Cairo, Egypt – Since President Mohamed Morsi was deposed by the military on July 3, thousands of Egyptians accused of supporting the Muslim Brotherhood have been detained in prison cells that are often dark, poorly ventilated, and infested with insects. Some detainees are waiting for their day in court, while others have had no charges brought against them at all.
The latest Brotherhood arrest took place early on Wednesday. Essam el-Arian, secretary general of the Muslim Brotherhood’s political arm, the Freedom and Justice Party (FJP), was taken from a residence in New Cairo where he had been hiding.
Arian was one of the most-wanted Brotherhood leaders still on the run. At least 20 other Brotherhood leaders have already been arrested, including General Guide Mohamed Badei, his deputy Khairat al-Shater and Mohamed al-Beltagi. Interim General Guide Mahmoud Ezzat, who is out of the country, has not been caught. The men are accused by Egyptian authorities of inciting violence, murder and attempted murder.
Brotherhood lawyer Sayed Nasr told Al Jazeera that around 6,700 people have been detained during anti-coup protests since July 3. However, an interior ministry source put the number at around 3,500. Many of the Brotherhood’s leaders are being held in solitary confinement in Tora prison to prevent them from communicating with each other, according to interior ministry sources.
Prisoners with links to the brotherhood, including leading members, are said to be held in conditions that are cramped, dirty, and unhealthy.
Morad Ali, the spokesman of the FJP, says he has been held for more than two months in solitary confinement in a section of Tora prison known as “the death row,” used in the past to discipline defendants given death sentences.
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”I feel an intense sense of emotional deprivation. I really need to talk [to someone],” Ali wrote in a letter to his friends and family viewed by Al Jazeera. Ali has not yet been formally charged, but he is being detained on accusations of publishing false news that harmed national security.
Ali’s son Mohamed said his father described his prison cell as a 2×2.5 metre compartment, infested with cockroaches and other insects, and filled with vomit and feces from previous prisoners.
The cell wasn’t cleaned for the first two days of his detainment because the water was cut off. Lack of medical care is also a concern: Ali said he was denied his blood pressure medicine for about one week, causing his health to decline.
In a more extreme case, Abdel Rahman Moustafa, a Brotherhood leader in Upper Egypt, was denied adequate treatment for severe health problems for nearly 40 days, according to his family. ”For 10 days, he had stomach aches and the prison doctor didn’t even bother to examine him,” said Abdullah, Moustafa’s brother.
After another 30 days of vomiting food and fluids, he was transferred to the prison hospital, according to Abdullah. Eventually, he was transferred to al-Qasr al-Ainy hospital, but died the following day. ”The cause of death was a heart attack and a severe drop in blood circulation,” the coronary doctor told Abdullah.
Moustafa was survived by his wife and five children. ”I couldn’t tell them about his death,” said Abdullah. “I waited until the next day when I got myself together… he was the brains of the family, my big brother.”
Defence lawyers complain that their clients’ rights are being flagrantly disregarded in prison.
But officials from the interim government dispute those claims. Hany Abdel Latif, a spokesman for the interior ministry, told Reuters that prison rules allowing for exercise, medical treatment and library access applied to all prisoners.
Sayed Nasr, a lawyer representing Brotherhood detainees in Tora prison, said they were only allowed to leave the cell for one hour a day, and sometimes spent 48 hours without fresh air – despite laws allowing pretrial prisoners to leave their cell from 7am to 7pm every day.
There is no way you can tell who is really a criminal and who is not with the way these interrogations are going.
Families interviewed by Al Jazeera said some small, 5×5 metre cells held around 60 detainees, though this was denied by a source at the interior ministry, who said the cells only housed 15-20 prisoners, each with his own bed.
In many cases, defence lawyers said, they have been prevented from attending the questioning of detainees, violating basic legal rights.
A source in the prosecution denied these claims, saying that, “if a lawyer isn’t present with the defendant, the prosecution is obligated to appoint a lawyer to attend the questioning with him, otherwise the interrogations are invalid”.
However, Nasr, the Brotherhood lawyer, said that on October 6, only 10 lawyers were allowed inside the prison during the interrogations of more than 640 detainees.
Most of the interrogations occur inside prisons and police stations, rather than at the prosecutor’s office, due to the security risks of transferring the detainees. Lawyers complain that although this procedure is legal, it violates some of the detainees’ rights. “This causes a sense of coercion for the detainees and their lawyers, who are under the authority of the prison and the police,” said Hossam Haddad, a lawyer at the National Community for Human Rights and Laws. “They take away our cell phones and treat us very badly.”
A woman, who preferred to remain anonymous for fear it would lead to tougher treatment for her husband in prison, told Al Jazeera that her husband was stabbed in the head, stomach, neck and leg by “thugs” who claimed they belonged to a neighbourhood watch.
After her husband was turned over to police, a defence lawyer did a criminal check on the four men and discovered that they were convicted of possessing arms, terrorising citizens and theft. However, the police report – seen by Al Jazeera – describes the four men simply as “local residents”. The Interior Ministry has issued several statements saying that “local residents” have helped detain anti-coup protesters.
Malek Adly, a lawyer with the Front to Defend Egypt’s Protesters, said many rights are routinely ignored, such as the lawyer’s right to sit down alone with his defendant before the questioning. “There is no way you can tell who is really a criminal and who is not with the way these interrogations are going,” Adly said.
He mentioned the detention of Ahmed Mandour, a member of the Popular Socialist Alliance, whom he said was arrested randomly in downtown Cairo on July 15, following clashes between security forces and anti-coup protesters. Mandour was never affiliated with the anti-coup movement – in fact, he opposed Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood, according to Adly. But he’s still being detained, despite several protests calling for his release.
As the detainees wait for their day in court, families continue to pray for their loved ones, hoping that the justice system will eventually set them free.