A source in the public prosecutor’s office told Mada Masr that the head of the National Council for Human Rights (NCHR) Mohamed Fayek presented findings by a delegation of the council on allegations of violations against political prisoners to the Prosecutor General’s office, and that the top prosecutor had subsequently ordered an investigation.
The NCHR said in a statement Monday night that the Abu Zaabal Prison administration had violated prison bylaws by mistreating political prisoners.
The NCHR findings came after a visit to the prison upon the request of journalist Ahmed Gamal Zeyada, who is imprisoned pending investigation on charges of violence. Zeyada and other inmates complained in a letter last week of torture and maltreatment by prison authorities.
In addition to Zeyada, the delegation met with prisoners Amer Ali Gomaa, Abdel Rahman Tarek Abdel Samea, and Ahmed Mahrous Rostom.
“All the political prisoners were tortured and the cells were raided by masked central security forces, causing chaos,” the letter read. “We were attacked with batons and dogs, which led to several injuries; others passed out due to tear gas.”
The council stated that prison bylaws were not implemented, as inmates were not let out during the day, and were subjected to inhumane punitive measures. These measures included confining them in very small prison cells, not allowing them to go to bathrooms and providing only one meal per day. According to testimonies, inmates were forced to stay in these prison cells for long periods, ranging from one week to 16 days.
In a visit that lasted for an hour and a half, the NCHR said that the council’s delegation was allowed to meet only four inmates who were allegedly subjected to torture.
The NCHR also confirmed that they examined the inmates and found signs of torture on one of the prisoners the delegation met. The NCHR report also stated that the prisoners were afraid to voice their concerns to the delegation due to alleged threats they received from prison authorities.
The delegation also revealed that the prisoners had been subject to long periods of detention without trial, pending investigation. The NCHR called for the respect of prison bylaws, and for the review of laws that allow extending prison sentences in cases pending investigation, and for the formation of independent committees to investigate violations in Abu Zaabal Prison.
NCHR member Salah Salem said in a televised interview to the privately owned CBC Extra channel: “I was not happy at all with this visit.”
According to Salem, the delegation asked prison authorities to meet 12 inmates who complained of violations, but the delegation was only allowed to meet four. “The four inmates we met said that the remaining inmates were badly tortured and were transferred to another prison facility. When we asked prison authorities for confirmation, authorities said that the prisoners were transferred to another prison and they cannot locate which prison because the network is down,” Salem added.
Salem explained that extended prison sentences pending investigation are a form of punishment for inmates. He added, “These prisoners are young and most of them are university students. What if they are later acquitted? Who will compensate them?”
The NCHR is only permitted to visit prisoners after obtaining permission from the Prosecutor General and prison authorities, and its recommendations are not legally binding. Advocates for NCHR independence called for enabling its members to visit prisons without prior permission, and to make NCHR recommendations legally binding.
Commenting on violations of the security system in Egypt, founder of Al-Nadeem Center for the Rehabilitation of Torture Victims Aida Seif al-Dawla told Mada Masr that torture is a “state policy and police don’t deny it.”
“The Ministry of Interior wants to make a point that it is the highest authority in the state,” she added.
However, head of the human rights unit at the Interior Ministry Abu Bakr Abdel Karim denied in press reports all allegations of torture inside prisons. “[The prisoners] claim that they are tortured, none of them had a single bruise on their faces. Complaints are only coming from one or two people, not from 2,500 prisoners,” he asserted.
In a letter leaked by the Freedom for the Brave campaign following the visit, Zeyada slammed the Interior Ministry for complicity in hiding evidence of torture against him and the rest of the inmates.
“Why didn’t the Interior Ministry allow the NHCR delegation to visit the inmates right after the complaints? Why are they allowed to visit us two weeks after our complaints? Of course, to cook up the whole thing and let any signs of torture disappear,” he said, adding that prison authorities had forced younger inmates to sign statements without being made aware of the content of the documents.
The prison authorities, according to Zeyada, investigated the torture claims during the interrogation of inmates. “How can the criminals investigate the crime they commited?” he wondered.
Activist Ali Halaby, who is following up on the conditions of the detainees, told Mada Masr that prison authorities threatened prisoners who were subject to disciplinary measures, telling them that fabricated drug dealing cases would be raised against them if they spoke to council members. The inmates, however, still voiced their concerns to the council delegation.
The NCHR has previously complained that its members were not able to visit certain inmates, as the Interior Ministry declined to issue the necessary permissions. The council pledged earlier to provide proper medical care to imprisoned activist Ahmed Douma, to no avail.
On previous occasions, NCHR performance was slammed by families of detainees for not fulfilling its role in exposing rights violations inside prisons.
In a previous press conference, council member Kamal Abbas said that the council’s agency is limited. “The current law regulating the council stipulates that it obtains permits from the Prosecutor General for prison visits as well as from the Interior Ministry,” he said, “We rejected this law and called on the Prime Minister to amend it, to no avail.”