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Egypt: New prison, PR gloss ahead of COP27 cannot hide human rights crisis

The Egyptian authorities are holding state critics and political opponents in cruel and inhuman conditions in Badr 3 Prison, Amnesty International said today, as Egypt prepares to host COP27, the annual UN Climate Change Conference, in Sharm El-Sheikh in November.

In Badr 3 Prison, located 70 kilometres to the northeast of Cairo, prisoners are held in horrific and punitive conditions comparable to or even worse than those consistently documented at Egypt’s notorious Tora Prison Complex.  Detainees shiver in cold cells with fluorescent lights switched on round the clock; CCTV cameras are trained on them at all hours; and access to basic necessities such as sufficient food, clothing and books is banned. They are denied any contact with their families or lawyers and detention renewal hearings are held online. There has been at least one death in custody since the prison was opened in mid-2022.

“The Badr Prison Complex opened to great fanfare by the authorities, as if the new facility signified an improvement to Egypt’s human rights record. Instead, prisoners are facing the same human rights violations that have repeatedly blighted older institutions, exposing the lack of a political will from the Egyptian authorities to bring an end to the human rights crisis in the country,” said Agnès Callamard, Amnesty International’s Secretary General.

“Ahead of COP27, Egypt’s PR machine is operating on all cylinders to conceal the awful reality in the country’s jails, where prisoners held for political reasons are languishing in horrific conditions violating the absolute prohibition of torture and other ill-treatment. But no amount of PR can hide the country’s abysmal human rights record that demands real reform from the government.”

Amnesty International has gathered evidence from relatives and lawyers of prisoners held for political reasons, all of whom were transferred to Badr 3 from Tora Maximum Security 1 and 2 prisons in mid-2022. Several prisoners are being held in violation of Egyptian law, as their pretrial detention has extended beyond legal limits, while scores are detained arbitrarily following grossly unfair trials.

‘Prisoners here have no rights’

Concerns over prison conditions and access to healthcare intensified following the death in custody of El-Sayed al-Sayfi on 5 October. Al-Sayfi, who was 61 years old and had cancer prior to his arrest, died within days of being transferred to Badr 3 after a prosecutor ordered his pretrial detention. So far, there has been no independent and impartial investigation into the causes and circumstances of his death, including into reports on the lack of access to adequate healthcare in Badr 3.

The Egyptian authorities have imposed a blanket ban on family visits for all detainees in Badr 3, many of whom had already been denied family visits for over five years while held in the Tora Prison Complex. Prison staff also bar prisoners from sending letters to their families or loved ones, or even receiving them, effectively subjecting them to incommunicado detention.

No amount of PR can hide the country’s abysmal human rights record that demands real reform from the government.

Agnès Callamard, Amnesty International

Anas Beltagy, 29, has been arbitrarily detained since December 2013 despite being acquitted of all crimes in three separate criminal cases and a judicial order for his release pending investigations in a fourth case. However, the authorities never released him. Instead, he is now detained pending investigations over identical charges in relation to a fifth case. His family has been deprived of all communication with him since 2018 and all his detention renewal hearings have taken place online since his transfer to Badr 3, further blocking his family and lawyer from any access. Amnesty International calls for his immediate release as he is being held solely for his family connections; his father Mohamed al-Beltagy is a senior figure of the Muslim Brotherhood and was sentenced to death in an unfair trial.

Another detainee in Badr 3 said he was kept under constant surveillance, including during visits to the bathroom where guards taunted him for taking too long. Others said the use of constant fluorescent overhead lights affected their sleep and mental health, which directly contravenes the UN Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners and the absolute prohibition on torture and other ill-treatment.

Prisoners often rely on their families to meet their basic needs. However, Badr 3 prison officials prevent relatives from delivering food, clothing and items for personal hygiene. One relative of a Badr 3 detainee told Amnesty International that she tried to deliver clothes, books and food to the facility, but was told by guards that such items were not permitted. When she told prison officials that prisoners have a right to receive them, they said “prisoners here have no rights”.

The lack of family visits and communication means relatives cannot be sure their loved ones even receive medicine they have delivered. Amnesty International learned that prison officials withheld medicine from at least one prisoner after accepting the delivery from his relatives.

The authorities have also established a new online system for detention renewals hearings, with detainees not physically present in the same courtroom as judges, lawyers and prosecutors. Such hearings violate fair trial rights including the rights to adequate defence and to meaningfully challenge the legality of their detention. They take place under coercive circumstances in the presence of prison guards and detainees are prevented from communicating with their lawyers, given the ban on lawyer visits to prison. Further, they expose detainees to risks of reprisals from guards for complaining about torture or other ill-treatment and impede the ability of judges to spot visible bruises or other injuries.

“The Egyptian authorities must immediately release all those arbitrarily detained.  Everyone detained in Egypt must be protected from torture and other ill-treatment, held in conditions in line with international law and standards and granted immediate access to their families and lawyers with sufficient privacy. The authorities must fully uphold fair trial rights and stop holding pretrial detention renewal hearings online,” said Agnès Callamard.

Background

The Badr and Wadi al-Natrun prison complexes were opened shortly after the authorities launched Egypt’s National Human Rights Strategy in September 2021, which hailed the authorities’ purported efforts at modernizing prisons and upholding prisoners’ dignity. In mid-2022, the authorities started relocating prisoners from the ill-reputed Tora Prison Complex into the new facilities.

COP27, the 2022 UN Climate Change Conference, will be held from 6 to 18 November in Sharm El- Sheikh.