Not prisons but tombs: Egypt’s detainees die from medical negligence and bad conditions


Since the coup against Mohamed Morsi, the first elected civilian president in Egypt in 2013, Egyptian prisons have been crowded with large numbers of opponents of the authorities, hundreds of whom died due to what human rights activists and opponents say is “medical negligence.”

According to human rights activists and opponents, the Egyptian authorities are detaining detainees for long periods in “inhuman” prisons and police headquarters, in light of what they describe as “the deliberate absence of health care in them,” which has caused hundreds of deaths. Opponents say that Scorpion Prison, one of the annexes of the jails in the Tora area (south of Cairo), occupies the largest share of these cases.

How do prisoners die, and why does their health deteriorate?

Ehab (a pseudonym) is a surgeon who spent about 18 months in prison over political charges. He recounts how the authorities intentionally neglected detainees medically. Ehab, who refused to disclose his name for security reasons, explains that the health care conditions in prisons in general, and in Scorpion Prison in particular, are deplorable, and that there is the deliberate killing of prisoners. “There are medical procedures that are supposed to be filed by the prison administration,” said Ehab. “These reports preserve the safety of the sick prisoners, such as preparing a medical file for each prisoner. It contains the diseases he suffers from and the timing of his necessary medical examinations. That did not happen.” According to Ehab, the administration has banned medicine and medical examinations for many patients.

A human rights defender, who spoke to Egypt Watch on the condition of anonymity, said that patients with diabetes, high blood pressure, kidney and liver diseases, cancer, and finally, the coronavirus victims, are the most likely to die, under “bad conditions” from the “deliberate absence” of care. Ehab reveals the means of “how to kill political prisoners,” according to his words. “The first of which is that imprisoned patients sometimes need an urgent release from their detention to the prison hospital or other hospitals, which requires raising a request from the patient to the prison warden (prison commander).” Then, the warden sends it to the Prisons Authority, and upon approval, what they call “deportation” is prepared (a security force to accompany the sick prisoner). Still, this deportation is usually cancelled for any reason.

According to the doctor, upon cancellation, the patient repeats the application cycle, waiting for approval, which requires at least ten days. Even if the patient arrives to be deported to the hospital, “it is usual that he does not find a bed free to conduct his medical examination, or medical equipment is broken, or if he is lucky enough to perform the medical examination and the hospital doctor asks him for medical tests, then the deportation force brings the patient back to prison again to submit a request for new deportation to conduct these checks.” Ehab says that the prison administration has prevented the entry of medicines, and it has also prevented the dispensing of medicine from the prison clinic. The prison administrators do not usually respond to patients’ help, especially after the clinics are closed at three in the afternoon. That causes many of the patients to have fainting spells or go into comas.

Human rights defenders and detainees’ families accuse prison doctors of helping their administrations torture detainees by refraining from medical examinations, not dispensing medication to patients, and being intransigent in helping prisoners with chronic diseases get out for medical examinations. Also, many doctors are not at a high level of competence or are unable to cover the vast number of patients per prison, according to human rights reports. The doctor agrees with what the activists say, “several doctors (officers) affiliated with the prisons’ medical administration refrain from providing health services to sick prisoners.”

It is noteworthy that the Prisons Organisation Law No. 396 of the year 56 states that “every convicted person (that is, a preliminary or final judgment has been issued against him) if it becomes evident to the medical department at the Prison Authority that he suffers from a life-threatening disease, he shall be released healthily, after the approval of the Director-General of Prisons and the approval of the attorney general.” However, human rights sources confirm the existence of “wholesale violations and violations of prisoners’ rights, especially opposition politicians.”

The lawyers have previously submitted dozens of complaints to the Prison Authority and the Public Prosecutor against these measures, but no one has paid any attention to them. In a related matter, human rights activists also reveal that thousands of prisoners have lost more than half of their weight and appear to be very emaciated, as well as being prevented from buying food from the prison canteen (a prison administration that sells cooked food to prisoners). Regarding this starvation policy, Ehab says that it is “a slow killing process because the lack of food and basic materials that the human body needs from protein, vitamins, carbohydrates, and sugars cause the body to become weak and wasted.” This policy weakens the prisoner’s immunity, in addition to its dire effect on patients with chronic diseases.