Policemen and people walk in front of the main gate of Tora prison in Cairo on June 4, 2012. © 2012 Reuters

Walid Shawky, a dentist and activist in Egypt, spent nearly two years in pretrial detention over abusive charges of “joining a terrorist organization,” “spreading false news,” and “misusing social media” without ever facing trial. On August 23, a judge ordered Shawky’s conditional release. It took authorities four days to transfer him from Cairo’s Tora Prison to al-Khalifa Police Station, just 14 kilometers away. He was then transferred twice more, eventually to the police station in Dekernis, north of Cairo, where his registered residence is. Detainees routinely must wait for the “extra-legal” National Security Agency’s “approval” for their release which sometimes takes a couple of weeks. But Shawky remains in detention today.

From September 1, Shawky’s family and lawyer did not know his whereabouts for more than a month. Then he appeared before a State Security Prosecutor in Cairo on October 6, where prosecutors added him to a new case, with dozens of defendants, on the same charges, plus a new one: taking part in an unauthorized protest, which, according to his lawyer, was impossible since it took place while he was jailed. Shawky is now back in Tora Prison.

This practice of “recycling” detainees is how security agencies, despite judges’ orders, keep dissidents in custody indefinitely. Judges and prosecutors are complicit. On November 3, judges ordered the release of over 450 detainees who had spent months or years in pretrial detention, but prosecutors added at least 61 of them, such as blogger Mohamed Oxyen and Sinai activist Ayman al-Rateel, to existing new cases. Hundreds of activists and journalists have likely been caught in these revolving prison doors.

Egyptian authorities extensively use pretrial detention without justification. Lax laws, with only cursory judicial oversight, cap pretrial detention at two years. But security agencies have found this marvelous workaround. Al-jazeera journalist Mahmoud Hussein, arrested in December 2016, Strong Egypt Party’s leaders Abd al-Moneim Abu al-Fotouh and Mohamed al-Qassas arrested, in February 2018, Ola al-Qaradawi and her husband Hossam Khalaf, arrested in June 2017, and Muslim Brotherhood leader Gehad al-Haddad, arrested in September 2013, all remain in jail despite these laws.

Egypt’s use of pretrial detention transforms it from what it should be – a precautionary, exceptional measure – into a tool of political punishment wielded by security agencies and rubber-stamped by the judiciary on a large scale, even as a global pandemic threatens prison populations. Authorities should end this practice of endless pretrial detention and remember they are messing with peoples’ lives.