News / Middle East

Brotherhood Leaders Compare Egypt Jail Cells to Graves

Supporters of ousted Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi rally against the military and interior ministry, as they show the "Rabaa" gesture, a sign to condemn police killing of hundreds of protesters.
Supporters of ousted Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi rally against the military and interior ministry, as they show the "Rabaa" gesture, a sign to condemn police killing of hundreds of protesters.
Murad Ali said he was put in a foul-smelling cell on death row, sleeping on a concrete floor, and denied light and human contact after his arrest in Egypt's crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood. “It was as dark as a grave,” he wrote in a letter addressed to friends and family, and seen by Reuters.

The army-backed authorities deny claims that Brotherhood leaders have been mistreated, and there is no way to independently verify such accounts; but people who have spoken to them in jail say some have been kept in similar conditions for days on end.

Their relatives describe it as a bid to break their spirit - a measure of the severity of the campaign against the group that was swept from power by the military on July 3, when Mohamed Morsi, a Brotherhood member, was deposed.

Analysts say it points to a state effort to weaken the Brotherhood by decapitating it. The movement says it has up to one million members and it is one of the most influential Islamist groups in the Middle East.

“They are putting them under psychological pressure to break them,” said a relative of another inmate, adding that in the first 13 days of his incarceration he had been let out of his cell only for questioning. “He said: 'It is a grave. We are in graves',” she said. “It was as if he hadn't seen us for years.”

The woman, like others interviewed, declined to be named for fear it would lead to tougher treatment for those in prison or retribution against her family.

The authorities have arrested at least 3,000 people since Morsi was toppled, according to Amnesty International. A state of emergency gives security forces sweeping powers, though Brotherhood leaders have been detained under normal criminal laws. Much of Egypt remains under a nighttime curfew.

Accounts emerging from prisons indicate much tougher jail conditions for the leaders than what the group faced under autocrat Hosni Mubarak, toppled in a 2011 revolt. Brotherhood leaders were generally treated better than most inmates in Mubarak's day, for all the repression across the country at large.

But the group that propelled Morsi to power in Egypt's first freely contested presidential vote faces the toughest clampdown since the death of President Gamal Abdel Nasser in 1970.

While the Interior Ministry denied the leaders have been put in solitary confinement, it confirmed they had been separated for security reasons. Hany Abdel Latif, spokesman for the ministry, said prison rules allowing for exercise, medical treatment and library access applied to all prisoners.

“The situation is normal,” he said.

Leaders of the Brotherhood, described by local media in terms akin to al-Qaida, have been charged with crimes including inciting violence and murder since the army deposed Morsi after mass protests against his rule.

Some of the leaders now seem to have no idea what is going on outside prison. A relative of one said he had been surprised to hear there were still protests against the army-backed government.

Amnesty International, citing Brotherhood lawyers, said Murad Ali's eyesight had been affected by the lack of light in his solitary cell. “He was also not allowed to take medication for blood pressure for two days,” said its Egypt researcher, Mohamed El Messiry. “Amnesty International is not able to confirm other reported cases,” he added.

'Revenge' allegations

In a hand-written note Ali, arrested at the airport last month as he tried to leave the country, said his cell had no running water for the first two days. Charges against him include forming a “terrorist gang.”

Spokesman for the Brotherhood's political party, he said the shutter in his cell door was kept closed for the first eight days.

Echoing Ali's account, two other senior Brotherhood politicians told state prosecutors they were being held in solitary confinement, official documents published by a local newspaper showed on Saturday.

Mohamed el-Beltagi, one of the two, said he had been held in a cell with no light or ventilation and had only been let out for questioning, according to the document, published on Saturday in Al-Masry Al-Youm, an anti-Brotherhood daily.

“I am not being dealt with as someone in pretrial detention,” Beltagi said. “I have been dealt with in a political way in revenge for my politics.”

Beltagi, charged with inciting killing and torture, also said he had been assaulted upon his arrival at prison, though the prosecutor reported no sign of injury in the document.

He complained that food and medication were not allowed  - echoing complaints of relatives who say they have not been allowed to deliver food.

At least five prominent detainees have been held for days on end in poorly lit and ventilated cells with little or no human contact, according to written accounts attributed to some of them and interviews with relatives who had visited others. One of the relatives said she knew of at least a dozen such cases.

The police continue to arrest Brotherhood activists, a sign of how dim the prospects are of reconciliation with the army-backed government. Morsi is among those charged with inciting killing. His whereabouts remain a secret.

Security forces have killed at least 900 of his supporters in the streets since his downfall, the worst spasm of violence in Egypt's modern history. More than a hundred members of the security forces have also been killed since Aug. 14, when the police moved to break up pro-Morsi sit-ins in Cairo.

'Carte Blanche'

“We can't compare it to Nasser - they were torturing and killing them (in prison) - but it is definitely worse than Mubarak,” said Khalil al-Anani, an expert on the Brotherhood and a senior fellow at the Middle East Institute in Washington.

“Under Mubarak, they had access to the movement. There were connections between the leaders and organization, and they used to run the organization from prison. Now they want to make sure there is no connection, in order to break the Brotherhood and to push them to accept any deal,” he said.

The leaders are being held at Tora Prison, a high security facility on Cairo's southern outskirts.

One relative noted that the prison authorities appeared to get tougher on the Brotherhood leadership a few weeks ago, when they stopped a group of them from eating together.

They were then confined to cells until medics warned that a lack of exposure to sunlight risked exacerbating skin diseases for which some already were showing signs, said the relative.

Murad Ali's letter says he was put in solitary confinement in a cell with no bed on August 22. The note says the lack of water for the first two days meant he could neither perform ritual ablutions nor clean the excrement he had found inside.

Eight days into his incarceration, the opening of the shutter in the cell door marked a “big step.” It let in more air and light and allowed him to communicate with others, he wrote.

Twelve days into his detention he was let out for half an hour of exercise - something he is still permitted on a daily basis, according to someone who visited him.

Gamal Eid, a human rights activist, said that Brotherhood leaders, suspicious of Egyptian human rights activists they believe supported Morsi's overthrow, had turned down offers from activists who had sought to attend prosecutor questioning.

That questioning is being carried out in the prisons - something Eid described as a breach of human rights, but which other Egyptian rights activists have said is understandable given security concerns.

Anani said many Egyptian human rights organizations had taken political positions against the Brotherhood, giving the authorities “carte blanche” to do as they please.

“They used to receive a middle class treatment, a relatively more privileged treatment,” said Karim Ennarah, of the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights. “But I assume this time it is going to be difficult and more punitive and harsher because the dynamic is different, or because of the perception that they ordered violence against the police or state forces.”

You May Like

Video Americans, Tourists, Reflect on Meaning of Thanksgiving

VOA garnered opinions from several people soon after November 13 Paris attacks, which colored many of their thoughts

Video Thais Send Security Concerns Down the River

In northern Thailand, the annual tradition of constructing floating baskets to carry away the year’s bad spirits highlights the Loy Krathong festival

Video Tree Houses - A Branch of American Dream

Workshops aimed at teaching people how to build tree houses have become widely popular in America in recent years

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
Belgium-Germany Border Remains Porous, Even As Manhunt For Paris Attacker Continuesi
Ayesha Tanzeem
November 25, 2015 10:46 PM
One of the suspected gunmen in the Nov. 13 Paris attacks, Salah Abdeslam, evaded law enforcement, made his way to Belgium, and is now believed to have fled to Germany. VOA correspondent Ayesha Tanzeem makes the journey across the border from Belgium into Germany to see how porous the borders really are.

Video Belgium-Germany Border Remains Porous, Even As Manhunt For Paris Attacker Continues

One of the suspected gunmen in the Nov. 13 Paris attacks, Salah Abdeslam, evaded law enforcement, made his way to Belgium, and is now believed to have fled to Germany. VOA correspondent Ayesha Tanzeem makes the journey across the border from Belgium into Germany to see how porous the borders really are.

Video Islamic State Unfazed by Losses in Iraq, Syria

Progress in the U.S.-led effort to beat Islamic State on its home turf in Iraq and Syria has led some to speculate the terror group may be growing desperate. But counterterror officials say that is not the case, and warn the recent spate of terror attacks is merely part of the group’s evolution. VOA National Security correspondent Jeff Seldin has more.

Video Taiwan Looks for Role in South China Sea Dispute

The Taiwanese government is one of several that claims territory in the hotly contested South China Sea, but Taipei has long been sidelined in the dispute, overshadowed by China. Now, as the Philippines challenges Beijing’s claims in an international court at The Hague, Taipei is looking to publicly assert its claims. VOA’s Bill Ide has more from Beijing.

Video Syrian Refugees in US Express Concern for Those Left Behind

Syrian immigrants in the United States are concerned about the negative tide of public opinion and the politicians who want to block a U.S. plan to accept 10,000 Syrian refugees. Zlatica Hoke reports many Americans are fighting to dispel suspicions linking refugees to terrorists.

Video After Paris Attacks, France Steps Up Fight Against IS

The November 13 Paris attacks have drawn increased attention to Syria, where many of the suspected perpetrators are said to have received training. French President Francois Hollande is working to build a broad international coalition to defeat Islamic State in Syria and in Iraq. Zlatica Hoke reports.

Video US, Cambodian Navies Pair Up in Gulf of Thailand

The U.S. Navy has deployed one of its newest and most advanced ships to Cambodia to conduct joint training drills in the Gulf of Thailand. Riding hull-to-hull with Cambodian ships, the seamen of the USS Fort Worth are executing joint-training drills that will help build relations in Southeast Asia. David Boyle reports for VOA from Preah Sihanouk province.

Video Americans Sharpen Focus on Terrorism

Washington will be quieter than usual this week due to the Thanksgiving holiday, even as Americans across the nation register heightened concerns over possible terrorist threats. VOA’s Michael Bowman reports new polling data from ABC News and the Washington Post newspaper show an electorate increasingly focused on security issues after the deadly Islamic State attacks in Paris.

Video World Leaders Head to Paris for Climate Deal

Heads of state from nearly 80 countries are heading to Paris (November 30-December 11) to craft a global climate change agreement. The new accord will replace the Kyoto Protocol on Climate Change that expired in 2012.

Video Uncertain Future for Syrian Refugee Resettlement in Illinois

For the trickle of Syrian refugees finding new homes in the Midwest city of Chicago, the call to end resettlement in many U.S. states is adding another dimension to their long journey fleeing war. Organizations working to help them integrate say the backlash since the Paris attacks is both harming and helping their efforts to provide refugees sanctuary. VOA's Kane Farabaugh reports.

Video Creating Physical Virtual Reality With Tiny Drones

As many computer gamers know, virtual reality is a three-dimensional picture, projected inside special googles. It can fool your brain into thinking the computer world is the real world. But If you try to touch it, it’s not there. Now Canadian researchers say it may be possible to create a physical virtual reality using tiny drones. VOA’s George Putic reports.

Video New American Indian Village Takes Visitors Back in Time

There is precious little opportunity to experience what life was like in the United States before its colonization by European settlers. Now, an American Indian village built in a park outside Washington is taking visitors back in time to experience the way of life of America's indigenous people. Carol Pearson narrates this report from VOA's June Soh.

Video Even With Hometown Liberated, Yazidi Refugees Fear Return

While the northern Iraqi town of Sinjar has been liberated from Islamic State forces, it's not clear whether Yazidi residents who fled the militants will now return home. VOA’s Mahmut Bozarslan talked with Yazidis, a religious and ethnic minority, at a Turkish refugee camp in Diyarbakır. Robert Raffaele narrates his report.

Video Nairobi Tailors Make Pope Francis’ Vestments

To ensure the pope is properly attired during his visit, the Kenya Conference of Catholic Bishops asked the Dolly Craft Sewing Project in the Nairobi slum of Kangemi to make the pope's vestments, the garments he will wear during the various ceremonies. Jill Craig reports.

Video Cross-Border Terrorism Puts Europe’s Passport-Free Travel in Doubt

The fallout from the Islamic State terror attacks in Paris has put the future of Europe’s passport-free travel area, known as the "Schengen Zone," in doubt. Several of the perpetrators were known to intelligence agencies, but were not intercepted. Henry Ridgwell reports from London European ministers are to hold an emergency meeting Friday in Brussels to look at ways of improving security.

Video El Niño Brings Unexpected Fish From Mexico to California

Fish in an unexpected spectrum of sizes, shapes and colors are moving north, through El Niño's warm currents from Mexican waters to the Pacific Ocean off California’s coast. El Nino is the periodic warming of the eastern and central Pacific Ocean. As Faiza Elmasry tells us, this phenomenon thrills scientists and gives anglers the chance of a once-in-a-lifetime big catch. Faith Lapidus narrates.

Video Terrorism in Many Forms Continues to Plague Africa

While the world's attention is on Paris in the wake of Friday night's deadly attacks, terrorism from various sides remains a looming threat in many African countries. Nigerian cities have been targeted this week by attacks many believe were staged by the violent Islamist group Boko Haram. In addition, residents in many regions are forced to flee their homes as they are terrorized by armed militias. Zlatica Hoke reports.

Video Study: Underage Marriage Rate Higher for Females in Pakistan

While attitudes about the societal role of females in Pakistan are evolving, research by child advocacy group Plan International suggests that underage marriage of girls remains a particularly big issue in the country. VOA’s Ayesha Tanzeem reports how such marriages leads to further social problems.

VOA Blogs