Morsi's death spotlights systematic mistreatment of prisoners

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Former Egyptian president Mohammed Morsi. (File, AFP)
Former Egyptian president Mohammed Morsi. (File, AFP)

The death of former Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi has cast the spotlight on the dire conditions faced by political prisoners in Egypt under the government of army chief-turned-president, Abdel Fattah el-Sisi.

Morsi, Egypt's first democratically elected president was declared dead on Monday after collapsing inside a soundproof cage while on trial in a Cairo courtroom. The 67-year-old, who had a long history of health issues, including diabetes and liver and kidney disease, had been behind bars for nearly six years following his toppling in a July 2013 military coup led by el-Sisi. 

Since then, Morsi was denied medical care; his family was allowed to visit him in prison only three times; and he was held in solitary confinement for as much as 23 hours a day, which under United Nations guidelines classifies as torture.

"Former President Morsi's death followed years of government mistreatment, prolonged solitary confinement, inadequate medical care, and deprivation of family visits and access to lawyers," Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East and North Africa director of Human Rights Watch (HRW), told Al Jazeera.

But the former president was just one of tens of thousands of prisoners suffering under similar conditions. 

Campaign of arrests

Under el-Sisi's rule, Egyptian security forces have engaged in a campaign of intimidation and arrests of political opponents and civil society activists, with at least 60 000 people - including leaders of the outlawed Muslim Brotherhood such as Morsi - believed to have been imprisoned on political grounds

In 2017, HRW released a report which documented the widespread use of torture in detention centres in Egypt. It came on the back of long-standing allegations that prison conditions in Egypt do not meet basic international standards and demands by rights groups for action on the systematic ill-treatment and torture of inmates.

But some prisoners are subjected to more brutal conditions than others.

"Members of the Muslim Brotherhood were among the political prisoners targeted for solitary confinement," Hussein Baoumi, an Egypt researcher with Amnesty International, told Al Jazeera.

In 2016, HRW documented the grim conditions in Cairo's high-security Scorpion prison, where those considered enemies of the state, including many Muslim Brotherhood leaders, are being held.

The report, titled "We are Tombs": Abuses in Egypt's Scorpion Prison, shed a light to the poor sanitary facilities and degrading conditions endured by prisoners, including lack of access to beds, mattresses or basic hygiene items.

Lawyers and former prisoners also told HRW that inmates were beaten, humiliated and confined for weeks in cramped  "discipline" cells. The rights group argued that authorities also "interfered with their [prisoners'] medical care in ways that may have contributed to some of their deaths". 

'Tyranny of human rights'

But deaths due to medical neglect are nothing new. According to Human Rights Monitor, more than 300 detainees have died in prison in Egypt since the coup in 2013, with the cause of death principally due to "medical neglect and torture".

"Egypt is a tyranny of human rights," Wafik Moustafa, a medical doctor and head of the London-based British Arab Network, told Al Jazeera, adding that Egyptian authorities routinely ignore court orders.

"The judiciary is not independent or even semi-independent. There is no oversight and accountability of the courts."

Moustafa said the fact that detainees are not only deprived of access to a lawyer, but also, more generally, of the right to a fair trial, can in itself be considered as a form of ill-treatment.

He described the glass-enclosed cage behind which Morsi had to sit in court as "extremely inhumane" since it limited his ability to communicate. According to Moustafa, the "unhealthy conditions" Morsi experienced behind the soundbox could have contributed to his death. "There was no way of controlling the temperature in the soundproof box," Moustafa said.

For Leah Whitson, the lack of access to lawyers and solitary confinement endured by prisoners such as Morsi means that what happens to certain individual detainees in Egypt is shrouded in secrecy.

Egyptian denials

The Egyptian government has repeatedly denied that torture is taking place in the country's prisons.

After the release of HRW's 2017 report, the Egyptian government blocked the rights group's website and held a press conference to dismiss its findings.

In January 2019, el-Sisi denied the existence of political prisoners in Egypt in an interview with CBS's 60 Minutes show

Taher Abdelmuchsen,  a senior legal consultant based in Doha and former deputy of the Egyptian Shura Council, said the Egyptian authorities were in denial of the systematic nature of the ill-treatment of prisoners.

He argued that Egyptian authorities were unlikely to take action despite the condemnation by rights groups since Egypt's powerful allies would not demand accountability.

"El-Sisi doesn't care about the human rights reports because he already secured his relations with this allies. But, of course, these reports stigmatise him in the international community, and therein lies their strength. These reports are the available method now to press on him to improve the prisoners’ situation." 

In Abdelmuchsen view, the international spotlight could, in time, lead to incremental improvements in prison conditions.

But for those in a position similar to Morsi, such improvements might come too late. 

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