Following months of denied visitations, families were this week allowed to visit their relatives held in Egypt’s notorious maximum security Aqrab Prison, most of them for up to five minutes.
Moaz Shehab, whose father Sayed Shehab is serving a life sentence in Aqrab, part of the Tora Prison Complex, says he was allowed to visit his father on the second attempt this week.
His father is among the defendants in the Wadi al-Natrun prison break case, in which former Muslim Brotherhood President Mohamed Morsi and other leaders were sentenced to death in June. He has been unable to visit his father since the sentencing.
The family returned from the three-minute visit with what he describes as “positive news.”
“We only had time to ask him if he was ok and if he had warm clothes,” Shehab says.
Some families had attempted to deliver packages to their relatives on Thursday when they were unexpectedly allowed in to see them, he explains. Word got around, prompting many families to try to get in on Saturday, queuing in front of the prison from 2 am the night before.
Through a glass window, Shehab’s father managed to reassure the family, saying the inmates had received new mattresses, the prison meals had improved and that they will be allowed their hour outside.
The families of hundreds of detainees at the prison have been complaining about deteriorating conditions, including mistreatment as well as lack of access to food, clean water and medication. More recently, families have claimed detainees don’t have warm clothes to wear in the winter.
Shehab describes that while his father had lost weight over the six months he hasn’t seen him, it is not in a dramatic way.
“I expected much worse,” he said.
Shehab adds however that his mother had prepared a meal to last his father two days, but that the officer dumped half of it in a plastic bag, labeling it with the prisoner’s name and sending the rest back with the family.
Other testimonies are more grim.
Salma Mohamed writes in a Facebook post that her brother Khaled was still wearing summer clothes during Sunday’s visit and only has one light blanket to sleep on and cover himself with.
Mohamed is serving a three-year sentence handed down to him in August in the Al-Jazeera case, in which three journalists and several students were convicted of aiding a terrorist organization. The high profile journalists were later pardoned.
Mohamed suffers from a stomach ulcer and his medication ran out three months ago, his sister says, adding that medication was only allowed to him again on Sunday. He is also suffering from a knee injury and that the prison authorities are refusing to allow him to get a scan, she reports. His meal is a meager portion of rice and half a piece of meat.
Another testimony from Asmaa Kotb describes similar conditions for detainees in the H4W4 ward. She says her father was wearing a summer suit that is now brown rather than its original white and that they were unable to bring in winter clothes.
A post from Tasneem Sameh also describes poor conditions, saying she was able to see her father after four months but that his garb was torn and dirty.
She describes how they were only allowed to talk for minutes before the lights were shut down and the phone they were using to communicate through the glass disconnected.
Sameh and Shehab both complain about the process of getting inside the prison.
Shehab explains that his family made an attempt on Saturday along with 222 other families. He describes how the families organized themselves and listed their names according to order but that the officers refused to go by that order.
“They just created a state of commotion and caused people to fight with one another,” he recalls. “We were organized and now we’re fighting over who goes in first.”
The officers jumbled the order several times, he says, making them queue according to ward and then separated by gender and so on that by the end there were around 10 different queues. They also repeatedly threatened to send everybody away if they did not calm down.
While visits are meant to start at 9 am, by 2 pm less than 40 people had managed to visit their relatives, for a couple of minutes each, Shehab says.
“They then told us we should go home because there’s not enough time, causing people to get riled up and for fights to break out.”
As he left, about an hour later, having failed to get in, he saw riot police with dogs entering.
The family made another attempt on Sunday along with other families, when he was able to get in and see his father.
More senior officers were present that day, he explains, and the process was smoother and more organized, and the officers even were helpful and pleasant.
A woman who prefers to remain anonymous saw her father on Monday for the first time since he was convicted in June. She also made a failed attempt on Saturday when she says the queuing process was hectic with fights breaking out among people and with police officers, and no organization from the prison’s administration whatsoever.
She says that a high-ranking police officer told them that due to the large number of families, the visits were going to be five minutes only.
“People agreed — we just wanted to make sure our family members were alive,” she explains.
This was followed by several contradicting orders for people to queue up, which caused people to lose their temper and start chanting.
She couldn’t see him on that day but on Monday was successfully and saw her father for four minutes.
“We were three people trying to talk to someone we hadn’t seen in six months for four minutes,” she says. “We each took a minute.”
When the four minutes were over the power was disconnected in the booth.
Her father was still in his summer garb and the prison refused to allow in winter clothes with them, she says. He however assured them that prisoners received a blanket and mattress last week.
In September, following complaints of mistreatment at Aqrab, the National Council for Human Rights paid the prison a visit, however denying allegations of the abuse of prisoners in a report, claiming that such reports have been exaggerated and that all the inmates are treated well.
The council’s recommendations to the Interior Ministry focused on creating a shaded area for families lining up outside the prison for visits, better facilitation of visits and the replacing of worn-out beds and mattresses.
In response, the Association for Freedom of Thought and Expression (AFTE) held a press conference, which brought together the families of detainees. Their accounts contradicted the report, as they gave accounts of mistreatment, torture and intentional medical neglect.