Islamists punished in Egypt's cruel jails thousinds without rital

Thousands are held without trial and without visitors, reports Robert Fisk
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The Independent Online
Cairo - Just off the Cairo-Alexandria desert highway near Wadi Latroun, the Egyptians are building a massive new prison with 15ft-thick walls of solid concrete, capable of holding thousands of new prisoners arrested in President Mubarak's war against his violent Islamist opponents.

The extension to the Delta prison complex is the despair of Cairo human rights groups, which fear Egypt's overcrowded and brutal prisons are being used as detention camps for men who may never face trial.

Already up to 20,000 Islamists are in prison officially "awaiting trial". Mohamed Mounib, secretary-general of the Egyptian Organisation of Human Rights (EOHR), believes at least 17,000 men are being held without any judicial hearing. "Even the minister of interior doesn't know the true figure," he says. "He admitted he didn't know in a newspaper interview. What are we to make of this? We repeatedly send our reports of torture and deaths in Egyptian jails to the minister - to the embassies as well, the Americans and the other Western diplomats - but they never reply."

At least 30 prisoners are believed to have died from ill-treatment or torture in Egyptian prisons so far this year, but Mr Mounib's group, which works with Human Rights Watch in Washington, is producing ever more convincing evidence that whipping and flogging are carried out routinely as collective punishments for thousands of inmates, often for minor misdemeanours.

In Section 4 of Block 2H of the special high-security prison in the Tora complex, 20 miles from Cairo, 20 prisoners were stripped naked and flogged with canes on their backs, feet and buttocks last June after soldiers found a pocket radio and a watch on an inmate, Gamal Osman, a medical student.

When another search uncovered a pen in the possession of Ali Naser in Block 4H, - grimly nicknamed the "Scorpion"- all 80 occupants of the block were stripped and whipped. The EOHR points out in its latest report that the two most senior officers of the State Security Investigation Department at the prison - Col Hazen and Lt-Col Abdel-Nasr el-Tahawih - must know of the ferocity to which the men are subjected, because both live inside the prison.

They allow inmates to be taken regularly to the notorious Lazoughly Street state security offices in central Cairo, where members of the violent "Gema'a Islamiya" - Islamic Group - are regularly tortured with electricity.

In the "Scorpion", according to testimony from former prisoners, food is infested with insects and distributed in dirty buckets. For more than two years, inmates of the Tora complex have been deprived of visits from relatives.

The Egyptian police authorities say they "close" prisons from visitors to prevent Islamist leaders sending instructions to their members to carry out new attacks against tourists, foreigners and the security forces. But mistreatment includes sadism. Men held in desert jails have complained that they are given female names by warders and then ordered to rape each other as a punishment for infringing prison rules.

Without much hope of improvement in human rights, Mr Mounib has written to President Hosni Mubarak and Hussein al-Alfi, the Minister of Interior, demanding they approve all declarations of the International Convention against Torture and other Cruel, Inhumane or Degrading Treatment, set up an independent committee to investigate prison conditions and interrogate police officers who have beaten or tortured prisoners.

No Western embassy has made any public statement about the human-rights abuses in Egypt's prisons - nor are any expected to do so.

"The Americans supply the police with the electric batons that are used in the prisons and the tear-gas for putting down riots," Mr Mounib says. "They even give our police the steel and plastic handcuffs that are used in the jails. No, we have heard nothing from the Americans. We send them our reports ... They know what is going on."

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