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Hope for Egypt’s Scorpion Prison Inmates

Commissioners’ Report to Scrutinize Prison Conditions

Police and army soldiers are seen in front of a tank as they guard outside Tora prison in Cairo, Egypt, July 30, 2015.  © 2015 Reuters

The fight against one of Egypt’s most notorious prisons, where numerous political prisoners are held, has moved forward one small step.

The State Commissioners’ Committee, which is part of the country’s administrative courts, has formally accepted a complaint by prisoners’ families and seven nongovernmental organizations asking that the government shut down Cairo’s Tora Maximum Security Prison, known as al-Aqrab (Scorpion) prison. The commissioners, who are preparing their non-binding opinion for the case’s judge, ordered on Tuesday, October 24, the creation of a committee of medical, engineering, and human rights experts from Cairo University to assess the prison’s “suitability” to host inmates.

Hundreds of families whose loved ones have been inside the prison for years may now have some cause for hope.

A September 2015 Human Rights Watch report showed that detainees, who mostly sleep on cement floors without mattresses and who are sometimes beaten, are deprived of families’ and lawyers’ visits for months at a time. Utensils, even toothbrushes and basic hygiene items, are forbidden. Windows are tiny, and ventilation is terrible, ignoring that cells bake in Egypt’s hot summers and freeze in winter. Perhaps worst of all, many inmates are deprived of medicine and proper medical care, which may have contributed to some inmates’ deaths. Six inmates died in just five months, between May and October 2015.  

Any truly independent and impartial scrutiny of Scorpion prison, run by the Interior Ministry, will conclude that abuses are rampant.

One of the prison’s current inmates is lawyer Essam Soltan, deputy head of the moderate al-Wasat Party. He was detained in July 2013, weeks after the army orchestrated the forcible removal of then-President Mohamed Morsy. Soltan was charged with attempting to overthrow the new government and incite violence at the Rab`a sit-in, where Morsy’s supporters gathered to protest the military takeover. Soltan fainted during his trial on Tuesday – the same day as the commissioners’ report and one week after he began a hunger strike to protest months of solitary confinement, deprivation of exercise, and lack of clean water. But the presiding judge, who by law can inspect the prison or order investigation of the possible ill-treatment but never did, said dismissively, “bring the defendant biscuits.”

The gap between despair and hope in today’s Egypt lies between a judge calling for biscuits and another judicial entity deciding to assess whether the Scorpion prison is fit for human habitation. For the audacious lawyers, activists, and inmates’ families who have pressed this far, the battle continues.

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