Videos from Egypt prisons paint bleak picture
Leaked testimonies describe arbitrary arrests, forced confessions, torture and filthy conditions in overcrowded cells.
Videotaped testimonies of prisoners currently held in Egyptian jails are painting a picture of arbitrary arrest, torture, forced confessions and cramped prison cells.
The videos – recorded on mobile phones, smuggled out of prison and obtained by journalists – were the first to show current detainees giving an account of prison conditions from within their cells.
Al Jazeera is withholding the names of the men who appear in the videos for their own safety.
“They were questioning me about things I have no idea about, and about people I don’t know… They said they would bring my mother here and rape her in front of me. Because of all the torture and the threats they made, I told them I will say whatever you want,” said the prisoner.
He said he was beaten whenever he refrained from answering.
Torture in prisons ‘impossible’
Approached by Al Jazeera, both the ministries of interior and information refused to comment.
However, Minister of Interior Mohamed Ibrahim has denied claims of torture. Interviewed in a talk show on a privately owned channel on 20 February Ibrahim said, “It’s impossible that any form of torture is taking place in Egyptian prisons”.
He also affirmed that no one is arrested arbitrarily in Egypt; they were either participants in “non-peaceful protests or possessed weapons”.
In one of the leaked accounts, a prisoner describes how he was arrested last November.
“I saw a man dressed in civilian clothing. I asked him, ‘What’s going on? He asked me to which organisation I belonged. I told him I don’t belong to anyone,” he said in this video.
“He then pulled out a baton and beat me. He forced me on my knees, and as I turned my face the other way I saw one student fall to the ground as he get shot in the face with birdshot. His friend who was walking with him had his face covered in blood too, but the police still beat him,” the prisoner added.
Al Jazeera was unable to verify the authenticity of the accounts, but they corroborate testimonies of former prisoners who spoke to Al Jazeera about their arrests and dire conditions in Egypt’s incarceration centres.
According to Wiki Thawra, an initiative by the Egyptian Centre for Social and Economic Rights to document events in Egypt since the revolution of 25 January 2011, more than 21,317 people were detained or faced arrest by Egyptian security forces between July and December 2013.
As anti-coup protesters, mostly supporters of ousted President Mohamed Morsi and his Muslim Brotherhood, continued to stage daily protests in the capital and elsewhere, the government vowed to get tough with what it saw as threats to national security.
The Muslim Brotherhood was designated a terrorist group on 25 December, and more people were brought to prison. This, along with an anti-protest law that drove liberal opposition members to the streets, has been the pretext for many political prisoners to land in Egypt’s more than two-dozen confinement camps, as well as police stations.
A decree issued by interim President Adly Mansour last September said that any suspect charged with crimes carrying the death sentence or life imprisonment can be locked in pre-trial detention indefinitely. This decision, seen by human right groups as punitive detention, has also contributed to the inflation in the number of political prisoners.
According to Wiki Thawra, 4,809 were arrested during the one-year tenure of Morsi. No records were available for any previous years.
In another video, a young prisoner describes how he was convicted.
Taken to the State Security headquarters, he said that he and 16 other prisoners were asked to confess to “which organisation we belong”.
After extending their detention for 15 days, “they took us to prison, and there we stood trial. It was a kangaroo court, there was no evidence presented, no witnesses, not even prosecution witnesses were present.
“The judge handed us a verdict of two-and-a-half years. I appealed the verdict, but three months have passed now and I’m being punished for nothing whatsoever,” he said.
All prisoners testifying on camera described how cramped their cells are.
“The cell I am in is tiny, despite the large number of inmates that are jailed here. We sleep with our feet over each other,” said an older captive.
Political prisoners report that they are being held in the same cells as criminals. “We were put into a holding cell with around 70 or 80 other inmates. It was filled with smoke, we couldn’t breathe any clean air,” said one detainee.
“We were inhaling cigarette smoke and hashish and marijuana smoke – drugs that I had never inhaled or even seen before in my life.”
“It was a very strange experience because I got to know every single type of drug there is in Egypt,” he said.
“Every type of drug that is dealt in Egypt exists inside police cells and under the nose of the Interior Ministry.”