Only three weeks after his release, Islam Khalil exhibited a cheerful and outgoing demeanor as he walked into a cafe with his brother, activist Nour Khalil, and a group of friends. Islam greeted everyone he met – friends and workers at the cafe – with a smile and often a joke.
I couldn’t help but compare Islam’s neat appearance with the way he looked in a picture that his brother posted of him close to a year ago, when he first resurfaced after 122 days of forced disappearance.
When I greeted him and asked how he was doing, he answered with a smile: “I’m doing well. I have to. What else am I going to do? The time that has already been lost is enough.”
Security forces arrested Islam, a 26-year-old sales agent, his father and brother on May 24, 2015, during a raid of their family house in the area of Santa, Gharbiya. Although lawyers believe that Nour, a political activist with an arrest history, was the main target of the raid, Islam’s location remained unknown, after Nour and his father were released shortly after being arrested.
Islam resurfaced for the first time on September 24, 2015 in the East Alexandria prosecutor’s office, charged with belonging to an outlawed group and planning to storm Borg al-Arab Prison. He remained in detention for an additional year amid claims that investigations were ongoing despite the Egyptian government’s well documented practice of using pretrial detention as a punitive measure. During his time in prison, Islam was subjected to torture, solitary confinement, several stretches in the harsh conditions of disciplinary detention and death threats. To demand better conditions, he went on several hunger strikes that further deteriorated his health.
In early September 2016, Islam was released on a LE50,000 bail, pending the commencement of his trial. He emerged from prison still without an answer to the question he had posed 200 days into his detention: Why has all of this happened?
Islam was not involved in any significant political activity. He says he had limited himself to voicing his opinion on Facebook. He participated in the start of the June 30 demonstrations demanding the ouster of the Muslim Brotherhood, but he withdrew when he didn’t like the direction the protests were taking. He only protested once after that, to demand the release of his brother who had been arrested.
But Islam doesn’t think that any of that is relevant to his detention, which he firmly believes was arbitrary.
Islam says he felt that something was not right at the outset of his detention, when investigators insisted that he knew why he was there and demanded that he confess, presenting him with the names of people of whom he had never heard.
Torture was the means. During the 122 days of Islam’s disappearance, which he spent between the National Security’s Tanta office and its headquarters in Cairo, security officers subjected him to a range of torture methods, including electrocution and suspension from his hands and feet. In the time between torture sessions to extract information he didn’t possess, he was often kept handcuffed and blindfold in solitary confinement.
Islam says that he told investigators everything that he remembers about his life, from his birth to the day of his arrest, including the most intimate details of his personal world, hoping that they would stop torturing him. Increasingly desperate, he asked them to tell him what he should admit to, what he should say, but it was to no avail.
Following his first visit to see his brother in Alexandria’s Raml Police Station, Nour took to Facebook to write that Islam had not been allowed to shower for the first four months of his detention and had been kept in the darkness of his blindfold amid an ongoing soundtrack of the screams of other detainees.
“Yes – in Lazoghly, we are just numbers and corpses. What you encounter in this hell is nothing but torture”
The hardest period of his detention was spent in Lazoghly, at the National Security headquarters, a time period which he detailed in a letter published on the 200th day of his detention.
“During that time, I became unable to distinguish night from day. Everything beyond the blindfold, placed on my face since the moment of my arrest, was the same to me. I wasn’t alone there. There were hundreds of us, distributed between offices and corridors. All of us were blindfolded, with our hands tied. The officer in charge comes every now and then to point at some of us. He calls to the guards: ‘This corpse here and that corpse there will leave tomorrow.’ Yes – in Lazoghly, we are just numbers and corpses. What you encounter in this hell is nothing but torture. They might take me one night to hang me from my hands and feet, naked. Or I might spend a long time with my hands tied to a post. Or maybe they take me for an electrocution session. I can’t hear anything but threats: threats of rape and threats of being killed in the worst ways possible, all against a background of continuous insults. Your dream is to survive this place, to make it to prison or to the grave.”
Amid the horror Islam experienced during those long, dark moments is the memory of a 16-year-old boy who was bleeding profusely and screaming for help that never came. Believing that the boy was dying, Islam recounts carrying the boy while blindfolded and handcuffed, stumbling as he looked for help in vain.
While it was not absolute, Islam’s transition to a regular prison did provide some relief to the conditions he had been through until that point. He recalls in a Facebook post waking up and using his hands to orient himself to start to eat breakfast with his eyes closed, only to realize upon hearing the laughter of his cellmates that, for the first time in months, he didn’t have a blindfold on and could open his eyes.
He also recalls the prosecutor laughing and telling him that he stands accused of plotting the storming of Borg al-Arab Prison. But after seeing the shocked look on his face – in a scene that only serves to further confirm the arbitrary nature of the entire case – Islam remembers that the prosecutor said, “Look. I know these charges are false and that none of the people in this case has done anything. It’s just some papers that they’ll use to create some noise. They’ll never stop their dirty tricks.” Islam remembers being taken aback but also hoping for an immediate release following the prosecutor’s admission.
Instead, the prosecutor renewed Islam’s detention for 15 days pending investigations, reassuring him that he would be released at some point, but that it would take some time. He also told Islam that, according to the police report, he had been arrested the day before, from an apartment in Cairo. Islam could only respond by showing the prosecutor the signs of torture that the last four months had left on his body, which the prosecutor documented.
Throughout his detention, Islam was determined to hold on to his rights as a detainee, which he had his lawyer explain to him. The effort of memorizing legal articles was part of a constant fight that helped Islam preserve some of his sanity and self-esteem that were being slowly eroded under the constant stream of humiliation.
But that fight also prompted more abuse.
Islam was one of the leaders of a hunger strike in Borg al-Arab Prison in June 2016 that was organized in response to an incident in which student detainees were severely beaten. After over 1,500 prisoners refused to eat for more than two weeks, the prison administration conceded to some of the demands that Islam and others had drafted, including increasing visitation time by 15 minutes and the improved treatment of visitors.
Islam calls the brief time he spent in a cell with eight journalists the moment when he and others were best able to unify and demand their rights. The nine cellmates decided to take a stand against any deterioration in their condition by banging on their cell doors and chanting. In response, the prison administration separated them, prompting Islam to face a new challenge: extreme overcrowding in Egypt’s prison cells.
Islam was transferred to an approximately three-by-five-meter cell where 23 other detainees were already being held. When the prison administration attempted to introduce another detainee to the cell, the men objected, as they had reached an agreement under which no further people would enter the already confined space. After several failed attempts, soldiers arrived to try to forcefully house the inmate. When Islam objected, the prison guards pulled him out of the cell, cuffed his hands and feet and dragged him across the floor.
The prison administration had placed signs with the words “hunger strike” next to the two men, at once punishment and an attempt to dissuade other detainees from rebelling against prison authority
Islam grasped at the only mechanism of resistance he felt he had left to him after being assaulted, announcing that he would go on hunger strike again. The guards responded by escorting him to the prison yard, where he found two others detainees chained to gurneys and stripped to their underwear. The prison administration had placed signs with the words “hunger strike” next to the two men, at once punishment and an attempt to dissuade other detains from rebelling against prison authority.
After another altercation with officers, Islam found himself thrown into a new arena in the Egyptian prison system’s shop of horrors: the disciplinary cell.
Islam remembers an officer describing the disciplinary cell as unlike anything he had suffered to that point. “Listen boy. Nothing scares us. If you don’t shut your big mouth, you’ll suffer. You haven’t seen anything yet. Never mind the methods of National Security. We can make you kill yourself here.”
In Islam’s memory the disciplinary cell was indeed inhumane. The two-square-meter cell housed 16 detainees, all whom were squatting in their underwear. The detainees urinated in a bucket in the same room, which made the smell unbearable. Islam remembers vomiting the water he drank, which was the only thing he consumed, as he was on hunger strike for the five days that he spent there.
In a moment of levity, Islam laughs while recalling the methods detainees resorted to in order to find space in the degrading and cramped conditions. He describes “the plane,” a second level within the cell that was fashioned out of ropes woven from paper bags upon which the detainees placed their mattresses. A ladder also made from the woven rope allowed detainees to make their way up to and down from the mattresses suspended in the air.
Islam was thrown back into the disciplinary cell after he detailed his prison conditions to the prosecutor during a detention renewal session. “I don’t get scared. Two people just died under my watch in the disciplinary cell and nothing happened. You have no competence here. You have no rights. I have 12,000 detainees here. I can kill a few to maintain order. We don’t care,” Islam remembers a guard telling him at the time.
After two more days on hunger strike in the dire conditions of the disciplinary cell, Islam fell ill. When a doctor attempted to provide him with nourishment through intravenous fluids, Islam demanded that his hunger strike be documented or he would not accept the IV. However, the doctor told him that he couldn’t grant his request. Instead, Islam was returned to a regular cell the next morning, after passing seven days without food in protest.
Amid the constant degradation, Islam attempted to preserve his humanity, often finding strength in writing.
“Maybe it will be an outlet, allowing me to retain what is left of a humanity wasted by this experience, uncontainable in hundreds of pages or thousands of words,” he wrote in a letter from behind bars.
The arbitrary mistreatment continued for 10 days after the prosecution ordered Islam’s release. He believes that the abuse he faced close to his release was retribution for disclosing the details of prison violations he had suffered to the outside world, violations that made their way to international organizations such as Amnesty International, which talked about his case.
After the East Alexandria Prosecution granted Islam’s release on August 21 upon payment of a LE50,000 bail, he was taken to the Raml Police Station where he was to be held until release procedures were completed.
Islam says that officers huddled around him as soon as he entered the police station. “They asked me, ‘Are you the one who works with foreign organizations?’ So I said that I worked in sales. They insisted: ‘You’re one of these traitors who receive money from abroad in order to tarnish the image of the country.’” The officers then assaulted him, but subsequently accused him of attacking one their own. Islam appeared in front of the prosecutor the next day with a swollen face and was charged with assault. He commends the prosecutor for documenting his testimony and referring him to a physician for a physical check-up and documentation of his injuries.
Just as abruptly and incomprehensibly as it started, his ordeal came to an end
After being transferred to the police station in his hometown, the last step before his release, officers assured Islam that his ordeal was not yet over. “They told me, ‘Your new case is ready, and you will start over,’” he says.
For two days, Islam was repeatedly blindfolded and suspended from his hands. But just as abruptly and incomprehensibly as it started, his ordeal came to an end.
“I was taken to the officer’s office, and suddenly his tone changed. He started talking to me in a nice way. He told me, ‘You have suffered a lot with us, and I brought you here to let you go. And he said, ‘Remember us with good things.’ I replied, ‘Those who did good things, I’ll remember them, and those who did otherwise, I’ll remember them and what they did, as well.’”
Islam could hear the screams of a detainee being tortured while sitting with the officer. In an attempt to manage the guilt he felt toward those he was leaving behind, a feeling that he says persists, Islam referenced the screaming and asked the officer if he is okay with what is happening. The officer replied that, in order to eradicate crime, it is justified to be unjust to one or two people.
Islam found it unreal to be in the street heading home at 2:30 am.
“An hour before, I was suspended from my hands, and now I’m in the street. All I wanted was to see my family. The world seemed weird to me. The first day, I was scared. I thought I was going to be arrested again on the same day. I missed everything. I missed my bed. I missed seeing colors. In prison, there’s only white and blue.”
Islam was fired from his job after the first three months of his absence and doubts that he will be able to find another sales job. “What company would hire someone whom the police could storm the place to get?” he asks.
Islam’s family has also suffered, both socially and financially. As it became known among other residents in the area that the police had stormed the family house several times, fewer customers made their way to the home supplies business that his father owns.
The weight of what he’s been through sometimes hits Islam, disarming him of any positivity and pushing him into an extremely desperate state of mind, a sentiment he recently expressed on his Facebook page. His post worried his loved ones, but he quickly retreated and vowed to remain strong.
When asked about his health following his prolonged detention, Islam asserts that he’s doing well, before pausing and adding a qualification. He’s being treated for what he calls the minor effects of his detention: the accumulation of pus in his lungs, weakness in the nerves of his hands, aches in his neck and on the left side of the back and knees and a general weakness in his bones and nerves.
Islam is also struggling to keep at a bay a feeling of powerlessness toward those with whom he was imprisoned. Their suffering stayed with him throughout his detention and has remained well afterward. He says that the screams of those undergoing torture often return to him, whether when he’s out with his friends or sitting at home.
“I remember that I’m still powerless. In prison, I was blindfolded and handcuffed, but now that I’m free, I’m still powerless.”
Islam tries to counter this feeling by talking about those who continue to face injustices in prison, among other matters, on his personal Facebook page, a practice he took to immediately following his release.
“I do feel worried sometimes, but it won’t stop me from talking. I can’t keep quiet after what happened to me. There are people who actually lost their minds in prison. There are children whose lives were destroyed, but I’m here, and I can still talk. And I have a responsibility to them.”
“I’m trying to make this a passing experience that doesn’t leave a mark and doesn’t change anything good about me. But some things have changed. I see the world a little differently. I think more. But I’m trying to get over it, to compensate for what was lost and to get my rights. I know that I may not be able to, but I’ll try,” he concludes.
Editor’s note: Islam Khalil was arrested again on Friday, October 21, less than two months after his release. He was stopped by police at a routine checkpoint in downtown Cairo and was taken to the Qasr al-Nil Police Station in connection to charges of vandalism that he had been convicted of in 2014, when he allegedly spray-painted political graffiti. An appeal session in the trial is set for November 1, according to his records. After being believed to be held at the National Security headquarters – where he suffered torture during his previous detention period – he was released from the Qasr al-Nil Police Station on October 23 in the late evening.