When a new arrival is brought in to the cells in the police station in Dokki, Western Cairo, the first questions he is asked by his fellow inmates are: what happened today? What’s going on outside? Very little information goes in to such places, and very little comes out. When security forces took Hossam Meneai from his apartment in late January, he said the only thing he wanted to do was get a message to his mother telling her he was alive.
Egypt’s prisons are full to bursting. More than 20 men may be packed into a police cell three metres squared. People who have been released say there are inmates still inside who have been there for six months in facilities designed to hold people for a few days. Some of them are under 18. At first the police rounded up members of the Muslim Brotherhood and supporters of Mohamed Morsi. The net has now widened to include campaigners who called for a ‘no’ vote on the constitutional referendum, liberal activists and journalists.
‘It’s hard to say with certainty the number that are detained,’ Emad Mubarak, the director of the Association for Freedom of Thought and Expression, told me. ‘Among the crises in Egypt right now is the lack of accurate information.’ Parents asking as to the whereabouts of their detained sons and daughters would be told at a police station that ‘there is no one of that name here’, only to find out later that they had been there all along. Many who do manage to visit a relative in prison are likely to be insulted by the guards. The wife of a detained Muslim Brotherhood member was shot by mistake when she went to visit her husband at an Alexandria prison.
There have been at least 40 reported deaths in custody since last July, including 36 prisoners killed in a truck on their way to Abu Zaabal prison. The authorities claimed they were trying to escape. Independent media accounts suggest otherwise.
Mahmoud, a perfume-seller from North Cairo, described a man in his cell who had been operated on after being shot. The other detainees paid a guard 50 Egyptian pounds (about £4.50) to buy some cotton and they helped him bandage his wounds. ‘His place was not here, it was in a hospital,’ Mahmoud said.
While he was waiting for his hearing, someone from the Interior Ministry asked Mahmoud why he was demonstrating in Tahrir Square. Mahmoud told him about a conversation he’d had with his nine-year-old son three years ago. ‘At exam time I said, you have to study, so you’ll succeed, and my son replied to me: “Even if I study and I succeed and I get a diploma, what would I work as?” Can you imagine, a nine-year-old child is depressed and doesn’t know what he’ll work as because of the corrupt system? That was more than enough reason for me to go down [to Tahrir Square in 2011]. For his future.’
Three years later Mahmoud was detained during a random search on a minibus. He was carrying flyers calling for a ‘no’ vote in the constitutional referendum. One of them said: ‘No to the constitution. No to the ongoing thuggery of the Interior Ministry.’ He was arrested and beaten. He has since been released pending trial.
Mariam’s husband Karim (not their real names) was a member of the Muslim Brotherhood leadership. He was in a friend’s apartment on 26 September when police arrived to arrest his friend. They didn’t expect to find Karim there too. ‘It was like a holiday for them,’ Mariam said. For two weeks he was held in solitary confinement. After that he was let out once a day for half an hour’s exercise. In Egyptian prisons, families are expected to provide food, clothes and medication. Mariam and Karim communicate through notes on small scraps of paper. They expect the guards to read them so keep it short, mostly reassuring each other they are all right.
Three months ago Karim was moved to the highest security part of the prison, known as the Scorpion. In January they stopped allowing in food, clothes and medicines. Now families can sometimes get things in with a permit from the court, but they say those are very difficult to come by. Last month, Mariam and her 73-year-old mother-in-law waited for nine hours to see Karim during a hearing at a Cairo court before being turned away.