Aqrab Prison: a prison for collective punishment Violation of visitation rights threatens prisoners’ safety
The Aqrab Prison has become the site of systematic violations that make it the worst prison in Egypt. Violations include medical neglect, excessive disciplinary penalties such as long-term solitary confinement, and the denial of family visits. Since family visits are often the only way for prisoners to obtain medication, winter clothing for the biting cold, adequate food, and other necessities, visitation bans lead to a number of other violations.
Despite the fact that prison regulations clearly provide for the right to weekly one-hour visits for those held in pretrial detention and bimonthly visits for convicted prisoners, the Aqrab Prison administration disregards this right, arbitrarily prohibiting visits whenever it wishes. The prison administration, which is subordinate to the Interior Ministry, denied visits altogether for two months from March to May 2015. It then allowed visits for three weeks before again banning them for two months, from June 2015 to the first week of August. Visitation was suspended until September 3, before resuming on November 5. In January 2016, visits were again prohibited; they allowed once more in February to mark the occasion of Mubarak’s ouster. In short, last year, visitation rights were denied for a period of at least 15 weeks. In mid-February 2016, a group of prisoners staged a hunger strike, demanding their rights under Egyptian law, family visitation, and improved living conditions.
Aqrab Prison has become notorious due to ongoing violations of the right of visitation and prisoners’ harsh life in the facility. Medical neglect and the prison’s refusal to treat prisoners or allow the entry of medicines are also common and led to the death of at least five prisoners last year: Farid Ismail, in May 2015; Nabil al-Maghrabi in June 2015, Essam Darbala, in August 2015; Morgan Salem, in August 2015, and Emad Hassan, in September 2015.
“Since its establishment, the Aqrab Prison has been any prisoner’s worst nightmare given the ill treatment and conditions of confinement,” said the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights. “But today the systematic denial of prisoners’ basic rights and prison authorities’ refusal to protect their lives shows that there is a deliberate punitive policy that aims to break prisoners rather than rehabilitate them.”
Articles 55 and 56 of the Egyptian constitution state that the objective of the Egyptian prison system is correction and rehabilitation, not prisoners’ degradation. Article 56 states that prisons are places of correction and rehabilitation and that all prisons and detention facilities are subject to judicial oversight. It prohibits actions inimical to human dignity or practices that endanger prisoners’ health. Egyptian law provides for the correction and rehabilitation of convicted prisoners and the facilitation of a dignified life after their release.
In an interview with TV host Sherif Amer shortly after January 2011, Maj. Gen. Ibrahim Abd al-Ghaffar, the former warden of Aqrab Prison, said it was a prison where “those who go in, don’t come out again,” where “neither sun nor air enter, with air barely enough to breathe.” Aqrab Prison was therefore designed not to hold prisoners, but to kill them.
Tora Prison 992, known as Aqrab, has been notorious since its establishment in 1993 (construction started in 1991). It is the most prominent maximum-security facility in Egypt, used as a site to hold political prisoners and prisoners connected to political violence. According to a report by al-Masry al-Youm, it comprises 320 cells divided into four cellblocks, each designed in the shape of an H. Each block holds 80 cells measuring 5.2 by 3 meters, with a height of 3 meters. Each cell has window measuring 90 by 80 cm, set off the ground by 2.5 meters and looking out over a hallway with an iron ceiling. The cell doors are 2 meters high with an opening of 20 by 15 cm. The cells receive no direct sunlight.
EIPR interviewed 11 family members of prisoners detained at Aqrab about the conditions in which their relatives are being held, families’ ability to bring in food and clothing to their relatives in light of deteriorating conditions in the facility, and their ability to bring in medication required by prisoners which is not available at the prison pharmacy. Visits by family are also one of the few means by which prisoners can make complaints of ill treatment known to the outside world.
Although Article 38 of the prisons law states that convicted prisoners are entitled to twice monthly visits by their relatives, in reality the prison administration bars visits at will. The Interior Ministry and the Prisons Authority also have the right to wholly or partially ban visits for particular prisoners for reasons of security or health. This right is often exercised arbitrarily since the law does not specify the grounds for such prohibitions, using only the overly broad terms ‘health’ and ‘security.’
Article 60 of the prison regulations gives prisoners sentenced to no more than three months and persons in pretrial detention the right to weekly family visit. Only the prosecution or the investigating judge may ban visits to those in pretrial detention. The article was amended by Interior Ministry Decree 3320/2014 to set the duration of special and ordinary visits as 60 minutes.
Article 58 of the UN Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners guarantees prisoners’ right of contact with their families through correspondence and visits. Principle 15 of the UN Body of Principles for the Protection of All Persons under Any Form of Detention or Imprisonment states, “…communication of the detained or imprisoned person with the outside world, and in particular his family or counsel, shall not be denied for more than a matter of days.”
During family visits to the Aqrab Prison, the prisoner and the visitor are separated by a glass barrier and communicate through telephones on either side of the barrier. Although there is no statute explicitly prohibiting this form of visitation, not permitting direct physical contact between prisoners and their families undermines the purpose of these visits, which is to allow prisoners to maintain relationships with their families. Prisoners will return to their lives outside prison after serving their sentence, and thus the differences between life inside and outside prison must be minimized as much as possible to facilitate prisoners’ reintegration into society after their release. Article 51 of the second year activity report for the European Committee for the Prevention of Torture stated that no restrictions should be placed on a prisoner’s contact with family, friends, and the outside world except those based on “security concerns of an appreciable nature or resource considerations.”
The testimonies collected by the EIPR all indicate that when visits were permitted, the prison administration set up numerous obstacles. The mother of one prisoner, L. said that a proper visit was virtually impossible. When visitation resumed in February, visitors had to register three days before the visit, and most families were forced to spend the night in front of the prison. “People sit around for 14 hours in front of the prison for a visit that lasts exactly two minutes,” L. said. “They let in people who’ve spent the night in front of the prison. I went at 6 am to visit and they refused to let me in.” N., the daughter of a prisoner, describes how difficult visits are, saying they must go at night and spend the night in front of Aqrab or, if the prison administration prevents them staying outside, nearby on the Ring Road: “the last visit, I went at 11 pm and we only got to see my father at 4:30 pm the next day and then only for ten minutes.”
L. described the change in the conditions and duration of visits: “The first visit was good. I sat with him for an hour. I brought him food and drink. When things were really bad, the visit was a half hour. But things changed after March 2015, when visits were denied until May. After that visits would be prohibited for almost 60 days, and if you were allowed to visit, it would be for 5 or 10 minutes at best, where it was a half hour or hour before March.” S. confirmed this pattern in her testimony to the EIPR.
L. believes that visits are suspended and then permitted again for short periods because of pressure. The media then comes and reports that visits were allowed, and then they are prohibited again.
Food, water, clothing
According to testimonies from prisoners’ families, they follow a system whereby the family of each prisoner in a cell prepares a meal to feed all the prisoners in that cell, ensuring that prisoners always have enough to eat. When visits are prohibited, it means that prisoners have no access to food except the prison food, which everyone said was of poor quality and meager quantity, or by purchasing food at the canteen.
“The food is really bad,” L. said. “In Ramadan, they brought in the meal to break and start the fast in the afternoon, so the food would go bad. On the first day of the feast, they gave them one egg as breakfast.” L. described this conduct as abuse of her son and his cellmates: “They want to starve and kill them.” L.’s son has no complaints of illness, but he does complain of the lack of food and the high price of food at the canteen. “A thing that costs LE3 [outside], costs LE12 on the inside. A half a chicken is LE40,” she says. N., the daughter of a prisoner, describes her father’s health condition after visits were suspended for two months from September to November: “Dad had lost so much weight. He’s in his 40s but he looked like a man in his 60s.”
When visits were resumed, the prison administration set numerous restrictions on the entry of food. “The food we can bring in is about two spoonfuls of rice and a very small piece of meat. We aren’t allowed to bring in potatoes. And it’s all thrown in a plastic bag so it turns to mush,” says N. “Even cats refuse to eat it when it comes out of the bag.” F., the wife of a prisoner, agrees. She says that the prison administration only allows the entry what it calls “a one-person meal,” made up of “two spoonfuls of rice and a very small piece of meat that’s not enough for a child.” F. also considers putting the food in a plastic bag to be an affront to prisoners’ dignity: “The bag goes in with the food inside in the most insulting way, and if there’s medicine, it’s put in the bag with the food.” L. says, “The goal is to humiliate us.”
Prisoners’ families must also deal with the prison administration’s bans on certain types of food. S. says that the food she sends is usually denied entry. “The visits are utter torment,” she says. “They’ve started to say no about everything. The food they let it isn’t enough for an animal.” N. says, “If they approve the entry of fruit, it’s usually just a few pieces—an apple or an orange, and the rest is sent back.”
Visits are also an occasion to supply prisoners with clothing, particularly important in the winter months. Prior to March 2015, families were permitted to bring in clothes to their imprisoned relatives, but when Magdi Abd al-Ghaffar became interior minister, prisoners’ cells were stripped of all their belongings. N. says that visits were better before March 2015, when bringing in food, medicine, and personal hygiene items was easier: “Clothes and food used to get in, even slippers and underwear.” N. describes the first visit to her father in May, after visitation was resumed: “Dad was wearing a military uniform that was really long on him. His hair was huge. Other people’s uniforms were torn.”
L. talks about when the cells were stripped: “They came into the cells and took everything. My son was there a year without a change of underwear because they refused to let it in.” She tried to send in some clothing to her son, but it was denied entry and sent back. “Before winter 2015, we brought a track suit that met the specifications they want, but they refused to let it in.” L. says that an officer with the prison administration told her that prisoners could buy clothing inside, but, she says, “The prices of clothing inside the prison make no sense. A short-sleeve t-shirt is LE80.”
The prison administration would not allow prisoners to have blankets despite the cold weather in the winter, it was only after the National Council for Human Rights (NCHR) visited in January 2016, that blankets were distributed; and even then the administration still refused to let in clothing. “My husband has been in a year with one change of clothing,” says B. “They refused to let anything in, but after the pressure in February, we were able to bring in a set of winter clothes.”
Bringing in medicine is another difficulty. Often, certain types of medicines are prohibited. Or they may be sent to the prison pharmacy, but there is no guarantee they will reach the prisoner. S. tried to bring in some stomach medicine for her son, who complained of a stomach ache for a while. The prison administration took the medicine from her, but when she met her son, he said he had not received the drugs. “My son was fine,” S. says. “Now I go to see him and get depressed every time. He’s as yellow as a lemon and can’t stand up.”
A.’s family has also suffered from the visit ban and the prohibition on the entry of medicines. A. began to complain of a stomach ailment in January. His wife says, “We would bring medicine to make his stomach stronger, but when the visits were stopped, the medicine was prohibited too.” When visits were resumed, A. says her husband was very sick and looked weak: “We were prohibited from bringing in clothing or food. I saw him and he had lost so much weight, was very tired, and his beard was very long.” A. later died of colon cancer. EIPR has discussed his case in more detail in its report on medical neglect in prisons.
Food and Egyptian law
Visits are associated with the entry of food, water, and clothing to prisoners. The prisons law and its executive regulations set minimum standards for this, but the standards are not met. The prison regulations, which detail the broad provisions of the prison law, contain 36 articles (Articles 24–59) relating to the duties and responsibilities of the prison doctor. These duties include monitoring the fitness and sufficiency of prisoners’ food, clothing, and bedding, as well as the hygiene in the workshops, sleeping quarters, and all prison locations. Article 83 of the regulations provides for the right of prisoners in pretrial detention to basic cell furnishings, including a bed and winter blanket. Rule 22 [this article deals with medical care] of the Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners sets forth prisoners’ right to complete meals, while Rules 19 and 20 require the provision of beds, clean clothes, and nutritious food adequate for prisoners’ health and strength and well prepared and served. The rules also require the provision of potable water whenever prisoners need it.
It is not only the Standard Minimum Rule sand Egyptian laws and constitutional provisions that are disregarded in prisons. Numerous ministerial decrees addressing the treatment of prisoners are similarly ignored.
Interior Minister Decree 691/1998 on the treatment and living conditions of prisoners sets minimum standards for furnishings, clothing, and personal belongings, clothing for prisoners in the prison infirmary, clothing for female convicted prisoners and women detained in pretrial detention, and sums spent for sick female prisoners. It also sets requirements for clothing for infants. It requires a minimum of three meals for prisoners—breakfast, lunch, and dinner—and sets minimum standards for food for prisoners suffering from heart disease, arteriosclerosis, and high blood pressure, as well as for infants ages six months to one year.
Treatment of prisoners’ families during the search procedure
The Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners states that visitors are subject to search on entry. They may withdraw their consent to be searched at any time, and the prison administration may in turn deny them entry. But the rule states that under no circumstances may the search procedures be degrading to visitors.
In fact, the Aqrab Prison has become a place to punish prisoners and their visitors as well. Family members interviewed by EIPR consistently described the humiliation of visitors during the search and while in the prison and how exhausting it was. “They really harass us during the search,” said N. “The last time, I asked the officer, I said, please. He yelled at me, ‘Shut up, stand next to the wall!’” N. also said she had also seen police officers physically assault prisoners’ families who objected to the treatment. “When the visits have been suspended for a while, there are a lot of people when they start again,” N. said. “Once a girl yelled at them, and the officer hit her and her sister.” L. also said she is humiliated during the search: “The search is all about torment and rudeness, it’s almost harassment.” F. says she also feels degraded by the search: “If they let us visit, the search is utterly humiliating.” T., the sister of another prisoner, agrees, seeing the search as a long, humiliating process: “The search is as offensive as possible.”
Families are mistreated during the visit as well. N. says her younger sister asked the officer on duty during the visit for permission to hug her father. He immediately informed her that the visit was over: “He slammed the door in our face, told us the visit was over, and cut off the conversation.”