Ahmed has been in prison in Egypt for five years. He has another 20 years to go after he was sentenced in military court — even though he’s a civilian — for protesting against the military coup in 2013 that brought President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi to power.
But as fears of a coronavirus outbreak in Egypt’s prisons grow, Ahmed’s wife is now terrified that he won’t survive much longer.
“There is not any kind of medical care, and officers keep telling political prisoners that they are all here just to die,” Mariam told VICE News. “There are at least 20 prisoners to each room, which has no beds, no windows, nothing for air to get in and out. There is no door for the bathroom which is in this room for all of them. The water always cuts off.”
Mariam, whose name has been changed along with her husband’s over fears of retribution, has not had any contact with her husband since 10 days ago. That’s when the repressive Sisi government implemented a blanket ban on access to prisoners, who have no access to telephone calls or any other method of communication with the outside world.
“The authorities want them all to get coronavirus. They just don't care if these prisoners are sick or well, dead or alive,” Mariam said.
“The authorities want them all to get coronavirus. They just don't care if these prisoners are sick or well, dead or alive."
The conditions Mariam describes match up with recent warnings from the international community about the threat to tens of thousands of political prisoners in Egypt’s squalid, overcrowded and unhygienic prison system. A coalition of rights groups, activists, politicians and members of civil society have written a letter to the U.N. urging them to pressure the government in Cairo to temporarily release prisoners to save thousands of lives. But there has been no response from a regime that’s operating in extreme secrecy, even during a global pandemic that is threatening the lives of millions.
“The prisons and detention centers are a fertile environment for any infectious diseases, especially such a highly infectious virus,” Amr Magdi, a researcher for Human Rights Watch, told VICE News. “The nightmare scenario is that an outbreak inside the prisons will never be known or heard of until it's too late.”
Cairo has so far confirmed 196 cases and six deaths from the disease, but as in many repressive regimes, experts believe the government may not be disclosing the real figures.
Crackdown on negative news
The government is even cracking down on the sharing of negative news, revoking the credentials of two journalists for reporting on Canadian epidemiologists who estimated Egypt's coronavirus infections had surpassed 19,000.
There are no official figures for the prison population in Egypt, but estimates from human rights watchers put the total at around 150,000. Of that, at least tens of thousands are so-called political prisoners, rounded up following the 2013 coup and again in September last year during the unprecedented protests in the country.
But even prior to the coronavirus outbreak, Egyptian prisons were notorious for their inhumane conditions. Since the military coup in 2013, over 600 people have died in Egyptian prisons due to unhygienic conditions they were held in.
“We are writing to you to draw your attention to the dramatic situation of the prisoners detained in Egypt as the Covid-19 outbreak has severely hit the country. We ask for your urgent intervention so that Egyptian prisoners are temporarily released during the outbreak to avoid a fast spread of the virus in jails, which would cause dozens of thousands of deaths,” the letter from the coalition which includes Tunisian President Moncef Marzuki, said. The letter is addressed to U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres and Michelle Bachelet, the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights.
The call for prisoner release during the coronavirus pandemic is not unprecedented. A number of other countries have temporarily released prisoners due to the threat of infections spreading unchecked through prison populations. Earlier this week Iran furloughed 85,000 prisoners in a bid to curb the spread of the virus.
While there have been some reports of coronavirus outbreaks within prison populations already, these reports have not been confirmed, and aren’t likely to be since the government imposed a visitor ban 10 days ago under the guise of protecting the prisoners and their families.
But activists believe the decision was taken to prevent any information being leaked.
“Banning the visits also serves the government’s interests in shielding prisons from the outside world and impose a media blackout on what's happening inside,” Magdi said. “If the purpose was really to just protect prisoners, why don’t they allow prisoners to have phone calls or written communication?”
But the Egyptian government has so far failed to respond to the calls for mass prisoner release, though it did give an indication of its priorities on Wednesday when it detained four activists who mounted a small protest calling for the release of prisoners in the country.
The activists were the Booker-shortlisted novelist Ahdaf Soueif, her sister Laila Soueif, the activist Mona Seif, and Rabab El-Mahdi, a political science professor.
"We are in front of the Cabinet, asking for the state to take serious steps regarding coronavirus in prisons. As we know, at any time Egypt’s prisons are clusters for disease," Mona Seif said before the security forces arrested them.
Three of the activists are related to Alaa Abdel Fattah, one of Egypt’s most prominent bloggers and activists, who was imprisoned last September during the uprising. In a letter sent to the government earlier this week, Laila Soueif pleaded for her son’s life.
“I am not speaking here of Justice, for in this defining moment that debate will get us nowhere," she wrote. "I am speaking of a health catastrophe that it falls within your remit to spare the country, or at least to mitigate its effect. The danger is not only to the prisoners.”
Cover: Defendants listen to their verdict from a soundproof glass cage inside a makeshift courtroom in Tora prison in Cairo, Egypt, Saturday, July 28, 2018. (AP Photo/Amr Nabil)