Shady Habash, a young Egyptian filmmaker held in pretrial detention for more than two years, has died in the Tora maximum security prison complex.
Shady never thought he would be death no. 1005 inside Egypt’s cavernous places of detention. He was just 24-years-old when he did post-production on a music video by Ramy Essam, mocking President Sisi and criticising the authorities. Just a few months ago, Habash wrote to his friends about his loneliness, and struggling to “stop [himself] from going mad.”
The Egyptian attorney-general issued a statement about Shady’s death, a rare incident in this type of case, in an attempt to stop accusations leveled at him after extending Shady’s remand imprisonment beyond the legal period of two years. The statement, however, gives a clear view of the ongoing violations of prisoners and detainee’s rights, and the authorities’ continued failure to provide adequate medical care inside prisons and detention centres.
Promising to build a new future for the youth in his 2014 presidential campaign, President Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi instead brought about a new future, inside prisons. Instead of improving dilapidated public infrastructure and facilities, and addressing poverty and deteriorating livelihoods, the regime allocated its limited finances to building 60 new prisons across the country. Shady, the young, successful filmmaker whose only sin was his art, was one of an ever-growing number of young remandees and prisoners.
Committee for Justice (CFJ) data indicates that between 30 June 2013 and 30 April 2020, 1,004 deaths occurred inside Egyptian prisons and places of detention. Driving the growing number of deaths is overcrowding and poor ventilation inside prison facilities. Dozens of detainees are stuffed into small rooms in numbers far beyond their occupancy capacity.
Driving the growing number of deaths is overcrowding and poor ventilation inside prison facilities
CFJ data has documented human rights violations and occupancy levels which vary by geographic region, and category of detainees. Overcrowding is more frequent in central and near-to-court detention centres, as well as for pre-trial and remanded detainees like Habash.Disease and violence among detainees who lack personal space and suffer detention in unclean cells, are as dangerous to human lives as depression preying on young souls and lost dreams.
Our report With no Accountability showcases 85 documented deaths due to poor detention conditions (mainly overcrowding) between 30 June 2013 and 30 November 2019
The rising number of deaths is also a direct result of systematic policies of torture and healthcare deprivation. Our 2019 annual report documents 228 pyhiscal and 167 psychological torture incidents throughout the year. Of these cases, we verified 60 incidents in 52 detention places. Fifty-four percent of all verified and documented violations occurred in three prisons: (1) Tora Prisons complex (113 violations); (2) Mansoura General Prison, (64 violations), and (3) Tanta General Prison (36 torture violations).
Denial of medical care is another reason for rising fatalities among detainees. In 2019 alone, 75 out of 95 documented deaths resulted from the detention authorities’ indifferent denial of medical care.
Both torture and deprivation of medical care are glaring examples of a systematic policy to punish the authorities’ young, ambitious and unarmed adversaries, by exposing them to a “slow death” in poor detention conditions. A total of 4,783 documented violations in 2019 are clear evidence of the Egyptian authorities’ organised attack on human dignity.
Ill-treatment and a ban on, or restricted access to toilets represent 38 percent of those violations. 2,121 of those breaches (44 percent) occured in the Tora prison complex, where Habash was held in detention. 876 were violations in Borg al-Arab, and 331 in Wadi el-Natrun prisons. These are where we expect new deaths in the near future.
The Covid-19 pandemic in Egypt has multiplied fears of an unprecedented catastrophe. Since March 2020, the prisons’ authority has banned all family visits and access to detainees in pre- or post-trial detention. As more people test positive for the disease, concerns arise over Egyptian detention facilities that are at 300 percent overcrowding, according to the HR council report 2015-2016.
First hand reports from the Tora prison complex last year indicate that deprivation of hot water, forcing detainees to use shared pots for defection inside cells, and depriving them of blankets, clean clothing, and personal hygiene materials, all add to fears over lives inside detention.
Infected wardens and security officers pose a serious threat to detainee lives as they move freely in and out of detention facilities which already lack any cleaning and sterilisation. Hundreds of documented and verified narratives indicate restricting and/or banning exercise hours, prohibiting the entry of fans, medicines, and vitamins, detention in poorly lit rooms with no fresh air, and forcing prisoners to sleep on bare cold cement ground. Such conditions all raise the rate of asthma and respiratory infections.
All evidence and information about the situation inside Sisi’s prisons indicate that Shady Habash will not be the last. Whether by torture, deprivation of medical care, or poor detention conditions, death inside prisons is an extrajudicial killing, as decided by the United Nations and committed to by its member states.
Although Egypt is one of the first countries in the Middle East and North Africa to sign these conventions and treaties, its prison officials are unlikely to put them into practice. President Sisi and his attorney-general provide security and political cover to ensure that the offenders go unpunished.
This raises alarm bells over the hundreds more detainees whose voices cannot reach the outside world, and who await a fate like Shady’s at any moment. And as long as Egypt’s prisons are kept from true monitoring, Shady will not be the last.According to CFJ data from more than 300 detention facilities in different Egyptian governorates, the number of deaths since 2013 has now exceeded 1,005.
We repeat our call for the International Committee of the Red Cross to inspect Egyptian prisons, and call upon the Egyptian authorities to enable specialised local and international nongovernmental organisations to visit all places of detention.
Also, we call upon UN experts, particularly the Special Rapporteur on Torture, to visit Egypt and work on forming a national preventive mechanism of independent human rights organisations that can make undeclared visits to detention facilities in order to examine their conditions.
May Shady rest in peace, and may justice be served to the oppressed.