Author: Yara WHRD Center
Since the current political administration took power in Egypt in 2014, the public domain has been closed to political activists and women human rights defenders. All party, union, and media activities have been restricted. Leaders of civil society organizations have been prosecuted, had their assets seized, and been banned from travel. Egypt has witnessed extensive campaigns targeting women human rights defenders, leading to their arrest and imprisonment in recent years. Therefore, we provide the following advice for women human rights defenders in Egypt:
1- Being a women human rights defender may expose you to being targeted by the police. Therefore, it is essential to adhere to digital security measures, including:
- Keep your mobile phone/laptop clean of any important data related to your work or activities.
- Avoid storing work or activity-related data on personal devices. Instead, store it encrypted and securely in a cloud storage location.
- Use secure applications that are difficult to be hacked or spied on by security agencies.
- It is preferable not to access e-mail or Google Drive through mobile applications but instead by using a web browser. This can prevent easy access to all your data if you are arrested and forced to unlock your mobile phone.
2- Facing Arrest by the Police: It is possible you may be arrested by the police because of your activities or work as a women’s human rights defender. Therefore, it is crucial to be extremely cautious during your work and activities. Here are some recommendations for dealing with potential arrest situations:
- You may be arrested while attending events or meetings. It is advisable to have surveillance cameras in public places that can verify your presence to counter any false claims by the police regarding the time, location, and circumstances of your arrest. Inform your friends and colleagues about your whereabouts and the reason for your presence there.
- Sometimes, plainclothes police officers may detain you. In such a situation, you have the right to ask them to show their official identification. You are also entitled to contact a lawyer, a friend, or a family member.
- Women human rights defenders might face enforced disappearance for a period of time before appearing in front of the public prosecution or state security prosecution for a formal interrogation. During this period, the police may falsify the date and location of the arrest to legitimize the arrest procedure before the prosecution. In such cases, it is essential for your colleagues and friends to send a telegram to the public prosecutor immediately after your disappearance and file a report of your absence after 24 hours to establish the true date of your arrest and challenge the legitimacy of the arrest conducted by the police.
- If you are arrested at home, you have the right to see the official authorization from the public prosecution that contains your full name, profession, the reason for your arrest, and the search warrant. Ensure that the authorization is still valid until the date of the arrest and search.
- Security forces may sometimes arrest women human rights defenders at their homes without a genuine authorization from the public prosecution. Later, they may obtain an authorization with a different date for the arrest and search. Therefore, it is crucial to have a recording camera at your residence to document the actual date of the arrest and search, which can be used later for legal defense.
3- Recommendations during Police Interrogation:
- Police may try to pressure you physically or psychologically into confessing to crimes you did not commit or possessing items that are not yours. It is preferable to resist such pressure as much as you can. If resisting becomes difficult, it is essential to inform the public prosecution during your first appearance that you were forced to sign false statements or admit possession of false items.
- Police officers may attempt to show empathy and request your cooperation in providing names and information about some of your colleagues or friends to secure your release. However, you should not trust these tactics, which aim to extract as much information as possible.
- Police may try to force you to unlock your phone or to provide the passcode. You have the right to refuse and resist such attempts. If you are confident that your phone contains sensitive data that could incriminate you and you have the opportunity to dispose of it shortly before or during the arrest, you can break it, burn it, or throw it in water. This will deprive the police of potentially incriminating information to be used against you.
4- The Importance of Having a Personal Lawyer:
- As a women human rights defender, it is preferable for you to prepare a power of attorney for one of the lawyers in general. Having this power of attorney will greatly facilitate the lawyer’s ability to file reports, requests, and legally represent you before different state authorities in case of your arrest. Handling a power of attorney from within detention facilities is usually lengthy and complicated.
5- Detention in Prisons:
- Sometimes, the Ministry of the Interior does not provide information to the relatives of the accused about the location of the prison or detention facility. In such cases, the lawyer of the accused or the first- or second-degree relatives must submit a request to the Prisons Sector to inquire about the prison’s name and location. The request should be accompanied by a copy of the lawyer’s power of attorney and ID card or the personal identification of the accused’s relatives.
6- Information about Prison Visits:
- Visiting hours in prisons are from 9:00 AM to 12:00 PM. It is advisable for the visitor to arrive before 9:00 AM because sometimes there can be a significant number of visitors, and the prison administration allows them to enter based on the order of registering names. If the visitor arrives after 12:00 PM, they might not be allowed to visit.
- Prisoners are allowed visits every three weeks, regardless of the type of punishment they are serving. Only two visitors are allowed, and sometimes three, depending on the prison administration’s instructions.
- Care should be taken not to reach the allowed number of visits for the prisoner. Therefore, visit coordination should be made between the lawyer of the accused and the family members to avoid situations where one party prevents the other from visiting due to the limited number of allowed visits for the prisoner.
7- Solitary Confinement:
Solitary confinement refers to the holding of a prisoner alone in a cell for a period ranging from 22 to 24 hours in a day, allowed no contact with other prisoners and without restricted visitation rights.
According to the Nelson Mandela Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners, the state’s practice of pretrial detention for a period exceeding 15 days is considered a form of torture and inhuman treatment. However, according to Egyptian law, pretrial detention can extend up to 30 days. In the latest amendment to the Prison Organization Law No. 396 of 1956, the assistant minister of interior for the prison sector was given the authority to place a prisoner in a highly guarded special room for a period not exceeding 6 months. In practice, this provision is applied as a form of solitary confinement.
● How the State Practices Solitary Confinement
“The conditions in Egyptian prisons were always bad, but the deliberate harshness of such treatment shows a greater disregard for human dignity and human rights by the Egyptian authorities.”
Najia Bounaim, North Africa Campaigns Director at Amnesty International.
“Amnesty International documented 25 cases of prisoners who were subjected to prolonged or indefinite solitary confinement since 2013 until 2018. The duration of their solitary confinement ranged from three weeks to over four years. They were also forced to sleep on the floor of small and dirty cells, lacking proper lighting or ventilation. Additionally, they were denied access to toilets when needed, and they were not provided with sufficient food.”
- Typically, Egyptian prisons use solitary confinement for over 15 days as a disciplinary punishment against prisoners involved in political cases and cases related to freedom of expression. Sometimes, it is used illegally for periods exceeding the maximum limit of 30 days.
- ” I lost all sense of time, and I can’t remember much from before prison. I even forgot the names of some of the people I loved inside. A close friend of mine sent me a letter asking how I deal with ‘boredom.’ They mentioned that the prison literature they read discussed torture and other things, but it didn’t help them imagine the ordinary day and how to cope with all this ‘surplus’ time.” This is how the WHRD Yara Salam expressed her experience in prison after her sentence in 2014. Although this statement applies to the prison experience in general, its impact is greatly multiplied in the experience of solitary confinement.
- The Egyptian prison administration is keen on placing prisoners in cells designed with poor ventilation and without sunlight. These cells lack windows, or are deliberately closed. Prisoners are isolated from any external communication, be it through visits or receiving letters, leading to a loss of perception of time.
The Impact of Solitary Confinement:
● Solitary confinement is considered one of the most dangerous forms of physical and psychological torture used against prisoners. As human beings are fundamentally social beings, isolating them from communication with others in any way leads to numerous health and psychological damages, especially since solitary confinement is often not limited to absolute isolation but is accompanied by intentional mistreatment by prison authorities. Being confined to a cramped cell that severely restricts movement can also on its own cause physical injuries to the muscles, bones, and joints.
● “The accumulated evidence so far indicates the severity of serious health and adverse effects resulting from the use of solitary confinement, ranging from insomnia and confusion to hallucinations and mental illnesses. The main negative factor resulting from solitary confinement is reducing social and psychological interactions to an absolute minimum, which is insufficient for most detainees to maintain good mental health. Moreover, the effects of solitary confinement on detainees under interrogation may be worse than on other isolated detainees, considering the uncertainty about the expected duration of detention and the possibility of using it to extract information or confessions. There is an increase in suicide rates and self-harm during the first two weeks of solitary confinement for detainees under interrogation.”
How to Deal with Solitary Confinement:
● For the prisoner, here are some general recommendations:
1- The main enemy in solitary confinement is time, so the prisoner should find ways to fill their spare time inside the cell. This can be achieved by dividing the tasks of cleaning the cell into several times throughout the day, reflecting on positive thoughts and memories, or immersing oneself in reading or studying if allowed to have books in the cell.
2- One of the drawbacks of solitary confinement is the deterioration of the prisoner’s health, as well as poor nutrition, which might be intentional. Therefore, it is essential to maintain the quality of nutrition, either through the food brought by family members, relatives, or lawyers during visits, or by using the prison canteen credit. The prisoner should also engage in simple exercises or walking to take as many steps as possible inside the cell or during exercise time if permitted.
3- The prisoners must stop thinking about the time of their permanent departure from prison and instead should focus their attention on learning any new skill or craft they can use to spend her time during solitary confinement, if possible.
For friends, family, and lawyers:
1- During the period of solitary confinement, the prisoner goes through difficult times and sometimes feels that everyone has forgotten about her outside the prison. Therefore, any external communication with her is very beneficial for her mental and psychological well-being. This communication can be through prison visits, letters, permissible gifts such as food or clothes, a radio, etc.
2- Deposit money in her name in the prison canteen so that she can buy some meals and items that are not provided by the prison administration for free.
3- It is possible to take some legal measures, such as appealing the verdict, even if the chances of success are little, just to compel the prison to transfer the prisoner to the court. In this event, she can see the streets and people on the way, the lawyer in the court, and perhaps her family or friends.
These steps can reduce the weight of solitary confinement as much as possible and its effects on the prisoner, reminding her of those who love and support her and remember her beyond the prison walls.
After leaving Prison
- The women human rights defender must continue to consult with a psychologist to help overcome the psychological and mental effects of solitary confinement, as well as to address any social and occupational skills that may have been impacted. Moreover, her friends, family, and colleagues should treat her with understanding, not expecting her to function as she did before her incarceration, and avoid criticizing any changes in her habits or personal traits that may seem bothersome. Instead, they should offer support and full understanding of what she has been through to help her overcome the aftermath of this experience.
- The women human rights defender should also regularly follow up with her lawyer to keep track of any updates regarding her legal status, whether it is regarding acquittal or bail. Obtaining certificates and official documents to verify her legal status will facilitate her movements inside the country and prevent repeated detention in police stations and at various security checkpoints.
- In addition, it is essential to continuously monitor whether the women human rights defender’s name appears in any new cases. The Egyptian government has been following a policy of “rotating political prisoners,” which means accusing activists and human rights defenders of new political charges after the expiration of the maximum pretrial detention period (two years) in order to start a new detention period related to the latest case.