Egypt’s National Council for Human Rights (NCHR) has been suffering from internal divisions following a report it published into the high-security al-Aqrab prison, which houses scores of political prisoners and forms part of the Tora complex in southern Cairo.
The report was the result of a visit by a NCHR delegation in response to complaints from inmates about the prison administration’s practices, which they said violated their rights. There were allegations of abuse, a reduction in visit times, lack of medical care, the denial of access to food and clothes brought by visitors, cancelling of sports activities, and the closure of canteens in which visitors deposit money for prisoners.
Disputes started when several NCHR members deemed the report – which refuted most of the prisoners’ claims, and commended the living conditions of the prison – biased and inaccurate.
In a tweet that angered several NCHR members, former Vice President Mohammad ElBaradei wrote that national human rights councils “do not protect regimes as much as they expose their members.”
But NCHR deputy director Abdel Ghaffar Shokr argued that ElBaradei is not in a position to evaluate the report issued by the council. “ElBaradei has been away for a long time and is not aware of the situation in Egypt now,” he said in an interview with the Egyptian daily independent al-Youm al-Sabea. “Plus, this is purely his personal point of view.”
‘Muslim Brotherhood lies’
In his article “When would ElBaradei go away?” published in al-Youm al-Sabea, journalist Abdel Fattah Abdel Moneim accused ElBaradei of supporting Muslim Brotherhood members who, he argued, falsified facts about the prison. “The delegation uncovered the Brotherhood’s lies and that is why their members inside and outside the prison slammed the report and ElBaradei is helping them,” he said.
For NCHR member Salah Salam, ElBaradei did not mean to criticize the members. “This was just a way to criticize the current regime rather than the council and its members,” he told the Egyptian newspaper al-Wafd.
Hafez Abu Saada, NCHR member and director of the Egyptian Organization for Human Rights, argued that the council did all it could to investigate prisoners’ complaints.
“The only way to do this was the prison’s official records and prisoners’ testimonies, but members of the Muslim Brotherhood refused to meet us and sent a representative to tell us they do not recognize a council that works for an illegitimate regime,” he told Asharq al-Awsat newspaper. “We did not claim that the prison is a five-star hotel, though.”
According to Abu Saada, the records prove that prisoners are getting the medical care they need inside and outside the prison and field visits show that places frequented by prisoners – kitchen, cafeteria, library, and clinic – are in a good shape.
Several NCHR members slammed both the visit and the report. Mohamed Abdel Qodous, who was part of the delegation, said that the prison administration knew of the visit beforehand and prepared the place accordingly.
“The food in the kitchen is only offered in hotels. I was in jail before and I know what the food is really like,” he said in the statement he issued following the report.
Abdel Qodous accused the prison administration of fabricating visit schedules in the logs. “For example, the prisoner’s family would obtain a visit permit and the administration registers it in the logs then prevents the family from entering the prison.”
He also questioned the authenticity of prisoners’ medical reports, especially those of former Muslim Brotherhood deputy supreme guide Khairat al-Shater. “We were told he underwent a scan that cost LE 35,000. There is an unbelievable figure,” he said. Abdel Qudous also cited examples of prisoners who died in al-Aqrab prison due to an alleged lack of medical care, such as Muslim Brotherhood member Farid Ismail and head of al-Gamaa al-Islamiya consultative council Essam Derbala.
Ragia Omran is another NCHR member who slammed the report and, together with Abdel Qodous, withdrew from the meeting held to discuss it. “Not all NCHR members were notified of the visit. I was one of the excluded members. I took part neither in the visit nor in the report.”
Omran issued a joint statement with another two excluded members – George Ishaq and Kamal Abbas.
“The council allowed the Interior Ministry to film the visit and this is against the regulations. On the same day, the ministry broadcast the film to give a false image of prison conditions,” the statement said, adding that by doing this, the council is taking part in the ministry’s propaganda.
The statement also objected to the council’s decision to hold a press conference to reveal the results of the visit. “This is totally unprecedented,” it said.
The statement criticized the council for issuing such a report instead of pressuring the ministry to give prisoners the rights granted to them by the Internal Regulation for Prison Administration. “This means that visits should be 60 minutes, prisoners should have access to newspapers and books, sports time should be two hours daily, and proper medical care should be available to all inmates.”
For NCHR member Yasser Abdel Aziz, criticism of reports issued by the council is not new and is never restricted to one faction. In an interview with Asharq al-Awsat, he particularly referred to the council’s report on the dispersal of Islamist sit-ins that followed the ouster of Muslim Brotherhood president Mohamed Mursi and which accused Egyptian security of using excessive force. “At the time, regime loyalists attacked us. Now the Muslim Brotherhood is attacking us. This only proves that we are on the right track.”