A decade after the uprising that overturned politics in Egypt, political prisoners are being targeted inside the country’s overcrowded prison system.
Egypt’s prisons hold at least twice the number of people they were built for, with prisoners of conscience targeted by security forces and denied healthcare, according to Amnesty International. Prisoners of all kinds risk dying in custody because of the profound lack of basic care by the authorities, said the human rights organisation.
“There is a sense that inside prisons, the guardians and especially the national security agency are trying to crush the revolution through targeting these individuals, undermining their right to health and dignity,” said Hussein Baoumi, of Amnesty International.
The rights organisation gave details of reprisals against political prisoners, including solitary confinement for up to 23 hours a day, denial of family visits and of access to essential food packages delivered by relatives. It tracked the welfare of 67 detainees in 16 prisons across the country; 10 died in custody and two died shortly after release.
A decade after protests ended the 30 year rule of autocrat Hosni Mubarak, many of the figures who spearheaded or participated in Egypt’s revolution now languish behind bars. Their detentions span the once-broad political coalition that banded together to topple Mubarak, from Islamist political prisoners to rights lawyers and ordinary citizens arrested on commonly-deployed charges of “spreading false news”, and seeking to overthrow the current regime.
Mary Lawlor, the UN special rapporteur on human rights defenders, recently condemned Egypt’s targeting of activists and bloggers, with many now languishing in pre-trial detention. “Not only are these human rights defenders, journalists and other civil society actors unduly targeted for their legitimate and peaceful defence of human rights and fundamental freedoms, they are wrongfully accused of belonging to terrorist organisations and portrayed as a national security threat under vague legal provisions,” she said.
Since coming to power in a military coup in 2013, President Abdel-Fatah al-Sisi has purged all political opposition and targeted free speech, cracking down on the right to protest and even jailing a lone man who held a placard demanding he step down. Recent high-profile arrests include human rights workers, doctors who spoke out about Covid-19 and TikTok influencers. On 24 January, security forces detained cartoonist Ashraf Abdel Hamid after he helped create a short animation about the anniversary of the revolution.
Amnesty said overcrowding is now commonplace, with large groups packed into tiny cells and many political prisoners held in facilities originally intended for those convicted of other crimes. On average a prisoner is afforded 1.1 sq metres of space, far less than the 3.4 sq metre minimum recommended by the International Red Cross.
Sisi has long maintained that there are “no political prisoners in Egypt”, and the government does not release data on its labyrinthine prison system. According to the UN high commissioner on human rights, Egypt’s prison system holds at least double the 55,000 inmates the president has previously claimed.
For years rights groups have tried to identify the precise number of prisoners of conscience behind bars in Egypt. “It’s clear it’s in the tens of thousands, with political cases divided among those tried by the Supreme State Security Prosecution, the thousands in pre-trial detention and those repeatedly convicted in multiple cases, but collecting that information is extremely difficult,” said Baoumi.
Groups like the Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies also point to the widespread practice of “recycling cases” where prisoners are arbitrarily charged with new crimes to prevent their release. The practice is associated with the Supreme State Security Prosecution, a court that works in tandem with the National Security Agency to create what Amnesty described as “a parallel justice system”, targeting alleged enemies of the state.
The growing numbers inside Egypt’s prisons have done little to change Sisi’s reception abroad. President Emmanuel Macron recently presented his Egyptian counterpart with France’s highest honour, the Légion d’honneur during a visit. British arms-tracking group Campaign Against the Arms Trade reported that the UK has licensed at least £218m of arms to Egypt since the uprising in 2011.
“Now is an extremely important time for the international community,” said Baoumi, who stressed the need for pressure on Egypt to reveal more to international organisations about the conditions inside prisons. “Now is the time to do it, in order to save lives. Otherwise more people will die in prison.”