In August 2016, Sabry’s brother sprayed his imprisoned sibling’s face and bandaged limbs, clasped between the claws of an ominous scorpion, onto a wall in downtown Cairo. Next to it he wrote, “This is the third Eid Sabry is spending in prison without having done anything wrong or against the law…” in an appeal to anyone who might walk past and see it.
“On the day of Arafa (the night of Eid al-Adha) and the four days of the holiday, the prisoners are completely locked in,” says Sabry’s mother. She made a trip just before Eid 2016 to Tora maximum security prison, the grisly reputation of which has earned it the name “Scorpion.”
She took with her pasta, rice, four kilos of liver, two kilos of fried chicken, two kilos of Alexandrian birds, four kilos of bananas, three kilos of apples, two kilos of strawberries and three kilos of cantaloupe for her son during the festival. In the end, only two pieces of liver, two pieces of chicken, two apples and two bananas were allowed in by the guards and she had to return home with the rest.
Sabry, who was 26 years old at the time, was arrested on March 29, 2015 from his home in Cairo. He had just come back from a football match and was waiting for a food delivery when there was a knock at the door.
“He opened it thinking it was the delivery man. Instead, we found state security forces wearing black, armed with rifles suddenly all over the flat. They asked for his father, who was not around at the time,” Sabry’s mother says. Then there was some confusion when one of the officers wanted to determine whether Sabry’s name was Mohamed or not. Getting angry and apparently not finding who he was looking for, the officer took Sabry with him.
“You’re coming with me,” the officer told him, making Sabry leave the house barefoot, his mother recounts. “I started shouting at the officer, then I got his shoes and put them on for him. They took him and left,” she adds. “They also went downstairs and took his father from his grandmother’s flat.”
For 21 days no one had any idea where Sabry was or what had happened to him, until his mother received a phone call from him.
Sabry’s father, who was also arrested in his 20s, had a similar experience. Despite having no connection to political or religious groups, according to his family, he was also randomly arrested and imprisoned for charges relating to terrorist activity in 1986-1987. Since his arrest 20 years ago, Sabry’s father has been regularly harassed by state security without any formal trial.
“We don’t even have to do anything for them to come to the door,” says Sabry’s mother.
Even though the public prosecution issued an official order for Sabry’s release and handed his father a 15-day sentence for belonging to the Muslim Brotherhood, Sabry never came home. His mother moved out of the house with her other sons for fear of their safety and went repeatedly to the public prosecutor’s office asking where Sabry was being held. “They told me, ‘No, your son got released, go and see where he’s gone’,” she says.
For 21 days no one had any idea where Sabry was or what had happened to him, until his mother received a phone call from him. “He said, ‘Mum, listen to me. I was in Lazoghly (the site of the Ministry of Interior and its National Security wing) and they opened a case with state security for me. Now I am going to the State Security Agency prosecutor’s office, please find me a lawyer’,” she recalls.
Sabry also told his mother that he was interrogated without a lawyer present and forced to admit to involvement in terrorist organizations. His name was added to a case from 2014 that already included 14 other suspects he had no relation to, all of whom have now been released at the end of their two-year pretrial detention periods.
Ahmed*, Sabry’s lawyer, explains that Egypt’s current laws allow police to detain anyone they presume is a “terrorist” solely on the grounds of a pending investigation.
“There is no actual event or victim,” Ahmed explains, “these charges just come from an officer’s investigations.” Egypt’s National Security Agency is able to have a degree of influence over legal proceedings relating to terrorism charges, and to detain large numbers of people, he adds.
Sabry also told his mother that he was interrogated without a lawyer present and forced to admit to involvement in terrorist organizations.
People weren’t convicted en masse under terrorism charges in Egypt until 1992, when the country adopted its first anti-terrorism statute, vague definitions for which include disrupting public order and obstructing the work of public authorities.”
Twenty years later this approach was adopted by the 2007 version of the Constitution, and the 2015 Anti-Terrorism Act, which was issued just a few months after Sabry’s arrest, and grants officers the right to detain and arrest suspects without having to comply with the Penal Code.
“Lawyers come and go, judges come and go, and every time my brother goes to court nothing happens, nothing changes,” says Mounir*, Sabry’s younger brother.
More than three weeks ago, Sabry appeared in front of State Security Prosecution again, and again the judge extended his detention by 45 days. As of April 16, Sabry will have been in this bureaucratic loop for two years, which is the maximum length of time he can be detained without conviction.
In pretrial detention, the universal right to be presumed innocent until proven guilty is violated, and, while it should be a preventive last resort, it has become the default political punishment of the Egyptian criminal justice system.
The public prosecution is obligated to issue a release order on April 16 for Sabry’s release. “They can put suspects on trial just two days before the maximum period of detention ends and sentence them,” Ahmed says. “This really happens,” he adds. “But it’s also possible that they might release him.”
As of April 16, Sabry will have been in this bureaucratic loop for two years, which is the maximum length of time he can be detained without conviction.
Aqrab (Scorpion) Prison, or “Guantanamo Egypt,” as Sabry’s lawyer refers to it, was the subject of a Human Rights Watch report, released in 2016, outlining a history of abusive practices and poor living conditions. The prison was, from its inception, designed to host the most dangerous political opponents of the state, and is currently home to a mixture of political opponents from the Muslim Brotherhood and Islamic State affiliated groups, as well as secular activists and journalists.
Sabry doesn’t fit among these ideological groups, his brother says, describing him as “more interested in football than in politics,” and someone who was “just trying to get married and have a big house.”
After almost two years in maximum-security conditions, Sabry’s mother admits, “I don’t know anything about his life inside, we just say al-hamdulilah.”
“Of course, at the beginning we didn’t do anything,” says his brother Mounir, who was 22 when Sabry was arrested. “We just wanted him to get out, so we waited and followed official procedures to file a complaint.” However, with each consecutive 45-day detention period their faith in procedures is waning.
The family has also experienced harsh economic times. Sabry’s father makes a total of LE2,500 a month in his governmental post, and the family spends approximately LE1,000 in visits and LE2,000 on prison food every month, with no idea if this money even gets to him or not. His mother says she has to use money from Sabry’s savings to meet these costs.
While he recognizes the likely futility of his actions, Mounir says they are more an effort to make Sabry present and visible amid the vast numbers of existing cases, unknown names and identities.
In December 2015, the family received news that Sabry’s leg had been broken after police beat inmates that were on hunger strike over prison conditions. Sabry didn’t get any medical treatment, though it was necessary.
For Mounir, the urge to do something became more pressing at his point. “I became very depressed and didn’t know what to do. I wanted to find spaces to talk about him in different communities, to protect him somehow, at least so people are aware of him.”
In many respects, social media has become a forum for families to speak out about their missing loved ones. Yet, although Mounir created a Facebook page about Sabry’s case, he believes physical action is more effective.
Mounir refers to the graffiti piece he made on the Eid of 2016 as a “street ad; like posters for those who are missing around the city.” He created similar public awareness during the moulid of Sayiid al-Badawy, a Sufi saint historically known for releasing prisoners. Mounir distributed posters of Sabry to people around the shrine amid the morning crowds and made a public appeal to Badawy about his brother’s situation. “When you appeal to the shrine, you find something you can hold on to, because if you can’t find anything, you lose your mind,” he says.
While he recognizes the likely futility of his actions, Mounir says they are more an effort to make Sabry present and visible amid the vast numbers of existing cases, unknown names and identities, and prisons overfilling with bodies.
“Random arrests and enforced disappearances took place under previous regimes, but not in these numbers,” Ahmed explains. “There were maybe 10-15 cases like this per year, but now the numbers of people who have disappeared are greater than the number being searched for,” he adds.
As the absences weigh heavily on the social psyche, fear and paranoia have been somewhat normalized. “Even though I haven’t really done anything, I can’t believe I’m free,” Mounir says.
Even if Sabry is released, his life is likely to be far from normal. There are lifelong implications of being profiled by Egypt’s State Security bodies and taken once means easily taken again. Prison records also make it difficult to find work and state compensation is out of the question. “He told me he wants to do an MBA to give him back some of the years he lost,” Mounir says, “and he told me the first thing he wants to do, if released, is spend a few days by the sea in Alexandria or Hurghada, to relax and think about his life.”
In an appeal to the courts, Sabry’s brother says, “I ask the judge to release my brother Sabry as he didn’t steal, he didn’t kill, he didn’t rape and he didn’t even speak about politics. But he lost his health, youth and probably his mind within the walls of the Scorpion.”
*Note: Some names were changed in this piece on request.