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‘A Slow Death’: Egypt’s Political Prisoners Recount Horrific Conditions

CAIRO —Every time he appeared before Egyptian prosecutors during his 21 months in detention, Ahmed Abdelnabi, a 61-year-old print shop owner from Alexandria, had a more disturbing story to tell.

For the first three weeks, he had been locked in a narrow, filthy cell with no light, he told his lawyer and his family, leaving only for interrogations during which he was tortured with electric shocks, beaten and threatened with the rape of his wife.

Denied medication for his diabetes, heart conditions, hepatitis C and high blood pressure despite repeated requests, he kept fainting. For the first 40 days, he and his cellmate got no food, surviving on scraps of bread the prisoner next door passed through a hole.

“He’d say, ‘I’m dying a slow death,’” said Mr. Abdelnabi’s lawyer, Shorok Sallam. “‘I’m going to die. I might not make it to next time. I’m being tortured. I’m being denied medication. I’m being denied food.’ These are things he said a million times.”

Arrested in a yearslong campaign to extinguish opposition to the government, Mr. Abdelnabi was one of thousands of political prisoners held without trial for weeks, months or years for offenses as minor as liking an antigovernment Facebook post.

Many detainees are locked for long stretches in cells that lack bedding, windows or toilets and are denied warm clothes in winter, fresh air in summer and medical treatment, no matter how sick, according to former detainees, their families and lawyers, and rights groups. Torture is commonplace, they say. Visits are routinely prohibited. And some never leave.

Police and security vehicles outside Cairo’s notorious Tora Prison, where Mr. Abdelnabi was incarcerated.Credit…Amr Abdallah Dalsh/Reuters

Such conditions are widespread, according to former inmates, lawyers and rights groups. Several former detainees and their families said their experiences were not as severe, but they, as well as rights groups and lawyers, said they were the exceptions.

More than a thousand people have died in Egyptian custody since the authoritarian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi came to power in a 2013 military takeover, owing to treatment that rights groups say amounts to deadly negligence.

It is all part of a justice system that has helped Mr. el-Sisi cow dissent, deterring those who might be tempted by opposition politics. Rights groups estimate Egypt now holds some 60,000 political prisoners. That amounts to about half of the total jail population, which a government official put at about 120,000 in October.

Some have been tried and sentenced. But Mr. el-Sisi’s government has stuffed the jails with critics chiefly through a system of pretrial detentions that imprison people indefinitely without trial.

No public records exist of the number of prisoners stuck in the pretrial detention system. But an analysis by The New York Times found that at least 4,500 were detained without trial in one six-month period — many in abject, occasionally life-threatening, conditions.

The prisons cannot keep up.

Egypt has built 60 detention centers over the last 11 years, almost all of them under Mr. el-Sisi, according to Egyptian reports and the Cairo-based Arabic Network for Human Rights Information, which shuttered this year after relentless government harassment. As of 2021, the country had 78 prisons, the group said.

This spring, Egypt’s best-known prisoner of conscience, the British-Egyptian political activist and intellectual Alaa Abd El Fattah, went on a hunger strike in a small cell without a bed or mattress. For months, his family said, he had been denied books, newspapers, a radio, hot water and exercise in the prison yard, though the authorities have softened some restrictions amid international pressure for his release.

The political activist Alaa Abd El Fattah, at his home in Cairo in 2019, is Egypt’s best-known prisoner of conscience.Credit…Khaled Desouki/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

For a time, Mr. Abd El Fattah shared a prison complex with a former presidential candidate, 71-year-old Abdel Moneim Aboul Fotouh, who suffers from conditions the United Nations has called life-threatening, including angina, prostate disease and kidney stones. He has received almost no medical attention apart from basic tests, the U.N. said.

But the authorities do not reserve such treatment only for prominent prisoners.

His Crime? Protesting

Ahmed Abdelnabi and his wife, Raia Hassan, boarded a flight from Cairo to Istanbul in December 2018. Their daughter, Nosayba Mahmoud, said they were planning to stop in Turkey on their way to visit her in Dallas.

But in Istanbul, they never got off the plane.

Three frantic weeks later, the family heard that a defense lawyer had spotted the couple at an Egyptian prosecutor’s office. Security officers had arrested them before takeoff.

When Ms. Sallam, Mr. Abdelnabi’s lawyer, got to see him, she reported that he had trouble moving the left side of his body, which was covered in red, raised burns from repeated electric shocks, and that he could barely see.

“Just the idea that they weren’t taking their medications, they were under this tremendous psychological pressure, that they weren’t eating, not taking a shower, not changing their clothes, let alone that you don’t know where they are and what’s happening to them — it’s traumatic,” said Ms. Mahmoud, 37. “You don’t know if your loved ones are going to make it out or going to be killed.”

Requests for comment sent to the Egyptian state prosecutor, prison officials and the presidency through a government spokesman received no response. But officials have said some politically motivated arrests were necessary to restore stability after the turbulence of the 2011 Arab Spring revolution.

Mr. Abdelnabi had been imprisoned under Egypt’s previous authoritarian leader after printing fliers for protesters. This time, his family and lawyer said, prosecutors seemed interested in why he had joined Islamist-led protests against the 2013 military takeover.

Egyptian women, surrounded by posters of former President Mohammed Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood, demonstrated in Cairo at a rally supporting him after he was ousted in 2013.Credit…Tara Todras-Whitehill for The New York Times

The protests at Cairo’s Rabaa Square were among the most contentious in recent history. Demonstrators called for the restoration of President Mohamed Morsi, who had been elected in the country’s first free vote after the previous president, Hosni Mubarak, was forced out in the 2011 uprising.

Mr. Morsi was the leader of the Muslim Brotherhood, an Islamist group that Mr. Mubarak’s secular government, to which Mr. el-Sisi belonged, had feared and repressed for decades. In 2013, the military reclaimed power amid mounting public anger with Mr. Morsi and set about vilifying and dismantling the Brotherhood.

It brutally suppressed the Rabaa sit-in, killing at least 800 people in one day.

Ousted and detained, Mr. Morsi collapsed in a Cairo courtroom and died in June 2019. He had been denied treatment for diabetes and high blood pressure for six years.

To this day, being labeled an Islamist can lead to firings, asset freezes and travel bans, as well as the worst treatment Egypt’s prisons can mete out, according to ex-detainees and families of prisoners arrested for ties to the Brotherhood — a crime in the eyes of the government, which casts group members as terrorists.

Mr. Abdelnabi’s daughter, Ms. Mahmoud, said her father had never joined the Brotherhood, though he sympathized with some of its goals and had voted for Mr. Morsi.

Members of the Muslim Brotherhood were held in a cage during their trial in a Cairo courtroom in 2015.Credit…Khaled Elfiqi/European Pressphoto Agency

Her mother, Ms. Hassan, was released. But Mr. Abdelnabi was transferred to Cairo’s notorious Tora Prison, where he was held at Scorpion 2, widely known as Egypt’s harshest prison ward.

The new detainees at Tora received what prisoners call, with gallows humor, the “welcome party.” Several former prisoners and defense lawyers described the routine: Arrivals run blindfolded through a human corridor of guards, who attack them with sticks. They stumble until they fall.

In his new cell, Mr. Abdelnabi told his lawyer, he had no toilet, light or bedding except for a thin blanket he used to sleep on the dirty floor. The guards eventually brought food — cheese and bread that Mr. Abdelnabi said he found inedible. It came only every four days or so.

Neglect and Suffering

As weeks in detention stretched to months, Mr. Abdelnabi paled and thinned. He was incoherent, unable to form a sentence, said his lawyer, Ms. Sallam. When pain from kidney stones made him scream, other prisoners thumped on the walls to get the guards’ attention, Ms. Mahmoud said. But most of a day passed before he was given a painkiller.

Ms. Mahmoud said the family did what they could, bribing guards with nearly $1,300 to give their father a bucket to use as a toilet.

When prosecutors allowed them to bring food, warm clothes and medication on a few occasions, guards rejected them, citing security reasons, said Ms. Sallam, his lawyer.

Mr. Abdelnabi developed scabies, a skin disease that produced a rash so severe that he once appeared for a hearing covered in dried blood from scratching, Ms. Sallam said. Scared of catching it, the prosecutor made him leave the room.

He waited outside while his detention was extended for another 15 days.

After that, the prosecutor finally allowed a topical cream. But when the lawyer handed it to the guards, she said, they refused to accept it.

Visitors leaving Tora Prison in 2019. Prison guards routinely refused to give inmates food, clothing and medication brought by their families. Credit…Khaled Elfiqi/EPA, via Shutterstock

Some Never Leave

For political prisoners, detention can amount to a death sentence.

They rarely get access to medication or to treatment in outside hospitals when needed, Amnesty International found in a report last year. More than 70 percent of Egyptian prisoners who die while in custody do so because of denial of health care, according to the Geneva-based Committee for Justice.

Among them were a young filmmaker jailed over a music video mocking Mr. el-Sisi and a dual Egyptian-American citizen whose diabetes and heart ailment went largely untreated. Both died in 2020.

Torture resulted in nearly 14 percent of prison fatalities, while poor conditions caused nearly 3 percent, the group found.

Salah Sallem, a physician and a former member of the government-appointed National Council for Human Rights, declined to answer questions about specific prisoners without reviewing their medical files.

“Death is a part of life,” he said.

Last Rites

One day in 2020 soon after the end of Ramadan, the Muslim holy fasting month, a guard found Mr. Abdelnabi disoriented and bleeding from his eyes, Ms. Mahmoud said other prisoners later told her. Clots of blood dripped from his mouth. He eventually stopped eating or drinking and told his lawyer he was in severe pain.

When summoned, a prison doctor said he could do nothing, according to his family, who later spoke to detainees from his ward. By Sept. 2, 2020, he could not walk without help and had to be carried to the prison infirmary.

Ms. Mahmoud with her father’s glasses.Credit…Cooper Neill for The New York Times

When he returned, he asked his cellmate to read him the Quran, a last rite. He died minutes later.

Prison authorities refused to release his body to his family, they said, until they signed a death certificate citing “natural causes.”

Shortly before Mr. Abdelnabi’s death, his case had been sent to trial. At the first session, Ms. Mahmoud said, the court did not appear to have been notified that one of the defendants had died.

His name was called. No one answered except for a former cellmate who began to sob.

“Remove his name,” the judge said, and that was that.

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