Mohamed al-Qassas, the Strong Egypt Party’s deputy president, was ordered released from prison last week after spending 22 months in remand detention only to find his detention would continue on fresh charges in a new case three days later. Defense lawyers criticized the move as a cruel tactic by authorities to keep political prisoners behind bars without trial well beyond the two-year legal limit for remand detention.
Qassas was arrested in February 2018 shortly after he left a wedding near Cairo’s Azhar neighborhood. At the time, State Security Prosecution ordered him held in remand detention on charges of joining the Muslim Brotherhood and disseminating false news. The case (977/2017) included several prominent bloggers and journalists such as Islam al-Rifai — more popularly known as Khorm — photojournalists Ahmed al-Sakhawy and Ahmed Ali, as well as journalists Ahmed Abdel Aziz and Hossam al-Soueify.
On December 9, after nearly two years in remand detention that was repeatedly renewed in 15- or 45-day blocks, the State Security Prosecution ordered Qassas released. Three days later, the same State Security Prosecution ordered Qassas detained in a new case (1781/2019) on charges that include communicating with leaders of the Muslim Brotherhood from prison and funding the group’s activities, according to his lawyer Abdel Rahman al-Haridy.
Haridy told Mada Masr that the prosecution began questioning Qassas in the new case on Sunday. During the questioning, the prosecution revealed that the new case included an investigation by the National Security Agency conducted in December, though they did not disclose any further details, including when the investigation began or whether the new case was opened before or after the Qassas was ordered released.
Article 143 of the Criminal Procedure Code sets the maximum limit for remand detention in misdemeanor cases at six months, 18 months in felony cases and two years for capital offenses.
Lawyer Khaled Ali told Mada Masr that the move by State Security Prosecution to add Qassas to the new case is the authorities’ way of circumventing the legal two-year remand detention limit to keep political opposition behind bars.
During his questioning on Sunday, Qassas challenged the new charges of communicating with leaders of the Muslim Brotherhood from prison and funding the group’s activities as completely groundless.
Qassas has been held in solitary confinement in the Maximum Security 2 wing of the Tora Prison Complex since February 2018. He has been denied the right to exercise or any exposure to the sun. The only times he has left his cell has been under heavy security on his way to court for detention renewals or to the prosecution for questioning. According to Haridy, Qassas has only been allowed to communicate with the prison warden, a national security officer and the head of investigations. Family visitations take place once a month for just 10 minutes in the presence of a national security officer. Additionally, in the three months leading up to the end of November, prisoners at the Maximum Security Wing 2 have been subject to at least three cell “strippings,” whereby any private belongings not affiliated with the prison are confiscated, Haridy said.
During his questioning on Sunday, Qassas demanded the prison warden testify about the conditions of his imprisonment and whether it is possible for him to communicate with anyone at all, Haridy said. Qassas also demanded to be able to confront the national security officer to challenge him on the basis of the investigation and see the alleged evidence indicating he communicated with Muslim Brotherhood leaders from prison and who these alleged leaders are.
Haridy also discovered that Ibrahim Atta, who was arrested along with some 30 others in November 2018 and has been held in remand detention on charges including joining and funding a terrorist organization, was also added to the new case (1781/2019).
Haridy anticipates that a number of political prisoners who are approaching the two-year limit in remand detention will be added to this new case and their cycle of remand detention will be reset. “It’s a ‘freezer’ — a way to keep political opposition away from public life for another two years,” Haridy said of the new case.
The head of the Strong Egypt Party, former presidential candidate Abdel Moneim Abouel Fotouh, is also approaching two years in remand detention. Abouel Fotouh was arrested a few days after Qassas in February 2018. Abouel Fotouh had signed a statement in January issued by a number of opposition figures in which they called for the halt of the 2018 presidential elections. He has been held in remand detention on charges of leading a terrorist group and disseminating false news inside the country and abroad with the purpose of damaging the country’s interests. Abouel Fotouh’s repeated appeals for medical care have gone largely unanswered by prison authorities even though he has suffered two heart attacks in detention and his lawyer and family say his life is at risk.