Sayed Shehab, father of Moaz Shehab, is serving a life sentence in Al-Aqrab, part of the Tora Prison Complex. Moaz used to be angry that he hasn’t been able to see his father for six months. Now, he just hopes the family will be permitted to send warm clothes and medication to the 60-year-old university professor.
The families of hundreds of detainees at the maximum security Al-Aqrab Prison continue to complain about deteriorating conditions. Many families are not allowed to visit their imprisoned relatives. Those who manage to receive news of their loved ones say they lack access to food, clean water and medication. More recently, families have claimed detainees don’t have warm clothes to wear in the winter.
A testimony from an anonymous detainee, who struggled to share his story publicly, went viral on social media. He is being held in the Dawaey facility in Al-Aqrab Prison, where detainees went on hunger strike on Thursday in protest over what they say are inhumane conditions.
“We are living in dark cells, without food or medical care. Some detainees have one blanket, others don’t; some only have one pair of pajamas to wear, we don’t even wear slippers. Even our medication was taken from us. All of this is happening in the freezing cold,” the detainee recounts.
Prison authorities intervened to end the strike by beating the prisoners, with four being transferred to hospital as a result, prisoners claim. Interior Ministry officials weren’t available to comment on these claims.
Muslim Brotherhood detainees in Mansoura Prison also began a hunger strike in protest over lack of proper medical care. Their lawyers, according to a statement published by the privately owned Al-Masry Al-Youm newspaper, claimed three prisoners died in recent months due to deteriorating health conditions. The most recent case was Mohamed Waly, who passed away on Friday because he didn’t receive an urgent appendectomy. Lawyers say 25 prisoners are now facing a similar fate if not treated properly.
Anonymous security sources, however, denied these claims to Al-Masry Al-Youm.
These testimonies, among others, sparked mounting anger on social media, with thousands of users using the hashtag #ادخلوا_الشتوي_للعقرب (“let heavy clothes into Al-Aqrab prison”).
Shehab explained to Mada Masr that his father is among the defendants in the Wadi al-Natrun prison break case, in which former Muslim Brotherhood President Mohamed Morsi and other leaders were sentenced to death in June. “Before his conviction he was incarcerated in Tora and Al-Aqrab prisons. His condition was fine and we were able to visit him and give him all the supplies he needed. But we haven’t seen him since June 15 when he was convicted,” he explains.
“We stopped attempting to visit him two months ago, because we know we wouldn’t be allowed to see him. My mother is also too sick to stand [visiting] every week from 8 am to 4 pm to no avail,” Shehab adds.
The Freedom for the Brave campaign called on people to speak up about the conditions of Al-Aqrab prisoners, using #مقبرة_العقرب (“The Aqrab tomb”). But campaign founder Khaled Abdel Hamid told Mada Masr that the crisis needs more than a simple campaign.
“The conditions in Al-Aqrab Prison and other prisons are completely tragic. Prisoners are literally stripped of all the supplies they have, whether food, clothes or medication. Now their highest hope is to wear heavier clothes,” Abdel Hamid adds.
Abdel Hamid considers the deteriorating prison conditions a deliberate act of revenge by the state against political prisoners. “The state wants to deliberately humiliate political prisoners and break their will. The conditions go beyond simple deterioration in prison infrastructure,” he explains.
The official Facebook page of the Association of the Families of Al-Aqrab Prison Detainees published a number of testimonies that support criminal justice researcher and lawyer at the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights (EIPR) Reda Marie’s argument.
Student Ibrahim Azab was sentenced to death in two cases, and his family just wants to see him before his execution. “The prison cell is painted in black without windows and the floor is just sand. The distance between the cells is huge, so he cannot speak with other detainees,” according to the statement.
Most of those imprisoned in Al-Aqrab are affiliated with the outlawed Muslim Brotherhood group, with former regime officials incarcerated in Tora Complex Prison, which is a “five star prison,” according to Marie. “It shows, of course, that there is a desire to humiliate prisoners with certain affiliations,” he adds.
But criminals with no political affiliations also face similar conditions. Only those with a certain amount of privilege or wealth have decent conditions in prison,” Marie asserts.
Marie believes the problem runs deeper than the state’s attempt to humiliate political prisoners. He explained to Mada Masr that there is a major issue with the state’s concept of punishment.
“Ideally, prisons are a place where a criminal’s freedom of movement is limited. It is also a place where they are prepared to be reintegrated into society after serving their sentences. The design and shape of Al- Aqrab Prison shows that the state’s understanding of prisoner punishment goes beyond that. According to the state, the prisoner should be harmed physically and psychologically,” he explains.
The design of the prison, where the walls are black, with no proper ventilation, light, or any access to basic needs, reflects a certain philosophy, Marie asserts, that dangerous prisoners should be subjected to the highest form of punishment possible.