This paper reviews the human rights situation in Egyptian detention facilities one year after the Egyptian government launched the National Human Rights Strategy on September 11, 2021. The strategy’s announcement was accompanied by an extensive public relations campaign targeting international public opinion in an attempt to improve the image of the Egyptian regime given its deplorable human rights record. After the announcement, the Egyptian government took some cosmetic steps that did not procure any real change in its unprecedented deteriorating human rights situation. The most prominent of these formal changes was; lifting the state of emergency in all of Egypt on October 25, 2021, amending the Prisons Law, and reviving the presidential pardon committee which oversees submitting the names of prisoners of conscience to issue a pardon against them. Also there’s President Sisi’s invitation to the Egyptian family’s breakfast for a national dialogue that included the opposition.
The paper begins with a quick overview of the strategy text’s emphasis on detention facilities, then by reviewing the changes made to the legal and institutional framework that governs and regulates the detention cycle in Egypt. The last section provides an overview of the human rights situation during the past year and the most prominent violations that occurred in it, which continues in the same pattern that prevailed before the strategy was announced. In a reflection of its failure to improve the human rights situation, as it does not exceed being a public relations campaign to counter international criticism.
Guests of Detention Facilities in the National Strategy for Human Rights
The strategy has four sections: “civil and political rights,” “economic, social and cultural rights,” “human rights for women, children, people with disabilities, youth, and the elderly,” and finally, “education and capacity-building in the field of human rights,” which aims at building the capabilities of state employees who are entrusted with supervising the implementation of the strategy. The strategy did not address detention facilities except in the fourth paragraph under the “Civil and Political Rights” branch, under the title of “Treatment of Prisoners and Other Detainees.“
The intended outcomes in the paragraph related to detainees is confined to developing prison facilities to improve the standard of living and health care, whilst ensuring that the National Council for Human Rights and Civil Society’s “continue” to monitor detention facilities. It also included caring for and rehabilitating the inmates, providing religious and educational seminars, literacy services, and developing technical and industrial skills through schools as well production workshops, in addition to increasing the number of prison inmates who benefit from the external transition period (48 hours without guards outside the prison) for prisoners of good conduct. As for the performance of the penitentiary institutions themselves, in which freedom-depriving punishments are implemented, the strategy only mentions the loose goal of “launching initiatives that include highlighting the role of the Police Aftercare Department in caring for prisoners’ families.”
Even when mentioning the challenges facing the state in implementing the strategy with regard to places of detention, the strategy did not refer to the employees in those institutions and the punitive philosophy that governs their work that is characterised by a vengeful tendency that negates the humanity of the prisoners, viewing them as undeserving of rights or human treatment, primarily because they are guilty or enemies of the state in the case of prisoners of conscience. The strategy also did not address the prevailing culture of impunity and accountability among workers in those institutions on all administrative levels.
Considering the “opportunities and strengths” mentioned in that paragraph, and failing to mention the “challenges” in its implementation, and finally by taking into account the roof set forth for the targeted results, it is clear that the text of the strategy itself contained a good amount of propaganda. This paragraph presented an unrealistic situation of detention facilities as “strengths” and positive developments that already exist on the ground. In addition to referring to the constitutional and legal articles that “forrmally” obligates the authorities to preserve the dignity of prisoners and criminalizes torture or harm against them, claiming that places of detention are subject to judicial and human rights supervision, which is restricted by the Egyptian law to the National Council for Human Rights; a quasi-governmental entity.
The strategy presented an unrealistic picture of the development that took place in medical care and care for people with disabilities, rehabilitation programs, training and education of detainees, employment of detainees with monthly salaries, as well as providing care for female prisoners and foster children and working to rehabilitate them to reintegrate into society after their release. Rather, the paragraph on places of detention indicated that the state is working to reduce the number of prisoners by releasing them periodically, releasing those who suffer from life-threatening diseases or an illness that completely incapacitates them, in addition to developing a mechanism for organizing visits to prisons, enabling detainees to participate in special events, etc… which is an image that contradicts the testimonies of current and former detainees and their families documented by independent human rights organisations, and is only reflected in the propaganda campaigns of the Ministry of Interior, as will be explained later.
As for the last section related to education and capacity building, it addressed the performance of the police and the judiciary. While the strategy’s focus on issues related to training and the preparation of guidance manuals is written with a high degree of accuracy as it includes indicators of impact measurement, follow-up and evaluation, and attention to the needs of the most vulnerable groups such as women, children and people with disabilities, the means for application of all this remained absent. Especially since the strategy lacks any mechanisms for accountability and prevention of impunity of the employees to be trained. Nor did it address the reality of the punitive, vindictive philosophy prevailing inside detention facilities and in society as a whole.
This section was also not free of propaganda, stating that among the “strengths” were several steps already taken by the government to train law enforcement officials, without specifying those steps or the content of the exercises. The “establishment of a specialised human rights sector in the Ministry of the Interior” is mentioned among the strengths, although the documentation of the Egyptian Front within the framework of the Police Stations Monitor project, for example, showed that the offices of the human rights sector within the departments are often empty and sometimes detainees are not even aware of their existence. The paragraph on training members of the police force also refers to prompting codes of conduct and ethics for police work” as well as manuals on human rights, without mentioning among the targeted results the acquisition or incorporation of those codes that are mandatory by law, and also without warning about the importance of transparency and societal discussion about “training programmes” related to human rights that students study at the Police Academy.
The most intriguing part was that the targeted results for developing the performance of members of judicial bodies, which included the importance of “educating” members of those bodies on human rights issues; developing indicators for impact measurement, monitoring and evaluation; without addressing main obstacle before the rule of law, which is the absence of the political will to create real independence for the judiciary, instead the law is being manipulate and drafted to legalise violations, as will be explained later.
The structure of the strategy also reflects a major problem in the government’s perception of the inmates inside detention facilities, as the expanded list of rights included in the strategy, especially within the aspects of economic, social and cultural rights and the rights of women, children, persons with disabilities and the elderly, as well as political and civil rights such as the right to privacy and freedom of expression, completely ignored the status of the places of detention, as all the rights that are not mentioned within the “treatment of detainees” are not included. This overlooks the fact that inmates of detention facilities are among the weakest groups in society, who need additional guarantees to protect their enjoyment of all the rights guaranteed to them by the constitution and the law, as they are the most vulnerable to abuse by public officials due to their relative isolation from society and that all aspects of their lives are subjected to the authorities. The strategy’s focus on the objectives of improving health care and improving the standard of living, without paying attention to mechanisms that preserve the remaining rights of detainees, effectively excludes inmates of detention facilities from the range of citizenship.
Finally, it is clear from the text of the strategy that it is completely separated, not only from the reality of the systematic violations inside detention facilities, but also from the official discourse of the Egyptian state, which is diligent in its securitization of the political opposition and civil society; dealing with them within the context of its “war on terrorism”; a discourse criticized by human rights organizations as it is based on a broad interpretation of accusations of terrorism that opens the way for a wide expansion of the scope of the violations inside the places of detention.
This official discourse goes beyond political opponents to include all those whom the state considers enemies. For instance, in the case of businessman Safwan Thabet and his son Saif Thabet; who were charged on cases relating to terrorism, the state-owned media institutions also preempted the judicial establishment by linking the two defendants with terrorism, thus laying grounds for all the grave violations that the Thabet family was subjected to, which did not stop at arbitrary arrest and prolonged solitary confinement in the notorious Aqrab Prison, but was also accompanied by a prolonged ban on visits and communicating with families; In conditions of detention that amount to torture and cruel treatment. The demonization campaign against Thabet and portraying him as a threat to Egyptian national security continued, to the point of threatening his family with imprisonment and targeting his wife, Bahira El-Shawy, through prosecution after broadcasting a video in which she publicly appealed to the presidency to intervene to stop the violations against her husband and son, believing that the situation has changed after the announcement of the National Human Rights Strategy. She was still targeted following her death when suspicions arose that the security forces had restricted the family from receiving condolences.
Amendments to the legal and institutional framework regulating detentions after the launch of the strategy
As previously mentioned, the announcement of the strategy in September 2021 coincided with the abolition of the state of emergency across Egypt. Meanwhile, the House of Representatives quickly passed a number of legal amendments, and announced the opening of a new Wadi al-Natrun prison complex, which was celebrated for being equipped at the highest level, disregarding that the largest percentage of violations inside detention facilities is because of the arbitrary policies pursued by the administrations in regulating these facilities, and results mainly from the degrading treatment that often amounts to torture by the workers in the places of detention.
With regard to the abolition of the state of emergency, many human rights organizations, Egyptian and international, criticized this measure, because apart from the state of emergency, the government has a reservoir of laws and practices that infringe upon rights and freedoms, such as the law regulating the right In public meetings, processions, and peaceful demonstrations of 2013, the Anti-Terrorism Law No. 94, and the law regulating Lists of Terrorist Entities and the amendments made to it in 2019. All are laws which allow the authorities to supress civil and political liberties by criminalizing expression of opinion and assembly, and also establish impunity by allowing the security forces to practice enforced disappearance, extrajudicial killing and violation of fair trial guarantees, and even bypassing those laws completely in the judicial process in some procedures such as listing people or entities on terrorist lists based only on security investigations without a real judicial process in which the defendants can file petitions before being subjected the restrictions imposed by that procedure, such as travel bans, prohibition of the disposal of funds and other consequences.
In addition, the Emergency State Security Courts continued to hear cases referred to them during the imposition of the state of emergency; which deprives the defendants who still have pending cases from the opportunity to appeal. The State Security Prosecution had referred to that court a number of cases shortly before the abolition of the state of emergency, during which dozens of defendants were tried, including many political and human rights figures such as Abdel Moneim Aboul Fotouh, head of the Strong Egypt Party and his deputy, Mohamed ElQassas; and human rights lawyer Mohammed AlBaqer and activists Alaa Abdel-Fattah, Ziad ElAlimi and Mohamed Oxygen. A matter that repeatedly suggests that the abolition of the state of emergency was not aimed at improving the course of justice and human rights, especially since none of the aforementioned laws were amended to provide for greater guarantees in the interest of justice. Rather, the amendments included introducing greater restrictions and harsher penalties for some charges (such as those related to conducting research, statistics or opinion polls about the military), and it also included a retreat from a number of fair trial guarantees, such as creating more space for civilians to appear before military courts, and depriving detainees from appearing before their natural judge and communicating with their lawyers in privacy.
Concerning the legislation on conditions of detention, the House of Representatives amended the Prison Organisation Law 396/1956 in March 2022, whereas the most prominent aspect of the amendment was replacing “correction and rehabilitation centres” with the term “prisons”; Accordingly, the first article of the law was amended to replace “public prisons” with “public reform and rehabilitation centres” and “central prisons” became “geographical correction centres”, also “Private Prisons” are now “Private Correction and Rehabilitation Centres”. As for the category of Limans, which are prisons that were characterised, according to the provisions of the old regulations, with stricter systems and a higher degree of guarding, the amendment abolished them completely. This was reflected in the text of Article Two, which stipulated that those sentenced to life imprisonment and hard labour would spend their sentences in penitentiaries, while public prisons were reserved for those sentenced to imprisonment as well as for the majority of pretrial detainees; As prisons are the most suitable for providing the privileges granted by law to pretrial detainees. In the last amendment, it made the penalties of life and aggravated and standard imprisonment all spent in “public reform and rehabilitation centres” (formerly public prisons), since “Limans” are no longer a category of prisons that is considered by the law.
This amendment represents a regression from the privileges that the law previously guaranteed to detainees, especially those in pretrial detention. In a report by the Egyptian Front entitled “Through Higher Orders: Detention and Extrajudicial Punishment in Tora High Security Prison 2,” the report’s findings clarified how the Prison Authority creates high security prisons through the loophole in their legal characterization as public prisons; Although the regulations implemented in it are more severe than the penal provisions, which were reserved for those who have already been sentenced to life or rigorous imprisonment. This allowed the Prisons Authority to house pretrial detainees in high-security prisons where severe regulations are applied, which in themselves constitute a punishment for detainees who have not yet been sentenced, despite the fact that the law stipulates that such regulations should not be applied to this category of prisoners. While the Front recommended in the report that the House of Representatives should introduce legal texts regulating high-security prison systems so that they do not represent a penalty above the prison sentence, the new amendment is a step backwards that prevents the regulation of practices in those prisons, and leads to exposing detainees to pretrial detention conditions that prevent them from providing privileges that are guaranteed by law. This is despite the courts continuing to operate with the same categories of sentences (which differentiate between life imprisonment, rigorous imprisonment, and imprisonment).
It appears from the verdict in the “Helwan Brigades” case, for example, that the judiciary continues to work with the rigorous prison sentence and separates it from the prison sentence. This is consistent with the classification of places of detention; eliminating this division between public prisons and penitentiaries led to the undoing of an advantage that had ensured that the scale of the sentence was consistent with the place of detention. And most importantly, it protected the pre-trial detainees.
The amendment of Article 31 with regard to imprisoned students also restricted the ability of detained students to move to other headquarters to take their exams, as it made it the norm to take the exams inside the prison where the student is present, while his release to another headquarters is subject to the discretion of the authorities.
No change in patterns of detention-related abuses since the strategy was launched
Contrary to the governmental narrative since September 2021, which aims at picturing that large-scale changes in the field of human rights took place, whereas reality indicates that the prevailing pattern is only an extension of the regime’s policies during the previous years which have witnessed unprecedented violations of human rights. The most remarkable characteristic of which is the expansion of its scope to include wide geographical areas and various categories of detainees, as well as the complicity of various state institutions to pass these violations, enable them or create conditions for their continuation without accountability. This last point is the biggest indication of how serious the state is in adopting policies that actuate human rights.
Deaths in detention as a result of torture or intentional medical negligence
Human rights organizations have documented numerous systematic violations of the right to life, physical integrity, and human dignity by security forces and those responsible for detention facilities on a large scale, to the exent of several deaths as a result of torture, or through medical negligence and the continuity of inhumane treatment.
The Front has monitored the names of at least forty-two deaths in different detention facilities between prisons, police stations and unknown places of detention, including at least three who died as a result of torture, the marks of which were later noticed by family members of the deceased. As for the majority of deaths, they were due to gross medical negligence or because of poor conditions of detention, which led to the detainees’ illness or exacerbation of diseases they were already suffering from.
Among the prominent cases of deaths inside detention facilities was the case of the detainee, “Anwar Mousa al-Gazzar“, a resident of North Sinai Governorate, who had been arrested as part of a campaign launched by the authorities against displaced citizens in the area. There were also repeated reports of detainees being beaten and tortured inside detention facilities, whether by the National Security Sector or by detective officers inside police stations. Also, a clear pattern appears in the deaths inside detention, whereas a large number of victims who were killed in detention were also victims of other violations, such as round-ups by the prosecution, prolonged denial of visits, enforced disappearances, and torture at the hands of the National Security Agency.
Torture and cruel treatment
Verbal and physical attacks and humiliation continue as a general rule for treatment of detainees inside those facilities, a philosophy that bases itself mainly on vengeance against them which was not addressed by the strategy in any manner, with complete impunity for the officials who degrade the detainees of human dignity. Several statements by the officers administering the detention facilities indicating the predominance of this policy have been documented. For example, in October 2021, the “Committee for Justice” organization documented the intransigence of the chief of investigations at Wadi al-Natrun Prison 440 with one of the detainees, after he was abused and placed in the disciplinary ward; his psychological condition deteriorated to the point where he attempted suicide. Despite that, the administration did not intervene to present him to a doctor. The chief of investigations told the detainee, “Stay, let the reports help you.”
These violations cannot be described as individual cases, as they are recurring in several stations, and also because the victims are exposed to considerable violations for which different institutions in the state are responsible. This was evident, for example, in assaulting political activist Ahmed Doma and researcher Ahmed Samir Santawi in July 2022, as this incident compromised violations of medical negligence, physical abuse, torture, and denying Doma the right the visitation, and the administration’s refusal of Douma and Santawi’s requests to write official reports recording medical negligence and assault as well as requests to summon the prosecution. In fact, the prison administration encroached on the authority of the Public Prosecution Office in the investigation through its initiative of denying Doma’s claims as an “attempt to create confusion.”
The same pattern is also evident in how various prison administrations, as well as the Public Prosecution, handled the strike of activist Alaa Abdel-Fattah, which he started on April 2, 2022 in protest against his detention conditions and being targeted by the Tora High Security Prison 2 administration, as well as the torture incidents that occur inside the prison. Although Abdel-Fattah’s transfer to Wadi al-Natrun prison constituted an initial improvement in the conditions of his detention, restricting policies against him continue, and likewise the policy of handling crises inside the new prison, according to his account of what the rest of the detainees are being subjected to and their prevention from exercise, which are only an example of the difficult conditions of detention that prompted some of them to contemplate “mass suicide“.
There were also numerous incidents of torture during the year; The most prominent of these was the tragic murder of economic researcher Ayman Hodhoud, which clearly indicates that torture is systematic and organized and uses a parallel policy to the law in which various state agencies collude to prevent these facts from being exposed to public opinion; including the National Security Forces, Abbasiya Hospital, the Public Prosecution and the Forensic Medicine Authority. The same pattern also appeared in how the Ministry of Interior and the Public Prosecution handled the “Salam Police Station detainees Case”, who filmed a video clip showing their being subjected to torture and collective punishment, which the Guardian reported on. The government responded by enforcing another collective punishment, through trying all those who participated in filming or publishing the video on enforced disappearance on charges related to terrorism and spreading false news, showcasing clear consistency between the positions of the Public Prosecution and the Ministry of Interior, as the former did not open investigations with those accused of torturing detainees, but rather the records reflected the prosecution’s fully adopting the Ministry of Interior’s narrative.
The Egyptian Front also monitored the government’s continued use of illegal detention, either by detaining citizens in places not designated for this and forcibly disappearing them, or holding them in pretrial detention for long periods exceeding the legally permissible periods, or using the policy or recycling cases (and often in cases replicated from older ones).
For example, the Front monitored dozens of cases of forced disappearance in various detention facilities across Egypt, most of them illegally detained inside the National Security offices on charges related to freedom of expression and the practice of journalistic activity (such as the detention and disappearance of journalists Mohamed Gooma Mubarak Ahmed, Hani Abdel Rahim Ismail, and Mohamed Fawzy). Or practicing legal activity (such as the case of human rights lawyer Youssef Mansour), or peaceful political activity (such as the case of Dostor Party member Haitham Al-Banna) or because of expressing their opinions on social media platforms. At least 16 women were among the disappearances, a large percentage of whom were from North Sinai governorate; The prosecution recycled these cases after several months of enforced disappearance. Also among the new cases of disappearance was a 15-year-old minor. In July 2022, human rights organisations submitted the names of at least 130 cases of enforced disappearance to be considered by the Presidential Amnesty Committee. Those detained during enforced disappearance are subjected to other grave violations, such as unofficial interrogation without lawyers, and physical and psychological torture. Some are also held en masse with members of their families or to pressure family members to turn themselves in.
Enforced disappearance is also strongly linked to the policy of recycling cases, as detainees who spent several years in prison and have completed their sentences or obtained acquittal forcibly disappear until they appear again before the prosecution pending a new case, including Asser Zahr Eldin, who had completed a five-year prison sentence began in executed despite being under the legal age. Such as in the case of the defendants in the State Security Case 1935/2022, in which the defendants were subjected to enforced disappearance for several months and then recycled to other cases. The Front has also monitored the extension of enforced disappearance in many cases for many years. Among these prolonged disappearances are cases of children who were hidden while they were under legal age, such as the case of Abdallah Boumedien, who was a minor when he disappeared for the first time more than three years ago.
Cruel and degrading treatment and forced deportation of refugees and asylum seekers
Refugees, in turn, were not spared the poor conditions of detention, as several organisations documented the arbitrary detention and threats of deportation or actual deportation of dozens of refugees. They were subjected to enforced disappearance, beatings, forced labour or forced to be informants for the security services against their communities, in addition to the theft of their personal belongings, and threats of fabricating drug possession cases or arresting them again if they openly talk about the violations that happened to them.
Retaliation against families of opponents living abroad
As for the opponents abroad, arbitrary detention was a primary tool for persecuting them and taking revenge on their families residing in Egypt, in addition to the increasing discourse of treason in an attempt to mitigate the impact of their opposition on external public opinion. This was evident in organized media campaigns, such as the government’s responses to activist Rami Shaath’s statements about the poor conditions of detention after he left Egypt, as well as the grave violations against the family of human rights activist Muhammad Sultan, which did not stop when his father was forcibly disappeared and placed in solitary confinement for many months, where visitation and health care were almost compeletly denied, but also through the prosecution of other family members to pressure Sultan to stop his human rights activism in the United States.
The coordination with the security authorities in other countries (especially the Gulf and Sudan) has also escalated in forcibly returning opponents to Egypt, where they were subjected to enforced disappearance and torture, or faced heavy sentences in military cases marred by violations of fair trial procedures (which is what happened with Hossam Salam, who went into a hunger strike in June 2022 due to poor detention conditions). Coordination extended from deporting opponents abroad to targeting entire families whose members were subjected to enforced disappearance and illegal detention, not only in Egypt but also in the countries that deport them, such as in the case of the family of Habiba Ahmed Sobhi in September 2021. Media and human rights sources have documented that the Sudanese government has deported in June 2022 alone more than 12 Egyptian citizens.
Complicity of judicial institutions in violations inside detention facilities
In addition to the aforementioned institutions, the judicial institution was also implicated in violations against inmates of detention facilities in several ways, through its failure to impel judicial supervision over detention facilities, not setting a serious policy to address complaints of detainees and their families regarding violations of their rights to a fair trial during the pretrial detention phase and not seriously investigating allegations of torture and enforced disappearance, and using the investigations of the national security services that are involved in these violations, as well as adopting confessions which were extracted under torture.
Since September 2021, a number of judicial execution orders, life and rigorous imprisonment have been issued for dozens of defendants in cases of a political nature, in which the defendants had been subjected to grave violations since their arrest, without the court regarding the matter or ordering an investigatio into itn, most notably Case 4459/2015 known as Case Helwan Brigades, in which, in June 2022, death sentences were issued for 10 defendants, life imprisonment for 56 defendants, strict imprisonment and imprisonment for 35 defendants, despite being subjected to violations ranging from enforced disappearance, severe torture, prevention of communication with parents and lawyers to conducting investigation with the absence of lawyers, as well as being detained in inhumane conditions that led to the deterioration of the health of several defendants. Life and rigorous prison sentences were also repeatedly issued in the case known as the “Returnees from Kuwait Case“, despite the arbitrary deportation from Kuwait, torture, and sexual harassment of the defendants after their arrest.
A large number of executions have also been carried out since September 2021 in cases marred by grave violations, such as the cases known as the “First Soldiers of Egypt” and the “Helwan Microbus”, despite extensive human rights calls to reconsider the sentences and investigate the violations suffered by the defendants, and the condemnation of the OHCHR of these executions. It was not limited to cases of a political nature, but the violations themselves extended to “criminal” cases in which the fair trial guarantees were also violated.
In addition to recycling the cases, the prosecution and courts are also involved in extending the pre-trial detention beyond its legal maximum duration of two years. In the period between January and June 2021, the number of cases presented before the terrorism circuits in which the defendants exceeded the maximum period of pretrial detention ranged between three to thirteen cases. Their illegal detention continues as this report is being written, with rates of release of defendants in these cases, ranging between 2.7% And 3.9%. The New York Times also indicated that the number of pretrial detainees whose detention is renewed periodically estimated at no less than 4,500 persons and the abuse of pretrial detention continued even after the call for national dialogue and the formation of the presidential pardon committee. In addition to accounts by members of the committee about the existence of internal crises “and disagreements from many sovereign bodies regarding the release and amnesty for detainees”. With the repeated postponement of amnesty decisions, the number of those released is a very small percentage in comparison to the lists that the political forces and human rights organisations worked on to prepare for submission to the committee, which is in thousands. This is in addition to the fact that the security authorities and the State Security Prosecution continued to rotate a number of those released through decisions by the Public Prosecution after May 2022 and are being tried on new cases.
The status of human rights in detention facilities has not changed from what it was before the announcement of the National Human Rights Strategy, as the same patterns of violations that have been criticised by independent local and international civil society for several years are still prevailing. This confirms once again that the strategy came as part of an expensive public relations campaign implemented by the Egyptian government to improve the regime’s public image, instead of actually confronting the massive violations of human rights, holding perpetrators accountable, and strengthening accountability mechanisms to eliminate the state of impunity that only functions as a guarantee for these violations to persist.