Martyrs Behind Bars... Killings and Torture of Prisoners During Egypt's Revolution

Summary and Recommendations: for 18 days, starting on the 25th January, Egypt witnessed mass demonstrations demanding the downfall of Hosni Mubarak's regime. The demonstrations turned into severe clashes between security forces and protesters on the 28th January. As a result, that evening all police forces withdrew from their positions, while the armed forces took over their role. On the 11th February, Mubarak resigned from his position as President of Egypt and all his powers were transferred to the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces.

Since the 25th January, and during the months that followed, Egyptian prisons were in a state of chaos. Several of Egypt's prisons witnessed unrest, and in five prisons (Abu Zaabal prison, al-Marg prison, Fayoum prison, Wadi al-Natroun prison and Qena prison) large numbers of prisoners escaped.

The present report does not focus on those prisons which witnessed mass escapes. Rather, it focuses on a number of appalling crimes committed by the authorities against prisoners inside prisons where no one escaped. The report presents testimonies and evidence collected in five prisons across four governorates: al-Qatta prison in Giza, Shebin el Kom prison in Monofya, al-Abaadya prison in Damanhour, Tora prison and the Appeals prison in Cairo.

This report is based on a large number of testimonies collected from prisoners and their relatives, including relatives of prisoners who died in prison. The EIPR also collected death certificates, as well as photos and videos shot via cell-phone inside prisons during and after the shootings. All the names of prisoners have been withheld for their own safety.

The evidence collected indicates that in the prisons under study between the 29th January and the 20th February, prison guards opened fire on inmates killing more than 100 prisoners and injuring hundreds.
The evidence presented in this report reveals a recurring pattern in all those prisons: prison officers not only used excessive and unlawful force and firearms against prisoners, but also shot at unarmed prisoners inside cellblocks and cells using live ammunition. The available evidence suggests that most of those were intentional killings, and had nothing to do with attempted escapes.

Even if prison authorities claim that the shootings were justified to prevent escapes, which has not been proven in any of the prisons under study, the law allows officers to use firearms to prevent an escape only when there are no other means available, after giving a warning and only by directing the shot towards the prisoners' legs.

However, available evidence suggests that the majority of the shootings were directed at the upper half of the body rather than the lower half. In al-Qatta prison, for instance, the North Giza Prosecutor has a list of 33 prisoners who died between the 25th January and 1st March 2011 inside the prison. Out of the 31 prisoners who are documented as having died from live ammunition, 14 sustained bullets in the head, face or neck, and 14 sustained bullets in the chest, stomach or back. In other words, 28 out of the 31 prisoners on the Prosecutor's list were shot in the upper half of the body. Moreover, in most cases no warning preceded the shots. This further suggests that the aim of the gunfire was not to stop inmates from escaping, but to kill them.
In Tora prison, prison officers shot at prisoners in their cellblock from the 29th January onwards, killing an unknown number of prisoners and injuring dozens. In some blocks, the guards went and shot prisoners inside their rooms, while in other blocks, they threw teargas canisters inside the blocks. Once the prisoners managed to break out of the rooms to the block's courtyard to escape from the smoke, they were shot at. In addition to random shootings, testimonies collected from Liman Tora prison reveal that some prison officers stormed cellblocks and shot at prisoners at close range.

The interviewed prisoners all insisted that the shooting was not directed at prisoners trying to escape, emphasizing that prisoners inside their cellblocks came under fire. Moreover, prisoners agreed that the killings were intentional.

The shooting was not only to scare people. They were aiming at the head. I saw with my own eyes one of my colleagues take a bullet in his head while he was in the block's courtyard. His brains came out. This courtyard is surrounded by a high wall of wire and steel, 10 or 15 meters high, there is no way that he was trying to escape.1

Some of the gravest testimonies in this report were collected from the Appeals prison, where at least 14 prisoners died on the 30th and 31st January. Evidence gathered indicates that some of those prisoners were tied up and severely beaten by prison officers before being shot at point blank range. These allegations, if confirmed in official and independent investigations, would mean a large number of prisoners were summarily executed. In the report, the sister of one of the Appeals prison victims describes the corpse of her brother, as she saw it at the Zeinhom morgue on the 7th February. The body was covered with bruises. His wrists and ankles were bruised from handcuffs, his shoulders and head were heavily bruised and the bullet that killed him entered from under the chin and exited from the head. This is proof that the killing was intentional and happened while the prisoner was under the control of the person who shot him.

After the heavy shootings in late January, the EIPR collected evidence that random shootings against prisoners continued for ten to fifteen days, in four of the five prisons under study (al-Qatta, Appeals, Shebin el Kom and Tora prisons), resulting in the death and injury of more prisoners. In the meantime, prisoners were left with no security presence in the prison buildings, water and electricity were cut off, no food was delivered, and visits were prohibited.

In some cases, corpses were left to rot among the living prisoners for days. A number of prisoners told the EIPR that corpses were left in the cellblocks for up to four days before being transferred to the morgue, because of the guards' refusal to enter cellblocks. Some prisoners wrapped the corpses in blankets and sought to get them out of the cellblocks, but were shot at while doing this. Relatives of prisoners who died in the first days of the events also confirmed that, when they collected the corpses from the morgue, the corpses were unrecognizable as they had started rotting.

In addition, injured prisoners were not provided with any proper medical care for approximately ten days following the shootings in the last days of January in al-Qatta, Appeals, Shebin el Kom and Tora prisons. Later in February, after the army intervened, the most severely injured were transferred for treatment, often in inadequate medical facilities.

For instance, several prisoners told us of the conditions in Tora prison hospital. The treatment, they revealed, is very basic and limited to wound dressing and painkillers. The hospital was overcrowded and most prisoners were left to sleep on the floor, with a small minority of severe cases being given beds. The prison hospital lacked the capacity to treat most of the severe injury cases, and many of the prisoners required treatment at outside hospitals. However, transfers were delayed so long that prisoners' health deteriorated rapidly.

Even after the relative improvement inside prisons approximately two weeks after the beginning of the events, abuses and violence continued, resulting in the death of at least nine prisoners and the injury of dozens more in the five prisons under study. Incidents included unlawful and unjustified shootings at prisoners by prison guards, as well as the failure to provide any protection to prisoners who were subjected to violence during fights between inmates. In addition, in some prisons, inmates were subjected to unlawful collective punishment, which consisted of physical and verbal abuse, as well as theft of their property. In some cases, it appeared that these acts came as a punishment to prisoners for leaking information to the media about the continuing abuses in prisons.

Inmates’ families were not treated much better than their imprisoned relatives. Starting on the 28th January and for at least three weeks afterward, visits to prisoners were prohibited in the five prisons under study. In two of those prisons, families were met with rubber bullets and teargas canisters at the prison gates, as they sought news about their relatives inside. Moreover, during this time, families were unable to receive any reliable information on their imprisoned relatives from the competent authorities. When families asked about their relatives at the prison or at the Prisons Authority in Cairo, they were met with vague information at best, and, at times, with blatant lies. Many corpses were left at the morgue for one month, sometimes more, without the families being informed of the death of their relative.

Despite a number of complaints and calls for intervention sent to the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, Ministry of Interior (MoI) and Prisons Authority about the killings and other violations as they were happening, the authorities failed to intervene to stop the violations. Instead, the MoI continued to use excessive force against prisoners, while seeking to cover up the abuses by releasing inaccurate information to prisoners' relatives and the media.

At the same time, the Public Prosecutor's Office has been grossly negligent in investigating the abuses, unduly delaying the investigations and showing bias. At the time of publication of this report, six months after the violations happened, none of the cases before the Public Prosecutor's Office have been referred to trial.

Yet even if one looks at only these five prisons, the similar pattern of events - the intentional killings which started at the same time in all five prisons, the starvation and inhumane treatment which followed the killings, and the withdrawal of security forces from prison buildings - raises a number of questions which remain unanswered. Most importantly, who was responsible for ordering the killings and inhumane treatment?.

To answer this question, more investigations are needed into all Egyptian prisons, starting from the 25th January. This report cannot be a substitute for investigations by an independent and impartial authority that has access to all prisons in Egypt and all concerned government bodies. This is critical as the EIPR received information about violence and killings in other prisons, in addition to the five included in this report, which require further investigations.

In this regard, the investigations carried out by the Fact Finding National Commission (FFNC) - created by a decree of the Prime Minister (Decree 294/2011) to investigate the abuses and violations that took place during the January 25 revolution – are insufficient. The FFNC investigated events in five prisons, out of which three had witnessed mass escapes (Wadi al-Natroun, Abu Zaabal and al-Marg) and two had not (Tora and al-Qatta). The summary version of the report, released on the 19th April, did not offer a comprehensive picture of what happened inside the prisons visited, and did not assign responsibility for the killing and wounding of prisoners.

In addition, the Commission did not visit other prisons where violence had been reported, even though on the 28th March the EIPR sent the FFNC evidence pertaining to al-Qatta, Damanhour, Shebin el Kom and Tora prisons, on the unlawful use of force against prisoners by prison guards and the inhumane treatment of prisoners.2 The EIPR also sent the FFNC a list of 94 names of prisoners alleged to have died at the hands of prison guards in three of those prisons.

Despite its shortcomings, the FFNC's report summary included evidence that corroborated the present report's findings. The FFNC stated:

Prisoners, in prisons where no one escaped, claimed that the police shot with live ammunition and metal pellets in the direction of cellblocks and cells, despite the absence of unrest, and that a number of prisoners were killed and others injured while inside cellblocks and cells... A number of prisoners in different prisons claimed that prison officers threw teargas in the direction of cellblocks and cells, which resulted in inmates suffocating and attempting to get out of the cellblocks.3

According to parts of the FFNC report published by the daily newspaper al-Shorouk, in al-Qatta prison, the Commission saw "a very high prevalence of traces of live ammunition and metal pellets inside cellblocks, which raises questions concerning the reasons for the intentional shooting of prisoners inside cellblocks."4 

The FFNC report presented two possible explanations for the prison breaks. Either, the report claimed, the escapes were a result of the general security vacuum left by the retreat of all police forces from their positions in the late hours of the 28th January, or it was a result of armed attacks on prisons from outsiders trying to help the prisoners escape.

The report also stated that the Commission received a letter dated 3rd April 2011 from the Prisons Authority, which put the number of deaths among prisoners at 189 and the number of injuries at 263 in all of Egypt's prisons (41 prisons in total according to the report).5
However, the real number of deaths is likely higher than this because at the time the FFNC report was released on the 19th April 2011, not all prisoners' corpses had been identified as such. On the 9th June, 19 unidentified corpses were buried under orders from the Prime Minister. According to reports, at least some of those corpses were wearing prison uniforms when they were brought to the morgue.6

As a consequence, the EIPR calls on the government to:

1) Create an independent fact-finding commission responsible for investigating abuses against prisoners across the country's prisons starting on the 25th January 2011. The commission's duties should include determining violations committed against prisoners and determining responsibility for ordering the mass violations at the higher levels. The commission should draft a comprehensive report with its findings and submit it to the Public Prosecutor's Office while also publishing its findings to the public.

2) Provide adequate compensation to the martyrs’ families and the injured prisoners.

The EIPR calls on the Public Prosecutor to:

1) Delegate investigative judges to investigate the killings and other violations which occurred in the five prisons under study. Investigative judges should also investigate the Public Prosecutor's failure to impartially investigate the relevant complaints presented to his office.

2) Investigate any allegations of crimes committed against prisoners impartially, thoroughly and without delay, including by requesting that all medical and forensic reports for deceased and injured prisoners be submitted to the Prosecutor's Office, as well as by requesting to hear testimonies of forensic and prison-hospital physicians.

3) Charge all officers and other public officials against whom enough evidence has been gathered and refer them to trial without undue delay.

The EIPR calls on the Ministry of Interior and the Prisons Authority to:

1) Immediately suspend all officers accused of killing prisoners, pending investigation and trial.

2) Adopt a zero tolerance policy towards any unlawful use of force or firearms against prisoners, and fully cooperate with the fact-finding commission and prosecuting authorities.

3) Ensure that prison conditions comply with national and international laws at all times, including in relation to the availability and quality of medical care, access to water and food, and security conditions within cellblocks.