Egypt: Allow prison visits and other communication for detained defenders and political opponents without discrimination
The Egyptian authorities must allow all detainees - including human rights defenders, political activists, and other critics – to receive family visits and allow them to regularly communicate with their loved ones and lawyers including through phone calls, Amnesty International said.
On 15 August, the Ministry of Interior announced that prisons will resume family visits on 22 August, after a five-month suspension due to COVID-19, but Amnesty International is concerned that individuals held in politically motivated cases are at risk of being excluded.
Amnesty International fears that some detainees facing unfounded ‘terrorism’ charges, including human rights defenders, journalists and political activists, might be excluded from prison visits.
The Ministry of Interior published the phone numbers of 44 prisons across Egypt, but left out some of Egypt’s most notorious prisons, including Tora Maximum Security One (known as Al Aqrab) and Tora Maximum Security Two, both part of the Tora Prison Complex, where human rights defenders, political activists and other dissidents are being held on bogus terrorism-related charges. Relatives of individuals detained in these two prisons told Amnesty International that when they called the Prisons Sector of the Ministry of Interior following the announcement or went to Tora Prison Complex, officials claimed not being aware of orders to resume family visits at Tora Maximum Security One and Two.
“The decision to resume visits provides some respite for family members who have lived in anguish for months with little or no information about the health and wellbeing of their loved ones. Their fears have been exacerbated by reports of the spread of COVID-19 in Egypt’s notoriously overcrowded and unhygienic prisons, amid a blackout on information” said Lynn Maalouf, Amnesty International’s Acting Regional Director for the Middle East and North Africa.
“However, Amnesty International fears that some detainees facing unfounded ‘terrorism’ charges, including human rights defenders, journalists and political activists, might be excluded from prison visits. Our concerns stem from the authorities’ history of denying scores of individuals held in politically motivated cases family visits and other contact with the outside world for periods reaching months or years, even before the pandemic. The authorities must adhere to their domestic and international obligations to ensure prisoners’ rights to communicate with the outside world.”
The Egyptian authorities’ denial of family visits and other contact with the outside world pre-dates the COVID-19 crisis. For years, the authorities have been preventing scores of detainees, including political opponents, critics and human rights lawyers, from contacting their family members or lawyers. For instance, Hoda Abdelmoniem, a 61-year-old human rights lawyer arbitrarily detained in al-Qanater Women’s Prison, has not been allowed a single visit since her arrest on 1 November 2018 according to her family. The authorities appear to impose such discriminatory restrictions with the intent to punish detainees for their political beliefs or for peacefully exercising their rights.
Our concerns stem from the authorities’ history of denying scores of individuals held in politically motivated cases family visits and other contact with the outside world for periods reaching months or years, even before the pandemic.
After the authorities suspended family visits in March 2020, prison administrations also prevented some individuals held in connection to political cases from exchanging letters with their family members.
The Egyptian authorities have yet to comply by prison regulations prescribing fortnightly phones calls for detainees. The lack of phone communication particularly affects detainees from poorer backgrounds or those held in prisons far away from home, whose relatives cannot afford long, costly journeys.
“We call on the authorities in Egypt to ensure that all detainees are allowed contact with their loved ones through phone calls, free of charge. They must also ensure that all detainees, regardless of the charges against them, can receive regular visits from their loved ones without discrimination,” said Lynn Maalouf.
The resumed visits will also be subject to a number of restrictions. Visits must be booked in advance, and each detainee will be allowed a single visitor for 20 minutes a month.
While the authorities claim that restricting family visits are necessary measures for protecting public health, they have shown reluctance to take action to reduce overcrowding, especially in relation to those detained in politically motivated cases.
We call on the authorities in Egypt to ensure that all detainees are allowed contact with their loved ones through phone calls, free of charge. They must also ensure that all detainees, regardless of the charges against them, can receive regular visits from their loved ones without discrimination.
Amnesty International reiterates its call on the Egyptian authorities to immediately and unconditionally release all activists and human rights defenders detained solely for the exercise of their rights to freedom of expression, association and peaceful assembly. They should also consider releasing children, pre-trial detainees and detainees who are especially vulnerable to the disease, including older prisoners or those with underlying medical conditions, as a means to reduce the prison population and prevent harm. They should also consider adopting non-custodial measures for people accused of non-violent offences.
The announcement on resuming family visits comes a few days after the death in custody on 13 August 2020 of Essam el-Erian, the former vice-chairman of the dissolved Freedom and Justice Party, linked to the Muslim Brotherhood. Since the suspension of visits in March 2020, prison authorities at the Mazra Ward Prison in Tora, did not allow his family members to contact him by phone or to exchange letters.
While the authorities said they have taken active measures to mitigate the spread of COVID-19 in places of detention, human rights organizations have reported deaths of detainees and staff in prisons and police stations from suspected COVID-19 complications. The information blackout that has resulted from the suspension of family visits, the crackdown on any critical reporting on the government’s handling of the health crisis and the prison administrations’ practice of censoring letters containing information on COVID-19 in prisons, has caused great anxiety for relatives kept in the dark about their loved ones’ health and wellbeing amid the pandemic.