Middle East
4:02 pm
Fri March 21, 2014

A View On The Torture And Terror Of Egyptian Prisons

Originally published on Fri March 21, 2014 5:22 pm

Transcript

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

In Egypt, the prisons are overcrowded. Prisoners sleep back-to-back in packed cells as the military-led government rounds up its suspected opponents. First, Islamists were being detained, accused of terrorism, then secular activists, and now many others, as neighbors inform on one another. The Egyptian government makes no apologies for the arrests and denies accusations of torture. NPR's Leila Fadel reports on the dire conditions for those caught up in the crackdown.

FADI SAMIR: (Foreign language spoken)

LEILA FADEL, BYLINE: Fadi Samir is an energetic, naive 19-year-old, and he had never been in jail until January, when he was arrested after a vigil for jailed youth activists.

SAMIR: (Foreign language spoken)

FADEL: In his small living room in a working class neighborhood, he recounts the beatings and abuse he suffered during his more than month-long detention. He was stripped, blindfolded, kicked, punched, and beaten with a baton. Others were beaten in front of him as they were taunted by the police. As he tells the story, he suddenly gets quiet and looks down at his backpack.

SAMIR: (Foreign language spoken)

FADEL: I don't want to say this in front of my mother, he says. Say it, she tells him. He says every time he went to the bathroom, police held his genitals to humiliate him. His mother looks down. I ask what he was accused of.

SAMIR: (Foreign language spoken)

FADEL: Being a member of the Muslim Brotherhood, he says, and then he laughs because Samir is a Christian. He says, when I showed them this, displaying a crucifix tattoo on his wrist, they changed their accusations. Now, he's accused of disturbing public order, attempting to kill a policeman, and other crimes he says he never committed.

There is no clear number on how many people have been arrested since the ouster of Islamist President Mohammed Morsi. His unpopular government also abused dissenters but observers say now it's much worse. The Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights, a local human rights group, says more than 20,000 people are either detained or wanted by the state, adding that many cases lack any evidence.

Former prisoners and letters smuggled from jail say inmates sleep in shifts to make use of the limited floor space as prisoners overflow into police stations and central security camps. Women speak of threats of rape and men describe intense beatings and cigarette burns. Reda Marai of the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights researches prison treatment.

REDA MARAI: (Through Translator) From the witness accounts, prisoners are beaten up, they're hung from their legs - terrible violations. It just seems like revenge by the police.

FADEL: This week, a police officer was sentenced to 10 years in connection to the death of 37 prisoners who suffocated when police fired tear gas onto their bus. But the Ministry of Interior, which oversees the police and prisons, denies all allegations of abuse.

MAJOR GENERAL HANI ABDULLATIF: (Through Translator) The idea of torture isn't tolerated in the policies of the Ministry of Interior.

FADEL: That's Major General Hani Abdullatif, and he's the spokesman for the ministry.

ABDULLATIF: (Through Translator) No one is above the law. If any mistake is proven, the ministry will follow the prosecutor's orders immediately.

FADEL: But he can't supply any examples.

ABDULLATIF: (Foreign language spoken)

FADEL: As for the issue of overcrowding, he says new prisons are being built to absorb the increase in arrests. He says the prisoners are not political detainees. They're all accused of crimes and the police are just trying to maintain order at a chaotic time.

MONA ISKANDER: (Foreign language spoken)

FADEL: Mona Iskander is Fadi's mother, the young Christian who was accused of being an Islamist and spent more than a month in jail. She encourages her son to speak out.

ISKANDER: (Through Translator) Yes, I'm caught up in this fire. I don't want - I'm so scared of what happened to him and I'm so scared that could happen to him again. But at the same time, I don't want him to be a coward.

FADEL: She says they broke him and there are so many others like him that are broken, too.

(SOUNDBITE OF RINGTONE)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Foreign language spoken)

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: (Foreign language spoken)

FADEL: Samir's phone rings in the living room at the end of our meeting. The ring tone's lyrics say: Revolutionaries are not thugs, down with police tyranny. Leila Fadel, NPR News, Cairo. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.