Egypt’s official State Information Service (SIS) organized a visit to the Tora Prison Complex for a handpicked group of 200 public figures and journalists from local and foreign media outlets on Monday, according to one journalist who attended the tour.
The head of the State Information Service, Diaa Rashwan, announced the visit in a television interview on Sunday, which he said was organized by the SIS and the Interior Ministry. “The Interior Ministry has nothing to hide,” Rashwan said, adding that journalists would be allowed to photograph the complex and speak with prisoners without restriction.
An official with the SIS, the government body tasked with overseeing foreign media in Egypt, told Mada Masr that the visit was not open to all registered journalists and they had only invited around 20 journalists working for various foreign media outlets.
A journalist working for a foreign media outlet told Mada Masr that he received a phone call last Thursday from SIS instructing him to be at the body’s office on Monday morning and was told he would be in for a “surprise,” without disclosing further information. A bus took the reporters to Tora at 11 am on Monday morning. They were joined by a large number of public figures, including parliamentarian Alaa Abed and media personalities Wael al-Ibrashi, Mustafa Bakri, Mohammed al-Baz and Mohammed Shoubeir.
Because of the tour, family visitations at Tora Maximum Security Prison 2 were canceled on Monday, according to Naima Hisham, the wife of lawyer Mohamed al-Baqer, who is detained inside the facility.
During the highly stage-managed tour, the group was shown an exhibit of handicrafts produced by prisoners inside Tora, including furniture, pillows and other goods. The prison tour also included a visit to an animal farm inside the complex that houses cows and ostriches, a workshop for metal furniture, a newly painted ward in the prison hospital, as well as a football match played by prisoners.
The journalist who took part in the tour told Mada Masr that he was repeatedly prevented from talking directly to prisoners and that the tour group was not shown any actual cells or places of detention inside the prison. A press conference was held at the end of the tour in which reporters were prevented from asking any questions. Instead, statements were made by Major General Hisham Yahya, deputy interior minister for human rights, and Major General Alaa Al-Ahmadi, deputy interior minister for public relations and information.
During the tour, the head of the human rights committee in parliament, Alaa Abed, admired the prison facilities and said “look at how the inmates aren’t confined to their cells, there are heaps of activities for them and skills to pick up,” according to a post on Twitter by AFP journalist Farid Farid, who attended the tour. Another parliamentarian, Mostafa Bakri, reportedly told Farid that “jails are now more of a resort” and accused international rights organizations and the UN human rights commissioner of waging an ideological war on Egypt.
On Friday, the UN Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial killings, Agnes Callamard, said in a statement that former president Mohamed Morsi, who died during a court hearing in June, was held in conditions inside Tora “that can only be described as brutal.” The statement added that Morsi during his six-year imprisonment, Morsi was placed in solitary confinement for 23 hours a day and was denied access to medical care, “despite repeated warnings to authorities that such conditions would gradually undermine Mr. Morsi’s health, to the point of killing him.”
The statement went on to say that the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention received “credible evidence from various sources” that gross human rights violations may be a reality for thousands more detainees across the country, “many of whom may be at risk of death.”
There have been widespread accounts of abuse, poor conditions of detention, and medical negligence by prisoners in Tora for years, including most recently by activist Esraa Abdel Fattah, Baqer and activist and writer Alaa Abd El Fattah. Both men submitted official reports to the prosecution with detailed testimony that described their abuse inside the maximum-security wing of Tora, including repeated beatings and humiliation. They are detained without access to sunlight or reading materials.
There have also been longstanding and well-documented accounts of deteriorating health conditions and medical negligence inside Tora that have severely affected prisoners’ health, including that of former presidential candidate Abdel Moneim Abouel Fotouh, who has spent more than 500 days in isolation and has been denied access to fresh air, exposure to the sun or time to exercise. Abouel Fotouh’s repeated appeals for medical care have gone largely unanswered by prison authorities even though has suffered two heart attacks in detention and his lawyer and family say his life is at risk.
Monday’s visit to Tora follows a visit on October 23 by the Supreme State Security Prosecution where they concluded that conditions inside the prison are “adequate.” A video of the visit was released by the SIS on Sunday. According to a statement by the SIS, the footage “shows the actual state of the situation of health services and food supplies in Egyptian prisons.” Meanwhile, a delegation from the National Council for Human Rights visited Port Said Prison on November 2.
The series of managed prison visits comes as Egypt is preparing to undergo its Universal Periodic Review at a session scheduled to be held at the United Nations Human Rights Council in Geneva on Wednesday.