After Egypt’s first freely elected president was replaced in 2013 with Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, as many as 60,000 Egyptians and foreigners have been arrested.
They are now political prisoners in a “widespread crackdown on Egypt’s civil society.” This upsurge has left the country’s prisons at one hundred and sixty percent capacity and many individuals are being detained for months before seeing a courtroom. The most extreme example of this inhumane crackdown is the al-Aqrab (Arabic for “Scorpion”) prison, labeled “Egypt’s Guantanamo,” used as a “punitive measure to silence activists, journalists, and peaceful political dissidents”. In “Scorpion,” members of the Muslim Brotherhood, persons accused of being members of the Islamic State, and political activists face severe human rights abuses and are left with “no voice and no hope.” Although Egypt is party to the UN’s International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights (ICESCR) and its constitution and other laws forbid the torture of detainees, the country has not ratified the UN Convention Against Torture (CAT), and faces little meaningful international pressure.
Human Rights Watch (HRW) visited “Scorpion” throughout 2016, conducting interviews with detainees’ family members and lawyers. Individuals who were arrested by Egypt’s military are banned from seeing family members or contacting their lawyers for months at a time, have been held in cells with no beds or basic hygienic tools, have been beaten and tortured, and have had medications withheld. The longest arbitrary ban on family visits lasted from March through August 2015. Family members were denied access to relatives on death row. One interviewee witnessed the mother of a prisoner faint when learning upon arrival that her son had been executed – they told her, “we’re allowing you to visit him. We killed him, you can visit him in [the morgue].” A former warden described “Scorpion” as a place where “those who go in don’t come out again unless dead.”
Prisoners in “Scorpion” live in “dungeon-like chambers designed for solitary confinement [but] used to accommodate three prisoners,” eating and sleeping amongst “insect infestations and sewage.” Even when no ban is in place, family visits remain difficult to acquire, with relatives often having to camp outside overnight. “I had to be [there] from 8pm the night before so that I could see him the next day at 2pm—for just two minutes.” In addition, visitors are denied the ability to bring prisoners medication. In one case, even when a diabetic man appeared in court “shaking, semi-conscious, and unable to control his urination,” authorities refused him care.
A combination of poorly crafted domestic laws and lack of international pressure to conform to UN treaties have allowed Egypt’s abuses to continue with little oversight. While Egypt’s constitution forbids torture, intimidation and coercion,” the current state of Egypt’s prisons run counter to these prohibitions. The Protest Law of 2013 allows arrests of citizens who protest without authorization, becoming a “fast-track to prison for peaceful demonstrators.” Despite being promised a high standard of physical and mental care as prisoners under the International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights, the fact that Egypt has failed to ratify the CAT thwarts Egypt’s attempts to fulfill the international standards ICESCR is meant to foster. A crucial first step for Egypt would be to pass the UN Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners (Mandela Rules). Standards include granting prisoners the same access to health care as those within communities, granting prompt medical care in emergency situations, and access to prison doctors immediately when asked.
Egypt’s government has little motivation to ratify UN treaties or reform its domestic laws so long as the international community continues to treat prisoner abuse “as if it isn’t happening.” The United States continues to give Egypt $1.3 billion in military aid despite there being a US citizen being tortured within an Egyptian prison. Arrested in 2014 while working at an NGO that helps homeless children, Aya Hijazi was accused of sexually abusing the children she had rescued. While imprisoned, she has been subjected to “coercive interrogation techniques,” including physical violence and threats by an officer of “[urinating] into her vagina.” Until major powers, especially the United States, condemn these acts and demand that the Egyptian government institute immediate reforms, there is little reason to believe that Egypt will voluntarily reverse its brutal assault against civil society.