With little room for outcry, Egyptian detainees turn to hunger strikes

Sunday 21-02-2016 01:57 PM

Families of Aqrab detainees protest against worsening visiting conditions. Feb. 18, 2016 (ASWAT MASRIYA/Jihad Abaza)

Photographer Jihad Abaza

CAIRO, Feb. 19 (Aswat Masriya) Radwa Khairi has come to accept that her father is imprisoned. “This is fate,” she said. Yet, Khairi cannot come to terms with the visits that last from five to seven minutes bi-monthly, if prison administrators even allow them at all.

“Visits are through glass windows, and the phones sometimes don’t work well, and there is no touching allowed at all,” Khairi said, adding that the last time she was able to shake her father’s hand was immediately after the state-affiliated National Council for Human Rights (NCHR) made a visit to the notorious Aqrab prison, which is often referred to as “Egypt’s Guantanamo.”

On Thursday, families of the Aqrab detainees gathered on the stairs of the Journalists’ Syndicate, to re-announce detainees’ hunger-strikes, and to demand an end to what they have described as “humiliating” visiting conditions. Security forces stood on the other side of the street, in uniform and civilian clothing, watching the protest and filming with cell phones.

“Abdalla Karam Daoud is on full hunger strike and [officers] threatened him that if he does not end it, they will arrest his mother. He is 18-years old,” one of the protestors, who refused to be named, told Aswat Masriya.

Other protestors stated that most of the hunger-strikes began shortly after Jan. 25, which also marked the fifth anniversary of the 2011 Uprising that led former president Hosni Mubarak to step down.

Ayah Alaa, the wife on one of the Aqrab detainees, told Aswat Masriya that the number of how many detainees are either on full or partial hunger strike remains a rough estimate.

“Our only connection [with the detainees] is through visits, so we find out about the hunger strikes from families of other inmates… [the detainee] will tell them, for example,  that he is on hunger strikes with six other people,” Alaa said adding that this is how families keep count of the number of strikes inside Aqrab.

There are approximately 1,000 detainees in Aqrab one, where most of the hunger-strikers are imprisoned. Yet many of Aqrab two detainees are also overwhelmed by violations, despite not yet turning to strikes as a form of protest.

Prison administrators moved Ahmed Saied to solitary confinement. Security arrested Saied in November 2015 at a demonstration commemorating the Mohamed Mahmoud clashes, when police killed dozens of protestors in 2012. 

“No one has seen Ahmed for over 70 hours and no one knows anything about him,” Saied’s sister Lamia said on Friday. She has heard from other families who have visited eye-witness inmates that officers beat her brother and have condemned him to a month without food or visits, she told Aswat Masriya.

Meanwhile,  Maj. Gen. Hassan al-Sohagi, the Interior Ministry official responsible for prisons, told Aswat Masriya that no prisoners were on hungerstrike.

The Hunger Strikers

Amr Rabee and Sayed Ali have been on full hunger strike for up to six days, their lawyer Mohamed Nassef told Aswat Masriya.

Rabee is a Cairo university student who disappeared after being arrested from a Cairo neighborhood on March 11, 2014, Amnesty International had said in a 2014 statement condemning enforced disappearances.  

After they had filed a report at the Public Prosecutor’s office, Rabee’s family received a phone call from a released prisoner who informed them that Rabee was detained in Al-Azouly military prison, and that he could no longer move his left arm after being subjected to extensive torture. The saw Rabee for the first time since his arrest two months later on May 17, when he was brought before an East Cairo Prosecutor’s Office and were surprised to see that the official case file claimed that Rabee was arrested from Haram on May 17.

Rabee’s lawyer said that Rabee’s arm is slowly getting better after his shoulder was paralyzed, yet prison conditions remain onerous. Rabee is on hunger strike because the Aqrab prison administration has “banned visits, sports, and all of [the detainees’] rights are considered lost… no clothes, no blankets, and their bodies do not see the sun.”

As for Sayed Ali, popularly known as Sayed Mushagheb and one of the leading figures in the rebellious Ultras White Knights football fan group, was initially detained in Torah prison.

“He was arbitrarily moved and separated from his friends so that [the officers] could distress him, and to break his spirits they dressed him blue, which is for detainees who have already received sentences but his is a pre-trial detention so he is supposed to wear white,” Nassef said.

Rabee is currently held in Aqrab one, while Aly is in Aqrab two. Rabee is charged with belonging to Ansar Beit al-Maqdes, a militant group that has claimed a number of attacks in Cairo and Sinai while Aly is charged with attacking a National Security building in Nasr City.

Both deny the charges and deem them fabricated.

Since the military ouster of Mohamed Musri, following mass protests against his rule, and subsequently the ascendence of Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi into presidency, hundreds have vanished without a trace. As though swallowed by the state, many are falling victim to Egypt's growing phenomenon of enforced disappearance.

Security officials, usually in civilian clothing,"grab them from the street or from their homes and then deny it, or refuse to say where they are," as Amnesty International has described it. Their names are withheld from all prison records until, if they are lucky, they one day appear in front of public prosecution and are handed charges. 

“Islam saw that his hunger strike is the only way that he can send his voice out across prison walls, and to send the message that prison kills all that is good,” the detainee support group Freedom of the Brave, wrote on behalf of Islam Khalil, who had disappeared for 122 days before his family found him locked up.  


Hunger strikes in Egypt have come in waves over the past three years, and one cannot predict how long they may continue. Palestinian prisoners, which may have been an initial inspiration for their Egyptian counterparts, have been protesting their detentions in Israel's prison system through hunger strikes for decades.  

Ibrahim al-Yamany, went on hunger strike twice since he was arrested in 2013, the first time for 89 days and the second time for 574 days after which he switched to a partial hunger-strike, his brother Aabed al-Yamany said.

“Because he knows he is innocent,” was Aabed’s initial response to the question of why his brother chose to protest his detention. 

Al- Yamany is currently jailed in Wadi al-Natroun prison, although he has been in multiple prisons throughout his detention.

According to Aabed, at the moment the effect of Palestinian hunger-strikers on al-Yamany is not quite as strong because he does not get news of them inside his detention.

Yet Al-Yamany did know about Samer Issawi, a Palestinian who refused food from Israeli prison authorities for 266 days. 

“Before these events Samer Issawi had an impact on him and his release made them believe that the idea may work,” Aabed said in reference both to his brother and Abdullah al-Shamy and Mohamed Soltan, both of whom had endured long-term hunger strikes, backed by strong media campaigns, before eventually getting released.

Al-Yamany’s hunger-strike has yet to bear the fruits of its labor, “Abdallah al-Shamy and Soltan surely have had an effect on him to endure these two periods,” Aabed said. 

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