Egypt: ‘It would spread quickly in those cells’

Families of prisoners at notorious Tora complex concerned publicised efforts to contain virus are purely cosmetic

Fears are mounting over the safety of prisoners in Egypt’s notorious Tora prison, as rights groups say parts of the complex have been cordoned off to quarantine those diagnosed with coronavirus.

Families of those held inside the huge compound south of Cairo, which houses at least eight individual prisons, including two maximum security wings, say the authorities’ attempts to combat the spread of Covid-19 inside Tora are at best cosmetic. “Things have been erratic since they banned visits in March,” said Mona Seif, whose brother, the activist Alaa Abdel Fattah, has been detained in at the prison since September.

Seif said prison authorities had restricted supplies of hand sanitiser and soap provided by prisoners’ families, and were failing to protect them from infection. “All working personnel in Tora are allowed to go home and return every day, so they’re exposed to potential infection,” she said. “They’re dealing with prisoners with no access to sanitary tools, or information about how the virus spreads.”

Since a ban on visits was imposed, communication between prisoners and the outside world has been curtailed. But families and activist groups have reported that sections of two blocks, including part of one of the maximum security wings, are now being used to quarantine those with the virus. Earlier this month, a coalition of rights groups demanded the Egyptian government release details of detainees infected with Covid-19.

Concern has been growing since the death last month of Sayed Ahmed Hegazy, who worked at the sprawling prison complex. He died in his family’s car as they desperately sought a hospital to treat him for Covid-19.

On 11 June, the family of Yasser Albaz, a Canadian citizen held in Tora, said he was experiencing symptoms of Covid-19, after another 42-year-old prisoner in the same wing died from the virus. Two days later, on 13 June, Cairo-based rights group the Egyptian Coordination of Rights and Freedoms reported that a 51-year-old prisoner had died of coronavirus.

Egypt’s interior ministry attempted to quash the news of Hegazy’s death. A month earlier, the same ministry released footage of efforts to counter the virus, with dramatic music soundtracking images of employees being screened and prisoners swabbed, while yellow-suited employees sterilised an entranceway.

Egypt is currently dealing with a significant increase in Covid-19 infections, with 50,000 confirmed cases. One government minister has repeatedly said the true number is likely to be five to 10 times the official rate.

After years of allegations of medical negligence inside Tora, observers believe overcrowded facilities could quickly allow the spread of disease.

The Egyptian authorities have declined the mass prisoner releases sanctioned elsewhere to reduce the spread of infection.

Egypt has built at least 19 new prisons since 2011, many of which are overcrowded due to an unprecedented number of arrests. Thousands of people languish in pre-trial detention.

At least 60,000 political prisoners are held in Egypt, according to Human Rights Watch, which describes inadequate medical care as “the norm”.

Former Tora detainee Mohamed Soltan published footage showing how prison conditions have deteriorated in recent years, despite the prison authority’s claims of good treatment, including a recent stage-managed visit for journalists.

Former president Mohamed Morsi died in court last June after being held in conditions at Tora denounced as torture by UN experts.

In May, 24-year-old film-maker Shady Habash became the third prisoner in his packed cellblock to die while incarcerated.

“Most prisoners rely almost totally on medication provided by their families,” said Hassan Nafaa, a political science professor at the American University in Cairo, who was released from Tora in March after six months of pre-trial detention.

Nafaa said some cells held 40 people. “If you have just one proven case of Covid-19 it would spread quickly in those cells,” he said. “People sleep closely together, they eat together, crammed into a room of 10 or 15 sq metres.”

Seif said she believed coronavirus would remain an invisible crisis unless infection rates reached crisis levels. “If we get to know, I don’t want to say it will be too late, but it will be far more serious and advanced than it could be,” she said.