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Egypt’s Official Human Rights Body Demands Prison Visits Amid Deteriorating Detention Conditions

Mourners hold slogans at a vigil for Italian student Giulio Regeni, found dead with signs of torture after having gone missing on January 25, 2016. Demonstrators gathered in front of the Italian embassy in Cairo, Egypt, on Saturday, February 6, 2016. The posters read, "Giulio is one of us and was killed like us" and "Giulio and El Gendi the same pain the same date.” Photo Amr Nabil/AP.
Mourners hold slogans at a vigil for Italian student Giulio Regeni, found dead with signs of torture after having gone missing on January 25, 2016. Demonstrators gathered in front of the Italian embassy in Cairo, Egypt, on Saturday, February 6, 2016. The posters read, “Giulio is one of us and was killed like us” and “Giulio and El Gendi the same pain the same date.” Photo Amr Nabil/AP.

In February 2016 the National Council for Human Rights (NCHR) called on the Ministry of Interior to allow it to visit detention cells in Egypt’s police stations for the first time. The demand comes amid continued complaints over the state of detention facilities at police stations, deaths due to overcrowding, lack of ventilation, and alleged torture and disappearances.

“We hope they [the Interior Ministry] agree to this request,” NCHR member George Ishak said to Fanack. He added that the request made to the ministry called for visits to all police stations nationwide, with an average of two police stations each week. Ishak said that the Council has also requested visits to the main public prisons outside Cairo, including those in Upper Egypt’s Minya and Qena, the Nile Delta’s Banha, Tanta, and Mahalla, and the coastal city of Port Said. “We asked to visit two main prisons each month, with proper access to prisoners and their cells,” Ishak said.

The NCHR, however, faces multiple obstacles. NCHR members are not permitted to make surprise visits to detention facilities; only the Prosecutor General can order such visits. The NCHR must make a request to the Ministry of Interior to visit prisons and detention facilities, and all details are prearranged. Prison officials and police officers are not obliged to fulfill these requests, including requests to visit specific prisoners or to inspect cells where inmates are held.

On a visit to Aqrab Prison, NCHR members were not allowed to visit the prison cells, as prison authorities said they could not guarantee their safety. When they asked to meet prisoners who were reportedly in failing health, their request was denied, and they were provided only their medical files. Several leading Muslim Brotherhood leaders also refused to meet the delegation, accusing them of being “stooges” of the government.

Independent rights organizations are also critical of NCHR members, who are appointed by the president. The NCHR is accused of a lenient attitude towards the government and of covering up violations taking place in detention facilities. In late 2015, the NCHR was criticized harshly when one of its leading members, Hafez Abu Saada, also director of the Egyptian Organization for Human Rights, praised conditions at Aqrab Prison and agreed to be photographed tasting meals that had been prepared for prisoners. A delegation visiting the same prison on another occasion excluded prominent human rights defender and NCHR member Ragia Omran. The justification given for excluding Omran from the delegation was that her name was not provided to authorities in advance.

Amongst the most notorious police stations the NCHR has requested to visit is that in Cairo’s al-Matariya. According to a recent report by rights organization the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights, at least 14 detainees have died in custody at al-Matariya in the past two years. One of the most prominent cases was that of Karim Hamdi, a lawyer who was detained there in February 2015. Two days after his detention, he was dead; a forensic report showed signs of torture including fractured ribs, electrocution marks, and a brain hemorrhage. The two National Security officers accused of torturing Hamdi were sentenced to five years’ imprisonment in December; they are appealing their verdict.

Deaths in custody have also been documented in other police stations, including Imbaba, Ayn Shams, al-Salam, and others. The deaths of Talaat Shabib at a police station in Luxor, and Afifi Afifi at a police station in Ismailia shortly after their arrests in November 2015, led to widespread protests by local residents. In Shabib’s case, four officers and five policemen were immediately referred to trial in an attempt to calm public anger. In early February 2016, police officer Mohamed Ibrahim was sentenced to eight years in prison and fined 5,000 Egyptian pounds after he was found guilty of beating Afifi to death.

Most recently in 2016, the story of Giulio Regeni, an Italian student who was found dead in Cairo after disappearing for nine days, has made international headlines. Egypt’s Interior Ministry has denied reports that he was detained before his death; “signs of torture” were found on his body, according to local investigators and Italian doctors who examined his body. In the wake of deaths that are known to take place in prisons or police stations—in cases in which families have accused the police of torture—the Ministry of Interior typically issues statements denying any abuse or wrongdoing. They insist the inmates died from rapidly deteriorating health or from fighting with other inmates.

Lack of medical care in detention facilities has been a primary concern of rights organizations. The Nadeem Center for Rehabilitation of Victims of Violence and Torture reported 137 deaths in detention in 2015, including 81 due to alleged lack of proper medical care. Another 358 detainees suffered medical negligence, according to the report. The report said that 39 detainees died due to alleged torture and five were reported as suicides. Amongst those who died, there were seven reported cases at Matariya police station, nine at al-Wadi al-Gadid prison, and five at Aqrab Prison.

The same 2015 Nadeem report documented 474 killings by security forces and 700 cases of alleged torture, 267 of which are said to have taken place in police stations, 241 in public prisons, 97 at the headquarters of the National Security Department that deals with terrorism and political cases, and 26 at Central Security camps.

The Nadeem Center itself has come under increased scrutiny by the government, and, on 17 February 2016, it received an order for closure from the Ministry of Health for violations, the nature of which is unclear. The Nadeem Center said in a statement that its lawyer, Taher Abul-Nasr, was able to postpone the closure until he could he appeal the decision in front of the court.

Human rights organizations have condemned overcrowding in police stations and prisons over the past two and a half years, mainly due to the ongoing confrontation between police and supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood. In May of 2014, WikiThawra, a project of the Egyptian Centre for Economic and Social Rights, estimated that more than 40,000 inmates had been held in prison since 2013. The Interior Ministry, however, strongly denies the figure, claiming that the reports are fabricated. In an interview with Foreign Policy magazine in February 2016, Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry called the estimate a lie. Nevertheless, there is no official figure on the number of prisoners. In September 2015, former Prime Minister Ibrahim Mahlab told Hamdi Rizk, a columnist and talk-show host, that there were approximately 8,000 detainees in Egyptian prisons.

At a minimum, the Interior Ministry has recognized that police stations—where suspects should be held only temporarily—are overcrowded. The ministry has said that it is trying to improve conditions by providing air conditioning in several locations and by providing better medical care. Officials have also announced plans to build several new prisons to absorb the increasing number of inmates.