*CAIRO* — * A police officer summed up the situation very clearly to political detainee Abdel Moneim Mohammed, who has spent 13 years in the custody of the Egyptian interior ministry: “We can’t release you [regardless of whether you are innocent or guilty]. After spending years in prison, you hate us – and setting you free will be a great risk.” *
The statement that was probably made by a low-ranking officer, with no authority to keep or release a detainee, is still worth pondering.
Charged with endorsing violence, Mohammed was arrested by the State Security body in 1993, leaving behind a wife and a months-old baby daughter. He signed a “repentance declaration” in detention and was consequently transferred to Wadi Al Natron II prison, also known as the “repenters’ prison”. His wife, who insists that her husband is innocent, has filed many complaints over the years and has had tens of release verdicts issued by courts. But Mohammed remains in detention.
His case is by no means unique.
Egypt has more than 15,000 political detainees, according to the Human Rights Center for the Assistance of Prisoners (HRCAP). Release verdicts are issued by courts but are rejected by the interior minister. Authorized by the Emergency Law – in place since 1981 – the minister issues new detention warrants, prolonging the prisoners’ time behind bars and their families’ time in agony.
“Sixteen years. I have been fighting for 16 years,” says Sayeda Hassan, mother of Ahmed Abdel Azim, who is currently held in Abu Zaabal prison. “I first struggled for a five-minute visit in prison, then a quarter of an hour, then half an hour.”
Hassan’s husband died after spending 10 years without seeing their imprisoned son, being too sick to visit Abdel Azim in prison.
“The problem is that the regime deals with political detainees merely as security files, overlooking the huge psychological, economic and social problems that they and their families suffer from,” says director of HRCAP Mohammed Zarei.
The result is catastrophic at all levels.
“You have an angry bulk [of detainees and their families] resentful of the regime, who have endured suffering since the 1980s and the 1990s,” explains Ahmed Seif Al Islam, executive director of Hisham Mubarak Law Center (HMLC).
“Their rage against the regime,” explains journalist and analyst Mohammed Gamal Arafa, “makes them see corruption in everything, from the subordinate policeman to the highest-ranking government officer”.
Detainees usually end up fired from their jobs and undergoing economic and social problems, “which affects their sense of national belonging; they first complain that their country doesn’t help them or offer them anything, then they start complaining that it doesn’t represent them, and, hence, they seize to acknowledge the regime that has caused their problems,” Arafa says.
“Therefore, they seek to escape, either externally by emigrating from the country or internally by adopting violence,” Arafa adds.
Unfortunately, the solution is by no means simple.
“It can cost lives,” says Abdel Rahim Ali, an expert on Islamist groups. For the government to release one prisoner it “has to be sure that he has totally rejected the [violent] ideas that he previously had”, he adds.
Detainees’ families ask, “What about those who were wrongly arrested? Those who never had violent ideas in the first place?”
“They want them to repent for something they never did,” says Hassan.
Hani Abdel Aal was being pressured to “repent”: “I went to visit him in prison and police officers kept me waiting for hours,” says his 65-year-old mother, Umm Hani, who comes from Egypt’s rural governorate of Sharkiya.
“I heard police officers tell Hani, ‘Your mom is an aging woman and we pity her, so don’t keep her waiting. Sign the repentance declaration.’ When I could finally talk to him from behind bars I urged him, ‘Sign what they want you to sign, son, if this will help,’” she says with tears.
“What shall I repent from, mom? From praying or from reading Koran,”
Abdel Aal answered.
“Repentance will be an implicit confession that they committed a crime [or endorsed violence]; they never did,” Hassan insists.
“Repentance is not the issue,” argues Nabila, the wife of Abdel Moneim Ibrahim. “My husband signed the repentance declaration years ago and he was moved to Wadi Al Natron II, the repenters’ prison; yet, he is still detained.”
Beyond proclaiming repentance from endorsing the violent ideas of Islamist groups, one prisoner announced his conversion to Christianity, in the hope that this would finally get him released. Hassan tells his story, as it was passed on to her by her son, a fellow prisoner of the “Christian convert”: “He drew a Cross on the prison’s wall and told them, ‘I am Christian, if Islam is your problem. Release me’.”
“Others have started to smoke inside prison to prove to police officers that they are moderate Muslims so that they can get released,” Hassan laments.
Still the police officers will not release them.
The Egyptian interior ministry adopts certain criteria for releasing political detainees, as stated in the 2004/5 annual report of the National Council for Human Rights (NCHR): “[The Ministry releases] prisoners whose critical health conditions make it difficult for the prison’s administration, or the hospitals affiliated with it, to handle the prisoners’ health, in which case the prisoner is released only on the condition that the ministry ensures he rejects extremist beliefs and ideas, which are harmful to the country’s security.”
Seif Al Islam of the HLMC comments on this criterion, “It’s clear that the ministry’s goal is to keep people in political detention until they start dying … This policy has been adopted since 1981.”
Other criteria stated by the ministry – and written in the NCHR’s report – include the issuance of judicial verdicts ordering the prisoners’ release and making certain that they pose no security danger.
“‘Security danger’ is a flexible term,” says Mamdouh Ismail, a lawyer for Islamist detainees. “Anyone can be classified as dangerous in one way or another.”
What’s the definition of danger then?
“Danger should be determined by facts and evidence that a certain person is planning to commit violence,” Ismail answers, “but this is not the case with the Egyptian interior ministry, which randomly arrested religious people by the thousands, in the 1990s, on the grounds of mere [suspicion] that violent ideas might just occur to them”.
Zarei of the HRCAP points out that, “some detainees do endorse dangerous ideas and others have acquired dangerous ideas in detention, but many are innocent people who were wrongly arrested.
“These people are not our enemies,” Zarei asserts. And for sure, the regime’s current policy toward them “has proved it’s not the most effective one to combat terror”, says Islam.
The solution, Zarei believes, is to acknowledge the multi-dimensional problems that political detention causes to detainees and their families, and work hard toward solving them: “A high-ranking committee comprising representatives of different ministries and governmental bodies should be formed, then it should set up a comprehensive rehabilitation program to deal with all political detainees and their families and solve their problems.”
Additionally, there should be more political openness so that people can voice their opinions in a peaceful way, says Abdel Rahim Ali, the expert on Islamist groups.
The Egyptian interior ministry has refrained from revealing the official number of political detainees in the country, says the NCHR’s report. The ministry provides the following explanation: “The ministry faces a great difficulty in determining the number of political detainees in prisons and security camps because the number differs from time to time due to frequent omissions and additions.”
One detainee’s wife speaks of her four-year-old son who wants to grow up and become a policeman, then create a “big prison to keep all those who arrested [his] dad”.
Another boy, the son of detainee Yahya Abdullah, vows to his mother, “I will buy a gun and kill the policeman who is keeping my dad in custody.”
A new generation of political detainees’ children: Watch them grow.