Why Egypt should open its prisons

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 across the region representing independent NGOs and movements, as well as the national offices of ombudspersons, to exchange experiences and best-practice on monitoring prisons and other detention facilities, with the aim of improving conditions and preventing torture and other ill-treatment.

The forum’s activities include visiting prisons across the region. Since its inception in June 2012, we have visited prisons in Jordan, Lebanon, Morocco and Tunisia. For the most part, we were able to gain unfettered access to these prisons, conduct interviews with prisoners of their choice in private, look through prison registries, and meet with prison directors, doctors and other staff to ask questions and raise concerns. Egyptian prisons are, however, not likely to be on the forum’s visitation agenda anytime soon.

Successive Egyptian governments have resisted unannounced visits to prisons and other detention facilities by impartial and independent observers. There are obvious reasons for the need to reverse 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, it is perhaps more useful for us to attempt 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 rights of public prosecutors to visit detention centers. Ignoring the fact that prosecutors seldom exercise this 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, the European Union’s Catherine Ashton visited deposed president Mohamed Morsi in prison in July 2013 and the National Council for Human Rights has 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 this 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 such legal stipulations through the granting of visitation rights to independent monitoring bodies by entering into memorandums of understanding with them.

A possible explanation for keeping Egypt’s prison gates firmly shut is 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, as it submits reports directly to governments 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 the 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, there was evidence of torture or other manifestations of ill treatment. Other concerns include 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 facilities we visited are ripe with discrimination between detainees based on economic status and nationality. Those with means are able to secure better treatment, conditions and privileges, to the point of spending thousands of dollars to furnish a private room, while vulnerable and poor prisoners suffer the most. After all, prisons are microcosms of society at large.

All these concerns sound very similar to those who know Egyptian prisons. So, why are the Lebanese and other governments in the region 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 the regular monitoring of prisons actually improves a government’s image. With allegations of torture or other ill-treatment in Egyptian prisons reverberating publicly within the country and internationally, granting access to independent monitors might deflect criticism, particularly at a time when Egypt is frequently making international headlines for cracking down on dissent, jailing journalists, banning protests, and sentencing hundreds of people to death in mass 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. After all, even without access to prisons, there is no shortage of public information on the abysmal conditions in Egyptian prisons, whether by independent NGOs, former detainees, lawyers, or families of those incarcerated.

Our short visits to prisons in Lebanon also revealed the ways in which 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 the individuals it incarcerates, there are clear potential material benefits from the government’s perspective to widening access to prisons.

Part of the Egyptian government’s continual refusal to allow for the 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 who are willing to start a meaningful discussion on prison access for independent groups and lobby for this 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 that properly define torture, end impunity for perpetrators, and overhaul Egypt’s flawed criminal justice system.

As our Lebanese prison visit was coming to a close 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 to this question. In the meantime, we cannot make a proper assessment and comparison without having the same kind of access we enjoyed in Lebanon to dormitories, the infirmary, solitary confinement spaces, the kitchen, the toilets, and without the ability to speak to detainees in private. For now, Lebanon compares favorably, by the sheer fact that the visit took place.

This article is published in collaboration with the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights (EIPR).

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Diana Eltahawy 
Hani Mostafa 
Taher Mokhtar 
Taher Mokhtar, Diana Eltahawy, Reda Marie, Hani Mostafa