Rights workers criticize a statement by the National Council for Human Rights (NCHR) asserting that all complaints by detainees in maximum-security Al-Aqrab prison concerning access to food and medical care are being dealt with.
The council released a statement on Wednesday following an official visit to the prison by some of its members on Tuesday.
The statement referred to complaints about lack of access to food, medication, warm clothes, books and blankets, as well as adequate medical care, but omitted prisoners’ allegations of torture and sexual assault.
The only issue not being addressed, according to the council, relates to short visitation periods for families, despite prison regulations stipulating an hour a week. Prison authorities explained this is due to the high numbers of visitation requests they have received.
Authorities asserted that due to lack of refrigeration facilities, they are only able to receive food for one day per prisoner. In early October, families were permitted to give detainees three blankets and warm clothes annually, according to the NCHR report, which explained that due to exceptionally cold weather, authorities allowed two extra blankets this year, as well as beds and mattresses.
Authorities are also committed to allowing access to books for students taking examinations, the NCHR reported, adding that prisoners in critical condition are transferred to Manial University Hospital or Tora Prison Hospital.
Council member Salah Sallam requested to check medical conditions of five prisoners, but authorities said inmates refused to meet with him. When Sallam asked to meet them in his capacity as a doctor and member of the Doctors Syndicate, the authorities said his request violated prison bylaws. They also said prisoners had refused to permit council members access to their cells.
The statement mentioned that four prisoners met with the delegation: Hassan al-Qabbany, Ibrahim Ouf, Essam Sultan and Safwat Hegazy, but didn’t detail the outcome of the conversation.
The delegation also met with two families who referred to the short visits and a student detainee not being allowed access to textbooks.
“The council recommended the importance of adhering to prison bylaws regarding specified periods of visitation. The council also appreciates the cooperation of the [Interior Ministry’s] human rights department and the Prison Authority in addressing earlier recommendations by the council,” the NCHR statement read, referring to requests for beds, mattresses, blankets and medication.
Moaz Shehab, son of university professor Sayed Shehab, who is serving a life sentence in prison, criticized the NCHR’s statement, saying accommodations made by authorities are not sustainable and were only made in light of the council’s visit.
Shehab claimed many of the improvements listed in the statement didn’t happen. For example, prison authorities refused to pass on warm clothes to his father after family members visited last week, he said, adding that his current clothes don’t fit adequately.
“Even the food allowed inside is not enough for a bird, and of course is not enough for one meal, let alone one day. Prison administrators take two spoons of rice, one spoon of vegetables and a piece of meat in a plastic case and write the name of the prisoner on it. The meal becomes something that cannot be given to a human, even the one hour of walking for prisoners is not permissible,” Shehab explained.
He added that the only real improvement relates to allowing family visitations for the first time in six months, and access to blankets, but maintains, “This only happened when activists started talking about the prison’s deteriorating conditions. Another family saw last week a number of trucks unpacking a huge load of food supplies for the first time in months. Even blankets were allowed inside the prison in mid-December when the campaign against the prison started, not in October as the statement said,” Shehab claimed.
While he hopes these reforms last, Shehab suggests they’re related to mounting criticism against police. “A similar campaign was launched last year and the conditions really improved, only to worsen again when the media and rights pressure lessened.”
The council’s visit to Al-Aqrab Prison on Tuesday was surrounded by controversy as council member and renowned human rights lawyer Ragia Omran was denied entry to the prison, allegedly for not having her name included on the list of council members who were to attend. Omran told Mada Masr on Tuesday that she submitted a list of complaints from family members concerning torture and sexual assault, specifically relating to prisoner Mohamed Hassan Soliman.
Other complaints, according to Omran, were related to two prisoners losing their sight allegedly due to medical negligence, as well as other complaints by prisoners expecting death sentences to be implemented. Another complaint concerned the reported beating of a prisoner with polio, who was falsely accused of attacking police personnel.
In an interview with Omran on Wednesday, she described the NCHR’s visit as “weak,” asserting that the delegation had a written stronger statement on Tuesday that was replaced on Wednesday with an edited version.
A source from the council told Mada Masr on Tuesday that a council researcher refused to publish the statement and gave it to council head Mohamed Faek to review. Omran explained on Wednesday that the original statement heavily condemned the authorities rejection to let her inside the prison. She also added that the current statement included two “complete lies.”
“It is not true that prisoners rejected medical examination by Salah Sallam, it is the prison authority that rejected his request. It is also not true that prisoners rejected meeting the delegation in their prison cells. The lawyer representing prisoner Khaled Sahloub said his client did not reject meeting the delegation,” she clarified.
In reference to complaints that prisoners cannot access the bylaws, authorities claimed a copy was in the prison library, but “when a council member went to the library, it was not found,” Omran asserted.