Rights groups renew demand for Red Cross oversight of prisons

After the death of Mustafa Kassem and others in Egyptian prisons

Following the death of dual Egyptian- American national Mustafa Kassem on Monday January 13th, the undersigned rights organizations renew their demand for international and independent oversight and inspection of Egypt’s prisons. The swelling number of deaths in prisons since the beginning of the year underscores the imminent danger facing hundreds of detainees whose appeals remain largely unheard by the international community. Torture, medical neglect, inhumane conditions and degrading treatment have compelled many detainees to stage hunger strikes –risking their own lives – as a last resort to protest unjust and deadly prison conditions.

In solidarity with these detainees, the undersigned reiterate their appeal for the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) to demand to be given access to visit and inspect detention sites in Egypt. Relevant national and international NGOs should also be given access to the country’s prisons. Furthermore, United Nations’ experts, particularly the UN Special Rapporteur on Torture, must be authorized to visit Egypt and assess prisoner welfare. Independent rights groups should also be involved in creating a national preventive mechanism that coordinates unannounced visits to detention sites to assess the conditions within.

The urgent need for international and independent inspection and oversight is underscored by the growing number of recent deaths in Egyptian prisons since the beginning of this year, which included at least three deaths in a single week. Hundreds of prisoners remain at high risk due to persistent and pervasive medical neglect–including the denial of essential healthcare to elderly prisoners and those with pre-existing medical conditions. In addition, prison authorities refuse to allow detainees access to clothing and bedding appropriate for winter.

449 prisoners in Egypt have died in places of detention from June 2014 to the end of 2018, as documented by a joint UN submission. This number increased to 917 prisoners between June 2013 and November 2019, with a drastic increase during 2019. According to the latest update, 677 of these deaths were caused by medical negligence, and 136 by torture.

Recent Deaths in Egyptian Prisons

On Monday evening, 13 January, Mustafa Kassem, a dual Egyptian-American citizen died while serving a 15-year prison sentence in Tora Prison, after being sentenced in a trial connected to the August 2013 dispersal of the Rabaa sit-in. Kassem, a diabetic, had been staging a hunger strike to protest the inhumane conditions of his confinement. American Vice-President Mike Pence had previously appealed to the Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi to release Kassem. Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs David Schenker said Kassem’s death raises “serious concerns,” on the part of the US government, in regards to human rights and detainees in Egypt.

On 8 January, Alaa al-Din Saad, age 56, died in Borg al-Arab Prison1 after prison authorities did not provide him with adequate medical care after he contracted the flu. His illness had been aggravated by the prison’s lack of heating, and insufficient ventilation and bedding in his cell. Prison authorities also failed to provide him with appropriate winter clothing.

On 4 January, Mahmoud Abdel -Megid Mahmoud Saleh, age 46, died in his Aqrab Prison cell due to medical neglect, prompting other inmates at the prison to declare an open-ended hunger strike on 7 January. The strike urges international community intervention to prevent further deaths from inhumane prison conditions, which include inadequate nutrition, the denial of exercise and time outdoors, and the lack of basic needs including heavy blankets and winter clothing.

In Qanater Women’s Prison, detainees issued an appeal announcing they would begin a partial hunger strike protesting intentional medical neglect in the prison, which led to the death of prisoner Maryam Salem, age 32, on 22 December. In the statement, the prisoners demanded an investigation into Salem’s death, the dismissal of the prison’s physician, and the staffing of competent doctors at the prison hospital and essential healthcare for inmates.

Egyptians remaining at high risk of death in prison

Hundreds held in Egyptian prisons are at risk of an untimely death. Rights groups have already drawn attention to the willful medical neglect of Abdel Moneim Aboul Fotouh, age 68, president of the oppositional party Strong Egypt, who has now been held in solitary confinement since February 2018. Abdel-Fotouh has been suffering from a severe respiratory ailment since being held in solitary confinement, as well as stomach and neck ailments. The Tora Prison administration has refused to implement an order from the High State Security Prosecution to admit Abdel-Fotouh to the hospital for treatment and medical tests. Prison authorities have also refused to alleviate the harsh conditions of Abdel-Fotouh’s confinement.

Human rights defender Ibrahim Metwally, who has been detained since September 2017, also suffers from life-threatening medical neglect that remains unaddressed despite local and international appeals. There have also been reports of the declining health of journalist and activist Esraa Abdel Fattah after she staged repeated hunger strikes protesting the prosecution’s refusal to document the torture she suffered during her arrest and detention.

The undersigned rights organizations are highly concerned about the deteriorating health and physical safety of rights lawyer Mohamed al-Baqer and activist Alaa Abdel-Fattah, who have both been held in Aqrab (Scorpion) Prison– the notorious maximum-security wing of Tora Prison——for over 100 days. We demand an immediate investigation into the torture and ill treatment they have faced since their arrests, including being blindfolded, stripped, and beaten. Prison authorities have denied both men visitation and basic needs such as warm clothing, blankets, medicine, food, clean water, exercise, and outdoor access. These inhumane conditions have exacerbated numerous health problems2 for which both al- Baqer and Abdel-Fattah continue to be denied medical treatment.

Signatory Organizations

  • Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies

  • Arabic Network for Human Rights Information

  • Association for Freedom of Thought and Expression

  • Belady Center for Rights and Freedoms

  • Committee for Justice

  • El Nadim Center

  • Egyptian Front for Human Rights

  • Egyptian Commission for Rights and Freedoms

  • The Freedom Initiative

1 Saad was serving a 15-year sentence after his conviction in 2015.

2 Mohammed al-Baqer was held in a cement room without ventilation or a change of clothes for nine days, sleeping on the ground without any bedding, inflaming shoulder and back pain and skin infections. Salt levels in his kidneys have been elevated due to lack of access to clean drinking water. The prison administration has denied both al-Baqer and El-Fattah any exercise or access to sunlight; as a result they suffer from severe joint pain due to the high humidity and bitter cold in the cells and their lack of movement.

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