days. It felt like both a betrayal and a defeat.

Thistles in the Regime’s Throat

Not a year after al-Massry’s release from Ab‘adiyya, she was back in the dock, accused of storming an Alexandria police station. What had really happened was that she and other lawyers staged a sit-in at the station in March 2013 to demand the release of activists held inside. The police responded with insults and beatings, but it was al-Massry and two journalists who were tried for assault and other fabricated offenses. In February 2014, the judgment was handed down: a two-year prison sentence and bail set at 5,000 Egyptian pounds or close to $600. The term was postponed as al-Massry’s lawyer filed an appeal. In May 2015, the verdict on the appeal came due. The authorities detained al-Massry two weeks before the court session when the judge was to deliver his decision.

On May 25, a few days beforehand, al-Massry’s case came up at a Cairo news conference called to protest the incarceration of two journalists, Lu’ay Qahwagi and Yusuf Shaaban, who had been covering the sit-in at the police station and were also given two-year sentences in the prosecution of the protesters. The journalists were jailed at Burg al-‘Arab prison, west of Alexandria. (Qahwagi was serving another two years in a different political case as well.)

Shaaban’s wife, Ranwa Yusuf, said her husband had spent four days in solitary confinement with no fan or windows as temperatures climbed to 113 degrees Fahrenheit. Later, she added in a Facebook post that Shaaban had contracted hepatitis C in custody and was deprived of adequate medical care.

Hind Qahwagi complained that her brother had been stripped of his personal belongings and that she had been treated “horribly” during visits strictly limited to 15 minutes. Her brother was allowed no books, not even those of non-political nature. The power went out at the prison every morning.

Al-Massry’s sister Maysoun, who was also in attendance, called the prosecution “comical.” “People like my sister and Shaaban and others were targeted because they were fighting for a cause in light of their profession and their sense of belonging to the country,” she said. “Now they are paying the price.”

The flaws of the Egyptian judicial process were on flagrant display when the appeal was decided. The session took place in the courthouse in the Manshiya neighborhood of Alexandria, where two crisscrossing flights of stairs lead up to courtrooms on each side of the square-shaped stories. The off-white fluorescent lighting gives the fawn-colored walls a glint of foreboding.

Hundreds of lawyers, journalists and supporters who had been barred from the proceedings gathered near the courtroom doors, many sitting scrunched with their backs to the walls of the corridor. Large sheets of paper had been tacked up to double as posters: “Freedom for Mahienour and Yusuf.” “Mahienour and Yusuf are thistles in the throat of every regime.” As per what has become standard procedure, the judge did not allow the defendants’ families into the courtroom, either.

The session began almost four hours late. A troop of police conscripts marched through the thinning crowd and entered the courtroom. Those supporters who remained furiously tapped out text messages. Ranwa Yusuf sat crinkling her forehead, tears welling up in her eyes. Then chants were heard from the courtroom—an ill omen—and soon word of the decision passed from mouth to mouth. The guilty verdict was upheld, and the prison terms were cut from two years to one year and three months.

Shaaban’s wife arose and cried, “Down with the military!” As others joined in, the chant grew to a crescendo and echoed through the courthouse. The families of the detainees descended the stairs, some 200 people in their wake. The conscripts stood mute as lawyers shouted at the crowd to leave in an orderly fashion so as not to risk arrest. Quieted to weary stillness, the families and supporters exited to the corniche in a long single file as police vans reeled past. Some family members fainted and crashed to the asphalt. Others gave interviews to journalists. Some just headed home.

Repeated Violations

Malik ‘Adli, a human rights lawyer, contends that Law 107 violates the Egyptian constitution and should be repealed. He calls the law “disreputable,” adding that it has affected more people than a similar anti-protest statute enacted under British colonial rule in 1914.

Between June 2012 and December 2015, when the Egyptian parliament was suspended, the presidents Mansour and Sisi issued hundreds of executive orders that have the force of law. Mansour declared Law 107 just eight months before his transitional presidency ended and he returned to his job as chief justice of the Supreme Constitutional Court, Egypt’s highest judicial body. He was effectively in the position of ruling on his own decrees. It created a glaring conflict of interest, says Khalid ‘Ali, a prominent human rights lawyer, “a legal and constitutional irony that is unprecedented in the Egyptian judicial system.” Although Mansour said he would recuse himself should the protest law reach his court, the judicial process in Egypt was under a cloud. As chief justice, ‘Ali said, Mansour was positioned to exercise undue influence upon the objectivity of his fellow judges. In late May, Mansour was replaced as chief justice pending his retirement on June 30.

In May 2015, two other human rights lawyers, ‘Ali and Tariq al-‘Awadi, petitioned the Supreme Constitutional Court to have the law overturned because it gives the authorities the discretion to call off any protest they determine will infringe upon public safety. The requirement to get a protest permit, the brief argues, implies “breached freedoms” and thus violates 13 articles of the Egyptian constitution.

The petition is still with the Committee of State’s Commissioners, a body within the Supreme Constitutional Court that is charged with preparing the case for court. Khalid ‘Ali is optimistic about the prospects. “If the law is repealed,” he said with a smile, “anyone who was imprisoned over the petitioned articles of the law will be acquitted.”

And what of bettering conditions for those who remain in prison? The government, said Nasir Amin of the National Council for Human Rights, is far more focused on how to absorb more prisoners than how to develop adequate detention facilities for those already held. “The new priority is building new prisons,” he said, “or finding ways for current prisons to accommodate the increasing population.”

A former general with the Prison Authority, who chose to withhold his name, beamed as he talked about the creature comforts—automatic doors and single beds—of the new prisons. He looked forward to land purchases that would make room for still more penitentiaries, and said that “American expertise” was being sought as part of a prison reform initiative. In the meantime, the Interior Ministry’s human rights division has opened a hotline for complaints.

On its website, the Prison Authority says it is “adopting state policy, which is directed toward respecting human rights, through implementing prison reform and rehabilitation.” The ministry boasts of abolishing flogging in 2002, fitting prisons with 40 libraries and encouraging activities such as reading, drawing, sculpting and music. ‘Adli sees these claims as rhetoric hiding the numerous violations taking place inside prison walls. The reality is that wardens routinely ignore the legislation on the Egyptian books—not to speak of international human rights norms—and repeatedly violate the rights of the incarcerated.

For example, Article 43 of the Prisons Law lists solitary confinement as the fifth of six steps of disciplinary action that prison authorities are expected to follow. Before a prisoner is sent to solitary confinement, there must be a warning, followed by withholding of privileges, barring from promotion to a higher prisoner status and then demotion to a lower status. Yet prisoners are often sent to solitary confinement the moment they clash with prison administrators. (The sixth step is a “disciplining room.”) The prison charter makes no provision whatsoever for collective punishment, but the al-Nadeem Center for the Rehabilitation of the Victims of Violence and Torture reported 24 such incidents in 2015.

In May 2015, the National Council for Human Rights held talks with the Ministry of Interior aimed at producing amendments to the Prisons Law. But the negotiations mostly relitigated issues that were settled in law or practice long ago.

For example, the Council disagreed with the Ministry’s proposal to extend the period of solitary confinement to six months. “We thought it was a very cruel duration,” Amin said. The existing Prisons Law capped solitary confinement at 15 days. Other points under discussion included the suspension of sentences after three quarters of the duration, which the ministry agreed to because “it already existed in law,” and something vaguely described as “intellectualizing prisoners,” to which the Ministry committed in 2006.

In the months that followed, the Council watered down its reports on prison visits, redacting and re-editing paragraphs that addressed torture and sexual assault, and eventually asserting that Egypt’s lockups and prisons are “torture-free.” The Interior Ministry, of course, continually denies any mistreatment or abuse inside its detention facilities.

Human rights organizations say otherwise. In 2015, according to statistics compiled by the al-Nadeem Center, there were nearly 700 cases of torture—39 of the victims did not survive. Only a handful of accused perpetrators are prosecuted and those who are often receive light punishment. In November 2015, riots broke out in Ismailiyya and Luxor after the deaths of ‘Afifi Husni and Tal‘at Shabib in police custody. Video footage showed Shabib’s body badly bruised from blows to the neck. The officers in Husni’s case were convicted and sentenced to eight years. The officers in Shabib’s case got three to seven years. But another court has ruled that compensation in such cases will not come from the state, but from the personal monies of convicted policemen, ending any hope of justice for torture victims. There is little promise that overall conditions will improve as the prison population continues to swell.

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