After visiting the notorious maximum-security Aqrab Prison to investigate accusations of abuse, on Thursday the National Council for Human Rights (NCHR) claimed that such reports were exaggerated and that all the inmates were treated well.
Aqrab (Scorpion) is located in Cairo’s Tora Prison complex.
At least two leaders of prominent Islamist groups who were detained at Aqrab have died recently due to complications from pre-existing medical conditions.
Essam Derbala, the former leader of Jama’a al-Islamiya, passed away earlier this month in transit from the prison to a hospital. The Interior Ministry said that Derbala died of a sudden drop in blood pressure, but Jama’a al-Islamiya members hold the prison authorities responsible for his death. The group alleged that Derbala was denied urgently needed medical care for months, and that the authorities turned down repeated requests to hospitalize him, despite his worsening health.
In March, former Member of Parliament and Muslim Brotherhood leader Farid Ismail died of complications from liver disease days after being hospitalized. His family members have levied similar allegations of intentional medical neglect against the Aqrab Prison authorities.
The NCHR refuted these accusations in a statement issued Thursday, stating that prison records showed that all inmates were receiving the necessary medical tests and follow-up care.
Family members of Aqrab inmates have further claimed that they were being denied visitation rights. The NCHR also discredited those allegations, claiming that again, prison records showed that inmates were receiving regular visits.
These families, as well as defense lawyers representing Aqrab detainees, have been circulating accounts of abuse and mistreatment in the prison, which is known as one of the most notorious violators of human rights in Egypt’s penitentiary system.
Earlier this month, Islamist leader Essam Sultan’s family started a social media campaign exhorting followers to save him after his health drastically declined while detained at Aqrab.
Sultan’s wife said in a television appearance earlier this month that she wasn’t allowed to visit her husband for three months. After she was finally allowed to see him for five minutes, she found that he had lost at least 20 kg, she claimed. Sultan reportedly told her that the prisoners were starved during Ramadan, and that sewage water filled their cells.
His bed, mattress and chair were confiscated from his cell, she continued, adding that she has been trying to get a toothbrush to her husband for four months. She said that the prison authorities sometimes allow medicine to be brought in, and that in terms of food, they now only allow visitors to bring a small meal. For example, the fish that she recently brought for her husband was divided in half, and that half was the only food she was allowed to bring in the building, she claimed.
Echoing these allegations, Shaimaa al-Anadouli, the daughter of detainee Bahgat al-Anadouli, wrote a Facebook post recounting the difficulties she and her family have faced trying to bring her father basic necessities while in Aqrab.
Shaimaa wrote that the prison only allowed his family to bring in two of his medications, while refusing Anadouli his heart medicine and calcium supplements for his bones. Prison authorities also refused to allow them to deliver clothes or other basic goods. Visits are conducted behind glass, she continued, and last less than two minutes.
Aqrab’s inmates are living like cavemen, Shaimaa argued, with no access to plates, forks or hygienic tools.
Lawyer Halim Hanish said all the inmates at Aqrab looked malnourished in a description of a recent visit to the prison that he circulated last week. He accused security guards of splitting open and emptying out pill capsules that family members were bringing to the detainees, then passing the contaminated capsules on to the inmates. Hanish said he was allowed to meet with his client for only 10 minutes, in violation of the law, which allows detainees to meet with their lawyers for one hour at a time.
The NCHR, on the other hand, asserted in its report that beyond meeting the inmate’s basic needs, the authorities went so far as to provide ice blocks and water coolers for the detainees during the heat wave.
The council’s recommendations to the Interior Ministry focused on creating a shaded area for families lining up outside the prison for visits, better facilitating visitation and replacing worn-out beds and mattresses.
Several Muslim Brotherhood members currently at Aqrab, including Khairat al-Shater, refused to meet with NCHR representatives during the visit, claiming they did not recognize the council’s “legitimacy.”