Egypt: COVID-19 deaths among political prisoners mount

Egyptian human rights sources said that the Egyptian political detainee, Hassan Ziada, died inside his detention centre in the police station of Al-Mahalla Al-Kubra in Gharbia Governorate, northern Egypt, as a result of being infected with the coronavirus (COVID-19).

The sources added that the detainee was transferred at a late stage of his illness to a public hospital which does not contain quarantine beds, and that he died while handcuffed and with his feet bound to the hospital bed.

Relatives of the detainees said that there are other people infected with coronavirus in the same police station, but that the security forces refuse to transfer them to the hospital for treatment.

A strange reason for arrest

The Egyptian Coordination for Rights and Freedoms said that Ziada, 54, was arrested on March 28, from his home in Al-Mahalla Al-Kubra city, after he was accused of participating in the “Takbir” campaign that appeared in Egypt after the spread of coronavirus. That campaign asked people to go out onto their roofs or balconies and say “Allahu Akbar” as a prayer to God over the pandemic.

For its part, the human rights organization Committee for Justice said that the late detainee was infected with the virus inside prison, after security forces arrested him and issued a decision by the public prosecution to detain him for political reasons. The organisation added that there were three other detainees inside the police station who were suspected of being infected with the virus, and that the police department did not transfer the detainees to the hospital or treat them them as soon as symptoms appeared, including failing to test them and the people they had come into contact with.

The committee emphasised that the first Mahalla Police station is well known for the overcrowding of detainees and the lowest standards of medical care, which threatens the lives of all detainees. Multiple sources also told the organisation to confirm the infection of another detainee in Al-Qanater prison, north of Cairo, after it was suspected that at least three detainees were infected last week. The prison administration isolated them and tested them which confirmed that at least one of them was infected.

The organisation accused, in a statement, Egyptian prison authorities of hiding information about the extent of the spread of the coronavirus inside prisons and places of detention. The statement added that “The Egyptian Ministry of Interior also takes many measures to block the arrival of information on the reality of the conditions inside prisons to public opinion, confirming the lack of credibility of the information issued by the ministry.” Last March, in a leaked letter from Scorpion Prison, detainees spoke of experiencing symptoms similar to the coronavirus.

Inaudible demands

The Egyptian MP Ahmed el-Tantawy called for the release of those held in detention, who exceeded 150 days in prison without a judicial ruling, in line with the measures taken by the state to confront the spread of coronavirus. He also appealed to General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi to pardon critical cases including the sick and the elderly who were not involved in dangerous terrorist or criminal acts. With the increasing spread of coronavirus in the country, activists launched a campaign, “get the prisoners out,” in which they demanded the Egyptian authorities release the detainees for fear of the spread of the virus inside prisons, which will also infect guards and police officers, not only prisoners.

In a joint statement entitled “Save them,” Egyptian human rights organisations called on the Egyptian authorities to pay attention to the heavily crowded prisons, especially in light of the poor ventilation and low level of hygiene, stressing that all of these things may lead to a humanitarian disaster that is difficult to contain if only one case infected with this virus appears in prisons and police stations. Actually, this worst nightmare has already been realised as the infection has appeared in the heavily crowded prisons, although the authorities seem to be doing nothing.

Not the first

This month, the Arab Organisation for Human Rights in Britain said that a possible disaster threatens the Egyptian detention facilities after the death of an Egyptian detainee who suffered for days and the symptoms of corona appeared inside his detention centre.

The organisation clarified that the prisoner Rajab al-Najjar died inside Bilbies General Hospital after he was transferred from his overcrowded detention facility, Bilbies Police Station, after suffering a high temperature and shortness of breath. The organisation added that “lawyers for the number of detainees inside the Belbeis Police Station reported that 11 detainees in the department showed the same symptoms that appeared on the carpenter,” which raised the detainees’ fear of the possibility of the spread of coronavirus inside the department. The police station is a breeding ground for the virus due to the poor hygiene and manifestation of insects.

The organisation stressed that the Egyptian regime is being stubborn with regard to the recommendations of the World Health Organisation over fighting the corona epidemic and is refusing to reduce the number of detainees in prisons and police stations, which constitutes a constant threat to the lives of detainees and the entire Egyptian society. The organisation added that detainees are kept in overcrowded cells with poor ventilation, lack of hygiene, and poor health care, and it is difficult for detainees to even wash their hands or their clothes.