Twenty-five-year-old Ahmed Amin al-Ghazaly’s family received an anonymous phone call from a woman on May 28, 2015 telling them the owner of the phone, their youngest son, had been taken from a microbus.
The following day, security forces took him to his family house and searched it. Then he disappeared for two months, and only reappeared in a video produced by the moral affairs department of the Armed Forces, in which he and a number of others confessed to being members of a terrorist cell and conducting special operations.
After watching the video, Ammar, Ahmed’s older brother, went to the military prosecution, where he was told his brother was implicated in a military case. The family was prevented from entering the prosecutor’s office and later from attending court sessions. Ahmed was sentenced to death.
He spent three months in solitary confinement at Tora high security prison, also known as the “scorpion prison,” before being transferred to a regular cell after being sentenced to death. His family only visited him twice during this period.
“I would go at the time of the weekly visit carrying a permit, but the officers would send us back and prevent us from visiting,” Ammar says. “Once they allowed us to visit, my mother and I, for a minute and a half.”
The longest visit Ammar had with Ahmed was five minutes. “It doesn’t allow us to talk about any details. We just make sure he’s alright and ask him if he needs anything,” he says.
Article 71 of Egypt’s prison regulations stipulates prison visits of at least an hour, which can be extended at the discretion of the prison warden.
Prison visits are not regular, and are completely banned during holidays, Ammar says. “They can be prohibited for two weeks or a month. They should be weekly, but after he [Ahmed] received the death penalty, they are every two weeks,” he adds, explaining that they never know if a visit will be permitted or not until they arrive at the prison.
Article 60 of the prison regulations states that all inmates — those who have been sentenced by a court and those in pretrial detention — have the right to send and receive messages and are entitled to a family visit once a week, unless the prosecution or a judge orders otherwise.
The entire process of attempting to visit family members is extremely difficult, Ammar explains. “We go at 2 am. Only 40 people will be allowed in. Anybody who comes late will not be allowed. We enter the prison between 6 and 7 am, wait in the yard until 8.30 or 9 am, then enter the prison and wait in another area until noon or 2 pm for the visit. We wait for about 12 hours to see him for a minute or five. When my mother’s health allows it, she comes with me. But she has joint problems and I bring a chair along so she can sit through the waiting period.”
Seham Hassan from Beni Suef tells a similar story: “I move at 7 am, get there at 11 am, start the visit at 1 pm and return home at 6 pm. I get body searched, and because I cover my face, it is more thorough. I have to take off my shoes and socks. But I forget about the exhaustion and the cost to make sure she is alright,” Hassan says of visiting her 22-year-old daughter Esraa Khaled, who is being held between Minya and Qanater prisons and is awaiting military trial for inciting against the police. Hassan’s husband, who had Hepatitis C, died in prison shortly after their daughter was detained. He was accused of belonging to an outlawed Islamist organization.
Visits to Tora high security prison are mostly conducted through a glass barrier with communication through headphones.
On the second day of Ramadan, Ammar, his mother and his sister — who came from Kuwait, where she’s been living for three years — visited Ahmed.
“There is an iron gate that separates us from Ahmed,” Ammar says. “Sometimes they allow us to shake hands. We stood in front of the gate and requested that his sister shake hands with him, because she came from far away. The guard lost his temper and swore at us. He began calling his colleagues. Officers came from all directions and drove us out, threatening to harm him. ‘You will not visit again’, they told us.”
This changed on a visit two weeks later. After Ammar contacted a number of human rights activists and journalists, who published about the incident, the family was permitted to shake hands with Ahmed.
Activist and researcher Asmaa Aly, wife of human rights lawyer Malek Adly, was allowed to visit her husband for the first time in two weeks after he was detained on May 5 for “disseminating false rumors” in relation to the maritime agreement between the Egyptian state and Saudi Arabia over Tiran and Sanafir islands.
Aly and her two-and-a-half-year-old daughter Baheya were permitted a weekly visit for approximately one hour.
Aly tried to make the long wait in the sun at Tora Mazraa Prison more bearable for her daughter, buying her a new dress before each visit to encourage her, as though the trip were a picnic. Baheya didn’t understand the reactions she got from security guards when she tried to play with them, neither did she understand why they would leave without her father. Aly would distract her daughter at the end of the visit with a trip to the park, or a visit to her grandma, or she would tell her Adly had to go to work.
“There is always a police sergeant there who writes what happens during the visit. If we lower our voices, he demands that we speak louder. If Malek speaks fast, he tells him, ‘Speak slowly Mr. Malek, so that I can write what you say’,” Aly says.
The rituals around prison visits are not new for Asmaa Aly. She was detained at Qanater Prison herself for a month in 2006, also for political reasons. She also volunteered for a detainee support group before this, which made her aware of the complications associated with visitations.
“Metal items are not allowed, nor is glass. Clothes must be white and bought from certain places. Things have to be put in plastic boxes. It was helpful that I knew what the first visit bag should contain: sulfur soap for scabies and skin problems, repellent cream for insect bites,” Aly says.
Still, with every visit she faces new complications. “Malek wanted a mirror,” Aly recounts. “I was arguing with the officers for a month to allow it in. First they told me it was too big, so I got a small one. Then they told me it has to be plastic. Such details drain my energy. Every time there is an argument for me to bring him what he needs. First I argue with the sergeant, then he tells me to go to the investigations officer, who tells me to go to the warden. I carry the prison bylaws in my bag all the time, but they tell me these are high level orders.”
Article 15 of prison regulations, amended in November 1999, states that convicted prisoners and those in pretrial detention can purchase, at their own cost, whatever books, magazines and newspapers are permitted by the prison to read during their spare time. Article 16 also grants prisoners in pretrial detention the right to purchase food either from outside or inside the prison at a specified cost.
Ammar says they are allowed to leave Ahmed 100 grams of meat and a box of rice, with very few exceptions in Ramadan. Medicines and clothes are not permitted, even if they fulfill prison criteria. Sometimes things not allowed in, like books and medicine, “disappear,” he explains.
“When I ask where things are, they tell me ‘we don’t know.’ A radio, for example, was not allowed. I asked for it and they told me ‘we don’t know’,” Asmaa Aly says.
“I spend two days preparing for the visit. I buy things and make a lot of food. I buy medicines, sweets, fruit, clothes and cheese. Some things are not allowed and others are. They would tell me, ‘we have put the items that are not allowed outside.’ When I go out, they are gone. I buy water and the police sergeant opens and drinks it,” says Seham Hassan from Beni Suef.
“Each prison is left to the whims of its warden. They abuse the fact that the families do not know [their rights],” says lawyer Sameh Samir. “If prisons had humane conditions, providing food, clothes, keeping prisoners in locations close to their families; if families did not have to bribe security to get humane treatment, things would be a lot easier for families,” he adds.
“Sadness is a luxury I cannot afford,” Asmaa Aly said shortly before her husband Malek Adly was released on August 23.
“I live in a cycle, doing things over and over, which drains my energy. I have no time to be upset. Only a little before I sleep at night in the air conditioning. I think of how it is available for me but not for Malek. I think about my helplessness in making things better for him.”
Ammar was planning to live and work in Brazil. “Since Ahmed was kidnapped I have stayed in Egypt,” he says. “Now, I am unable to do anything.” He hopes for Ahmed to be released so they can both leave.
“Prison is a punishment for all, including family and lawyers, and it is intended to be so,” says Mohamed Eissa, a lawyer at the Egyptian Center for Economic and Social Rights.