Aqrab Prison

Journalists in Aqrab Prison start hunger strike, protest ‘slow death’ behind bars

Nine Egyptian journalists serving sentences in Aqrab Prison, the maximum-security section of Cairo's Tora prison complex, have started a hunger strike “against mistreatment and poor living conditions in detention,” according to Egyptian media reports.

The nine journalists — Magdy Hussien, Hassan al-Qabani, Ahmed Sabea, Hany Salah Eddin, Khaled Shalaby, Ahmed Salah, Mohamed Nwareg, Hossam al-Sayed, and Hesham Gaafar  —  started their protest in response to “the slow death they are facing,” according to an open letter to the Journalists Syndicate.

The letter was submitted on Thursday night by the wives of journalists Hassan al-Qabani and Ahmed Sebea, allegedly on behalf of the families of the nine detained journalists.

It echoed a joint statement made by their wives decrying “the violations committed against them, including solitary confinement, lack of ventilation inside prison wards, as well as lack of food, medications and warm clothes for winter,” Khaled al-Balshy, head of the Journalists Syndicate’s Freedoms Committee, told Mada Masr.

“We [Hassab al-Qabani’s wife and I] have been asked to submit the letter on behalf of the nine wives to the Journalists Syndicate. It has been signed by all nine of us. Tomorrow, we will file complaints with the Public Prosecutor, and the State Attorney”, Eman Mahrous, wife of jailed journalist Ahmed Sebea, told Mada Masr.

According to Mahrous, her husband is waiting to appear before an appellate judge on March 1 to appeal against a life-sentence previously handed to him in the “Rabea Operation Room” case, but he has already exceeded the two-year pre-trial detention period.

“They pushed them into a hunger strike,” said Dr Manar al-Tantawy, wife of jailed journalist Hesham Gaafar, to Mada Masr. “The violent treatment, lack of supplies, the crippling restrictions and the dangers their families face outside the prison facility while waiting to visit — they all forced them to start a hunger strike.”

Struggling through her tears, she added, “I am dying to see him. Let those in power treat political prisoners as leniently as they treat convicted police personnel. I am not in a state of health that enables me to spend the night in the middle of nowhere to visit him in the morning, and he has asked the lawyers to tell me not to come and visit him until it is safe again.”

Tantawy last saw her husband in prison in January, when he told her that the prison authorities deliberately prevented him from meeting with the members of the National Council for Human Rights, claiming that Gaafar himself turned down the meeting.

Gaafar was arrested in October on charges of being a member of the outlawed Muslim Brotherhood and receiving suspicious foreign funds from oversees entities. His detention was renewed for the ninth time this week.

The letter also addressed the visiting restrictions faced by the families of the jailed journalists who “are rarely granted the right to visit them in prison, after hours of waiting outside the prison facility, or camping outdoors while waiting for their turn in the cold all night long.”

The letter ended with a call for the Journalists Syndicate to “hold an urgent General Assembly meeting at the syndicate’s headquarters to address the violations mentioned.”

The syndicate is scheduled to hold a general assembly meeting on March 4.

“We are really concerned about the prison conditions for all inmates at Aqrab Prison, not just the journalists,” Balshy from the syndicate said.

“It is about rights and freedoms in general, more than it is about the deteriorating living conditions faced only by the detained journalists. If there is no freedom, then there will not be journalism to begin with, and that is why we have to [equally] address all the violations in Aqrab prison,” he said.

The Journalists Syndicate has sent many requests to the General Prosecutor’s office demanding a halt to the violations and “inhumane conditions” inflicted upon Aqrab inmates, according to Balshy.

He said that “there had been an improvement, but it only lasted for a short time. Now it is getting worse again.”

The letter submitted by the journalists’ wives will be shown to the syndicate’s board tomorrow, he added, affirming that the syndicate will continue “filing requests with the Prosecutor General to investigate the deteriorating living conditions in Aqrab Prison in general, while stressing on its right to call for an investigation into the jailed journalists’ conditions in particular.”

In a statement published in December, the New-York-based Committee to Protect Journalists said that Egypt came second to China as the “world’s worst jailers of journalists”, with 23 journalists currently in jail. However, later the same month, the Cairo-based Arabic Network for Human Rights Information published the names of 59 journalists jailed by Egyptian authorities and who still remain in custody pending trials or investigation. 

In December, a social-media campaign started, urging Aqrab Prison authorities to allow detainees to receive “heavy clothes for winter”. After a visit paid by the members of the National Council for Human Rights to the prison in January, visitation restrictions had eased up, food, clothes, medications and other supplies were allowed in. However, families of inmates have reported that the restrictions were imposed again shortly afterwards.