Egypt: Government responds to Amnesty International’s report on cruel and unlawful use of solitary confinement

7 May 2018, 08:49 UTC

The Egyptian authorities have responded to Amnesty International’s report, Crushing Humanity: the abuse of solitary confinement in Egypt’s prisons, denying the widespread use of prolonged solitary confinement. Their response confirms that judicial oversight and human rights monitoring of Egyptian prisons are inadequate and ineffective. 

Amnesty International wrote to the Egyptian authorities on 16 and 17 April 2018, enclosing a memorandum containing a summary of the report’s findings on the use of solitary confinement against prisoners detained on politically motivated charges and requesting comments and clarifications. The 14-page response from the Egyptian authorities was received on 3 May 2018.

“While we certainly welcome the opportunity to engage with the Egyptian government, we are disappointed that they are taking issue with the difference between cell types instead of facing up to their responsibilities under human rights law.  Locking prisoners up in solitary cells for 23 or 24 hours a day for months and years on end is cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment under international law,” said Najia Bounaim, Amnesty International’s North Africa Campaigns Director.

“The human rights situation in Egypt is in crisis and Egypt’s prisons are one place where examples of cruelty and inhumane treatment are particularly stark.”

The Egyptian authorities deny that the use of prolonged solitary confinement is wide-spread, claiming there is a distinction between a solitary confinement cell and holding prisoners in “individual cells.” However, it is the confinement for over 22 hours a day in a solitary cell for over 15 days, rather than the type of cell, that constitutes unlawful solitary confinement.

In reference to the notorious al-Aqrab prison, the Egyptian authorities argue that the prison was designed with many “individual cells.”  However, it is in this same prison that Amnesty International documented being subjected to prolonged and indefinite solitary confinement, locked alone in their cells for weeks and denied family visits for months.

The Egyptian authorities’ response also confirms that death-row prisoners are held in solitary confinement for years, claiming this is “normal” practice despite being prohibited under international human rights law.

In the memorandum sent to the Egyptian authorities, Amnesty International described one particularly egregious case of prolonged and indefinite solitary confinement which Amnesty has concluded amounted to torture.  This was the case of Essam Haddad, the former presidential advisor to Mohamed Morsi, who has been in prolonged and indefinite solitary confinement since September 2013, held there for over 23 hours a day on average and denied family visits since October 2016. In their response, the Egyptian authorities did not deny any of the facts about his treatment, referring only to the amount of money he has in his account in the prison canteen.

The authorities also denied banning journalist and human rights defender Hisham Gaafar from family visits, saying that he receives regular visits from his relatives. This statement was rejected by Manar el-Tantawie, Gaafar`s wife.   

“The last time I was allowed to visit Hisham was in December 2017. This is the case not only for Hisham, but for many of the other relatives of prisoners in al-Aqrab Prison too.” Manar el-Tantawie told Amnesty International, on 6 May 2018

The Egyptian authorities stated that there were only 15 visits to 15 prisons by prosecutors in 2017. This confirms that prosecutors’ oversight of prisons is grossly inadequate and therefore ineffective. Egypt has at least 47 prisons affiliated to the Prisons Division, and 137 prisons affiliated to Security Directorates in different governorates. Under Egyptian law, prosecutors are meant to regularly visit prisons either through unannounced or planned visits.

“Prosecutors’ failure to regularly inspect prisons contributes to the shockingly low level of protection for inmates from prison officials who violate their rights in complete impunity,” said Najia Bounaim.

The only other mechanism for monitoring prison conditions is the semi-official National Council for Human Rights, which the Egyptian authorities revealed had only been allowed to conduct 18 visits between 2013-1016.