Pick and Click


Any assessment of prison conditions in the Middle East and North Africa is greatly hindered by most governments' refusal to permit independent monitoring or even to release basic information on prisons. Few countries in the region allow human rights groups into their penal facilities.


Some 2,000 Islamist prisoners were quietly released between February and April 1998, "all of them detained without charge and most of them sick," according to one knowledgeable Egyptian human rights lawyer. Appalling prison conditions remained a problem of staggering dimensions. Reports of the Egyptian Organization for Human Rights (EOHR) and the Human Rights Center for the Assistance of Prisoners (HRCAP) made clear that medical care for prisoners was grossly inadequate, particularly for inmates suffering from serious illnesses, and that the negligence of medical professionals in prisons required urgent remedy. In "Doctors Indicted," published in February, HRCAP noted, for example, that the only doctor at Fayoum prison, which housed about 4,000 inmates, visited prisoners once a month. "Inmates have to stand up facing the wall and with their hands raised above their head until the doctor comes and asks if there are any sick prisoners," HRCAP reported. "Then he examines them verbally. Prisoners remain four meters away from him and they are insulted and accused of pretending to be sick." The work of both groups demonstrated the link between abysmal conditions -- such as severe overcrowding, poor ventilation and sanitation, inadequate daily diets -- and the development and spread of diseases such as tuberculosis.

Grossly substandard detention conditions also caused or contributed to a number of inmate deaths in 1997. In a February 1997 report, the EOHR documented the prisons' wholly inadequate medical care, describing the cases of twenty-five prisoners who died between 1994 and 1996, the majority of them in Wadi al-Gedid, Liman Tora, Fayoum, and Wadi al-Natroun prisons, and thirty-two cases of seriously ill inmates whose poor health, EOHR said, merited their release or transfer to specialized medical facilities. Among them were men in their twenties and thirties whose official causes of death had been noted as tuberculosis, heart or circulatory failure, and pneumonia. Prisoners in need of urgent medical attention included men suffering from cancer, partial paralysis, cardiac problems, tuberculosis, detached retinas, and asthma. Shortly after the EOHR report's release, two more political detainees died in prison, apparently due to inadequate medical attention.

Thousands of inmates at four prisons -- Fayoum, Liman Abu Za'bel, Tora Istiqbal, and Tora High Security -- remain completely isolated from the outside world because the interior ministry continued its punishing ban on visits by lawyers and families.


Iran incarcerates one of the eleven largest inmate populations in the world.

The following links provide further information on Iranian prisons:


In her 1999 report to the U.N. Commission on Human Rights, the Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions expressed concern regarding the execution of hundreds of prisoners in Abu Ghraib and Radwaniyah prisons in Baghdad, Iraq, in connection with a so-called "prison cleansing campaign" in November and December 1997.


As of August 1998, more than 3,000 Palestinians from the West Bank and Gaza Strip were held in Israeli prisons, in violation of the Fourth Geneva Convention. Almost 1,400 were serving life sentences. Many were held in poor conditions with inadequate health care.

In addition to these prisoners, as of mid-September at least fifty-three other persons were held as administrative detainees under similar conditions. Many had been held for years, without charge or trial and without effective judicial review of their detention. The Supreme Court ruled in November 1997 that administrative detention could be used to hold Lebanese nationals as "bargaining chips" -- in effect, hostages -- even though the detainees were not themselves a threat to state security. The longest-held administrative detainee, Ahmad Qatamesh, was released on April 15, 1998, after being held almost six years without charge.


In a 1993 review by the U.N. Committee against Torture, the Libyan delegate stated that "the possibility of allowing external bodies to visit Libyan prisons was still being studied."


In its 1994 comments on Morocco's implementation of human rights standards, the U.N. Human Rights Committee expressed concern about the country's overcrowded prisons, whose conditions "frequently lead to malnutrition, diseases [and] deaths of detainees."


In September 1995, the U.N. Special Rapporteur on Torture informed the government of Saudi Arabia that he had received information indicating that "the torture and ill-treatment of prisoners in Priman prison in Jeddah were widespread." He explained: "it was reported that the prison had insufficient space for detainees to sleep, that temperatures sometimes reached as high as 54 degrees Celsius and that it lacked medical facilities to treat prisoners, many of whom were ill."


"I do not go into the prisons, but I believe that there are not many prisoners any more," President Hafez al-Asad said in an interview with the French television station TF-1 in Damascus on July 11, 1998, the week before his official state visit to France. Indeed, there were welcome releases during the year of 121 Lebanese political prisoners and an unconfirmed number of Syrians. But the underlying features of Syria’s bleak human rights landscape did not change. Prisoners who refused to compromise their political principles continued to be treated with cruelty, and their families and supporters found it exceedingly difficult to communicate information to the outside world.

For the hundreds of political prisoners who remained behind bars, there were reports throughout the year of gross medical neglect. Amnesty International called attention to the deteriorating health of some of these prisoners, many of them serving ten- to fifteen-year sentences imposed after unfair trials in the security court, whose decisions cannot be appealed to a higher tribunal. Most were in Adra and Sednaya prisons, but sixty-year-old lawyer Abdallah Qabbara, a chronic diabetic who was sentenced to fifteen years in 1994, was held in the infamous Tadmor military prison. In September 1998, word reached the international community that Nizar Nayouf, the thirty-six-year-old writer and human rights activist serving a ten-year sentence at Mezze military prison in Damascus, had been diagnosed with Hodgkin’s disease. According to information that Human Rights Watch received, authorities made provision of medical care to Nayouf conditional on his pledge to refrain from all political activities, and his signed statement announcing the dissolution of the Committees for the Defense of Democratic Freedoms and Human Rights in Syria (CDF).


Prison conditions remained poor in 1998, according to reports from lawyers and ex-prisoners. Overcrowding was severe, a situation not dictated by economic constraints: Tunisia had one of the highest per capita incomes on the continent. Beatings by guards were frequent and disciplinary measures cruel and degrading. Political prisoners were shuttled incessantly among institutions, forcing families to travel great distances for visits. Several leaders of the Nahdha movement were held in isolation for months or years at a time.

[Back to the Human Rights Watch Prison Conditions Page]

Back Button