Egypt's model prison rife with abuses, inmates' families and activists say
- Prison opened amid push to counter rights criticism
- Relatives of inmates say they struggle to get news
- Activists say tens of thousands jailed in crackdown
- Cairo denies abuse charges, says jails improving
CAIRO, Feb 15 (Reuters) - A new prison which Egypt touted as a model for reform and which holds some of its most prominent prisoners denies inmates healthcare and subjects them to punitive treatment including isolation, relatives of those inside and rights groups say.
Many of the inmates now in Badr prison on the outskirts of Cairo were moved from Tora, an older facility in a southern suburb of the city that held prisoners including leaders of the outlawed Muslim Brotherhood and other political activists.
Rights groups estimate tens of thousands of people have been jailed for political dissent under President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi and have long reported abuses including systemic torture and life threatening conditions inside its jails.
The government, which says it does not hold prisoners for political reasons, did not respond to requests for comment for this article. In the past it has denied charges of abuses and has said it is working on improving conditions by reducing prisoner density at its jails and modernising facilities.
The authorities took journalists, including a reporter from Reuters, on a tour of Badr last year, a move critics view as part of a government bid to bat away Western criticism of its rights record and to draw in more investment and aid flows, and to boost its regional influence.
Abdel Moneim Aboul Fotouh, a former presidential candidate who was viewed as a moderate Islamist when he ran for office in 2012, was detained in 2018 and is among those moved from Tora to the Badr 1 wing at the new prison.
"It was supposed to be at least on the same level but since the transfer, no, it's much harder, the situation is worse and there's no justification," said his son, Hozaifa Aboul Fotouh.
He said his 71-year-old father spent 12 days in the same clothes in the new prison and no longer has the mattress he previously had at Tora to support his back. He said he had been denied enough blankets to fend off the winter cold.
Rights groups and relatives detail other abuses, although several of those spoken to by Reuters said it was harder for them to get information about conditions from Badr, where they said prisoners were largely held incommunicado, than from Tora. Several asked not to be named for fear of reprisals. Reuters has only been able to access Egyptian prisons on official tours.
Four prisoners died at the Badr facility because of medical negligence last year, including a 47-year-old Alaa el-Salmy who was on hunger strike for two months over prison conditions, according to the rights groups Egyptian Front for Human Rights (EFHR) and Egyptian Network for Human Rights (ENHR).
"Badr has this massive medical facility where surgeries can be done, kidney dialysis, ICU rooms and so many amazing options but nobody gets to use it, or at least we don't get to," said Mohamed Douma, whose brother is held at Badr 1.
He said his brother, Ahmed Douma, a prominent activist, had unsuccessfully requested blood tests and X-rays for joint pain and hunger strike-induced kidney problems for at least eight months.
The Association for Freedom of Thought and Expression (AFTE), a third Egyptian rights group, said it made a legal complaint the authorities after another prisoner, Omar Ali, had his genitals violently grabbed during a search at Badr. It said it received no response.
The Interior Ministry and State Information Service did not respond to several requests for comment on this article and to questions about cases highlighted by rights groups and relatives such as denial of health care.
A Reuters reporter joined a visit of Badr when it was opening in late 2021 and was shown pristine medical equipment and female inmates doing artwork and sewing. At the time, an official described the prison as part of a shift towards a "correctional" approach that reflected "the extent of progress and modernisation" in Egypt's detention system.
The Interior Ministry has said inmates have space for exercise, religious worship and training.
It also says Badr is focused on "rehabilitation", in line with a five-year human rights strategy published in 2021 - one of several initiatives in the past 18 months that include phasing out a state of emergency that was in place for years, pardoning some prisoners and setting up a political dialogue.
In late 2021 Egypt also opened another new facility at Wadi el Natrun, north-west of Cairo, where well-known Egyptian-British activist Alaa Abd el-Fattah is held.
Critics including activists, relatives of detainees, rights groups and opposition figures describe the steps as largely cosmetic and say jails still hold many prisoners of conscience.
After Sisi led the ouster of elected President Mohamed Mursi, a member of the Muslim Brotherhood, when he was army chief in 2013, the Islamist movement was banned and many members and backers jailed. Mursi was imprisoned and then collapsed and died in a courtroom in Tora in 2019.
At Badr, in two cases prisoners in urgent need of healthcare were left for hours without treatment as inmates banged on walls or doors to get attention, according to the relative of one of the inmates and Amr Hashad, an EFHR researcher.
Some of those in Badr 3 wing are Muslim Brotherhood members or sympathisers of the group held under terrorism charges, said Hussein Baoumi of Amnesty International, which in October described the wing as having "horrific and punitive conditions".
"Based on our assessment, it's intentional to subject the prisoners to inhumane conditions solely because of their identity and political background," Baoumi said.
Relatives say they have struggled more than at Tora to get news, visit or deliver medicine or food items. One mother whose son was arrested on terrorism charges in 2017, then transferred from Tora to Badr 3 in June, said she last saw him in 2019, when his face was pressed against the window of a truck transferring him to court.
"We have no information at all, we don't visit them, we don't see them, we don't know anything about them, there are no letters or phone calls," she said.
Other relatives of those inside say inmates struggle to communicate with each other because cell doors do not have slits or windows, and prisoners are monitored by cameras in cells that are constantly lit, which they say was not the case at Tora.
Inmates who try to pass information about conditions have been stopped in the past. Baoumi and Nabeh al-Ganadi, a lawyer at the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights, said the microphone had been cut in virtual hearings, on one occasion when a prisoner tried to report beating and another time when a prisoner sought to describe the death of an inmate.
A handwritten note smuggled out by Badr 3 prisoners, seen by Reuters, said those who protest against conditions had clothes and blankets removed or were sent into cramped confinement with only a piece of bread and small lump of cheese to eat per day.
Ganadi said he had attended a virtual hearing in November at which about 50 prisoners held on terrorism charges at Badr 3 complained of a lack of medical treatment, exercise, hot water and family visits.
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