Why does the Egyptian government refuse independent prison visits?

7 May 2014

On behalf of Egyptian participants in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) Regional Forum on monitoring places of detention and the prevention of torture in Beirut between 23-27 April 2014 [ Hani Mostafa, al-Nadem; Taher Mukhtar, Tahrir Doctors; Reda Marii, EIPR, and Diana Eltahawy, EIPR]

In late April, a small group of us from Egyptian NGOs and independent movements attended the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) Regional Forum on monitoring places of detention and the prevention of torture in Beirut. The forum brings together people from the region representing independent NGOs and movements as well as national ombudspersons' offices to exchange experiences and best-practice on monitoring prisons and other detention facilities in the aim of improving conditions and preventing torture or other ill-treatment. Part of the forum's activities is to visit prisons across the region. Since its inception in June 2012, the group visited prisons in Jordan, Lebanon, Morocco and Tunisia. For the most part, the group was able to have unfettered access to the visited prisons, conduct interviews with prisoners of their choice in private, look through the prison registries, and meet with prison directors, doctors and other staff to ask questions and raise concerns. Granted this methodology, needless to say Egyptian prisons are not likely to be on the Regional Forum's agenda anytime soon.

Successive Egyptian governments have been resisting unannounced routine visits to prisons and other detention facilities by impartial and independent observers. We can outline the obvious reasons for reversing this policy rooted in Egypt's constitutional guarantees to respect human dignity and prevent torture, as well as its obligations under international human rights law. However, a more useful exercise would be to try to deconstruct the possible grounds for the persistent denial of access from the state's perspective in an attempt to reveal its flawed logic.

An argument for the continual denial of access- frequently put forth by the Egyptian government, including during the 2010 discussion of its human rights record in the framework of the Universal Periodic Review of the Human Rights Council - is that Egyptian legislation limits the right to visit detention centres to public prosecutors. Ignoring the fact that prosecutors seldom exercise that right, the argument appears to be more of an excuse – rather than the real reason– reflecting the lack of political will. After all, exceptions have been made. For instance, EU's Catherine Ashton visited deposed president Mohamed Morsy in prison in July 2013 and the National Council for Human Rights conducted a number of pre-arranged prison visits in recent months. Our Lebanese colleagues also told us that their legislation similarly limits visits to public prosecutors, but that has not stopped the Lebanese government from allowing a range of NGOs to visit and even establish offices inside prisons. The Lebanese government and others in the region circumvent the absence of legal instruments explicitly stipulating for independent monitoring by entering into memorandums of understanding with the visiting bodies.

A possible explanation for keeping prison gates firmly shut would be that the government is refusing scrutiny because it clearly has something to hide. This, however, does not explain why the Egyptian government has yet to grant access to the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) despite its confidential approach meaning that it submits its reports directly to the government, rather than making them public.

Other governments in the region with less than stellar human rights records have allowed for some form of independent monitoring, including Libya , Jordan, Iraq, Lebanon, Yemen, Morocco and Palestine. Most prisons and other detention facilities in these countries including those visited by our regional forum fall short of international standards for the treatment of prisoners. For instance, all the Lebanese prisons for men we visited in late April were severely overcrowded and unhygienic - in some cases the conditions in themselves amounted to torture or other ill-treatment . Other concerns included substandard health services, lack of recreational activities or meaningful work, and the imposition of cruel punishments including prolonged solitary confinement in places unfit for humans. In general, the places were ripe with discrimination between detainees based on economic status and nationality. Those with means could secure better treatment, conditions and privileges to the point of spending thousands of dollars to furnish a private room, while vulnerable and poor prisoners suffered the most. After all prisons are a microcosm of society at large. All these concerns sound very similar to those familiar with Egyptian prisons. So why are the Lebanese and other governments in MENA willing to open their prison gates to independent monitors unlike their Egyptian counterparts? Do these governments care less about concealing human rights violations routinely taking place inside prisons?

One might argue that allowing regular monitoring of prisons actually improves a government's image. With allegations of torture or other ill-treatment in Egyptian prisons reverberating publicly in Egypt and internationally, granting access to independent monitors can deflect criticism particularly at a time when Egypt frequently makes international headlines for cracking down on dissent, jailing journalists, banning protests, and sentencing hundreds of people to death in mass mockery trials. The benefit of demonstrating its self-declared commitment to respecting the human rights of prisoners, as highlighted on the website of the Prison Authority of the Ministry of Interior, might outweigh the costs of any damning reports following independent prison visits. Even without access to prisons, there is no shortage of public information on the abysmal state of detention conditions in Egyptian prisons, whether by independent NGOs, former detainees, lawyers and families of those incarcerated.

Short visits to prisons in Lebanon also showed us how a government can benefit from the presence of independent groups and charitable organizations inside detention facilities. In Lebanon, in many ways, such bodies fill the gap left by the state. Some NGOs have established permanent offices inside places of detention. They provide basic supplies and services ranging from hygienic items to psychological care and rehabilitation. From the government's perspective, they alleviate some of the costs and burden of running a prison. Without arguing that the Egyptian government should delegate its responsibility to provide for the basic needs of individuals it incarcerates, there are clear potential material benefits from the government's perspective in widening access to prisons.

Part of the Egyptian government's continual refusal to allow for independent monitoring of prisons might go back to its mistrust of non-governmental organizations coupled with the absence of real pressure to reverse its policies. Improving the conditions and treatment of prisoners has never been a priority of the Egyptian penitentiary system, which views imprisonment solely as a punishment, rather than an opportunity for rehabilitation and future reintegration into society. Luckily, the state is not monolithic and our task , as civil society, is to identify those within the government willing to start a meaningful discussion on prison access for independent groups and lobby for that to become a reality. Needless to say, access to prisons alone is not a magic bullet for preventing torture. It's a first step that needs to be accompanied by amendments to legislation properly defining torture, an end to impunity for perpetrators, and an overhaul of Egypt's flawed criminal justice system.

As we were concluding our visit to a Lebanese prison in late April, an Egyptian detainee asked : “ Do you also visit prisons in Egypt? How is the situation there compared to here?”. One day, we hope to be able to respond in the affirmative. In the meantime, we cannot make a proper assessment and comparison without having the same kind of access we enjoyed in Lebanon to all dormitories, the infirmary, the solitary confinement space, the kitchen, the toilets and the ability to speak to detainees in private. For now, Lebanon compares favorably by the sheer fact that the visit took place.