Morsi’s death highlights inhumanity of Egypt’s prisons
Former President Mohamed Morsi’s death has raised serious questions about his treatment and the neglect of thousands of political prisoners.
The sudden death of former Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi after six years in solitary confinement in a squalid cell has highlighted inhumane conditions in Egyptian prisons and sparked calls for an investigation into abuse and medical neglect endured by thousands of political prisoners since the military coup in 2013.
The calls could open another legal front for Cairo, which has faced increased scrutiny of its rapidly deteriorating civil liberties and rights record ever since Morsi, Egypt’s first democratically elected president, was removed from office by his own defence chief at the time, General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi.
Morsi died on 17 June after collapsing in a Cairo courthouse, where he faced an array of trumped-up accusations of espionage. He was 67 years old. The calls for a probe into his death come amid an absence of details regarding what exactly happened that day and the reluctance of authorities to share information.
‘Any sudden death in custody must be followed by a prompt, impartial, thorough and transparent investigation carried out by an independent body to clarify the cause of death,’ said Rupert Colville, spokesperson for the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR). Colville said the probe must ‘encompass all aspects of the authorities’ treatment of Mr Morsi to examine whether the conditions of his detention had an impact on his death.’
Rights activists who for years followed Morsi’s imprisonment point to a set of circumstances that indicate a possible deliberate attempt to assassinate him either directly or indirectly. Morsi belonged to the Muslim Brotherhood, an Islamist political group that has been the nemesis of Egypt’s long-ruling military junta. Several other leaders of the group have died in custody since al-Sisi took power, indicating a pattern of neglect, critics say.
Morsi’s death created shockwaves among families of political detainees. Many publicly expressed fear that their loved ones may face the same fate as Morsi. ‘I fear for my father and brother the same fate,’ said Abdullah El-Haddad, whose father and brother were top Morsi advisors. ‘Both have been held in solitary confinement for six years. My father suffered four heart attacks since his arrest. My brother is on the verge of losing his leg. Both were denied medical care. No family visits since 2016.’
El-Haddad added: ‘Both my father and brother were in the same courtroom with President Morsi. Yesterday, my father asked the judge to delay the sessions as they were all exhausted given the harsh conditions they are being subjected to. His request was ignored. Thirty minutes later, Morsi collapsed.’
Rights groups estimate that there are at least 60,000 political prisoners in Egypt, almost all arrested as part of a wave of mass incarceration to penalise a protest movement against military rule. Political opposition groups put the figure as high as 100,000. President al-Sisi has consolidated control of the country’s courts, parliament, media and other institutions since he came to power nearly six years ago.
Morsi’s son said on social media that his father had been killed. ‘They killed him, may God kill them back,’ he wrote after authorities prevented a family funeral for the late President (something he requested before his death), barred his family from receiving mourners and banned mosques around the country from holding burial prayers in absentia, permissible in Islam for the dead whose bodies cannot be retrieved. Morsi was later buried hastily before dawn in a public cemetery in Cairo with only a handful of family members there to pay their last respects.
Morsi’s family has been denied access to a medical report over his death and questions about the circumstances surrounding his collapse are mounting. ‘The Egyptian authorities must immediately order an impartial, thorough and transparent investigation into the circumstances of his death, as well as his detention conditions and his ability to access medical care,’ said Amnesty International’s Magdalena Mughrabi.
Human Rights Watch (HRW) is preparing a report on medical neglect in both Morsi’s case and in the case of the wellbeing of other political detainees. Former President Morsi’s death ‘followed years of government mistreatment, prolonged solitary confinement, inadequate medical care, and deprivation of family visits and access to lawyers,’ said Sarah Leah Whitson, Executive Director of HRW’s Middle East and North Africa Division. ‘At the very least, the Egyptian government committed grave abuses against Morsi by denying him prisoners’ rights that met minimum standards.’
Trying to contain the damage of the widespread questions over Morsi’s death, Egypt immediately attacked its detractors. Egypt’s State Information Service said the HRW statement had ‘nothing but false claims that reaffirm HRW’s tradition of circulating lies’. The official statement added that ‘HRW has reached a new low’, accusing the organisation of making ‘unfounded criminal accusations that have no relation whatsoever to human rights work’. Egypt blocks the HRW website, among hundreds of other platforms.
Egypt’s tightly controlled state-run media went on to accuse rights groups of being part of the international organisation of the Muslim Brotherhood, while the Egyptian Ministry of Foreign Affairs issued a statement criticising the OHCHR’s call for an investigation.
But despite the country’s indignation over the international outcry, more questions continue to be raised. Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has said he doesn’t believe Morsi died of natural causes, but was killed. ‘Morsi was struggling on the floor in the courtroom for 20 minutes. Authorities unfortunately did not intervene to save him. Morsi was killed, he did not die of natural causes,’ he said.
Security officials guard Cairo’s Tora Prison, where the trial of ousted Egyptian Islamist President Mohamed Morsi took place, in Cairo, Egypt, 17 June 2019 © REUTERS/Amr Abdallah Dalsh
Reportedly, Morsi was left slumped for some time, until guards eventually cleared the court and called for an ambulance, which arrived 30 minutes later. Egyptian authorities deny the report and say Morsi was given prompt medical care.
Morsi, a former university professor, was diabetic. He complained to the Sisi-appointed court repeatedly of lack of access to medication and said he feared for his life. The court said he could buy his own insulin in 2017 but his family claims prison officers didn’t abide by this. He progressively lost sight in his left eye.
Morsi frequently said during hearings that there was a ‘threat to his life’, with his lawyer and other prisoners relaying the message. In a court hearing on 7 May, the last before his death, he told the court of an unidentified threat to his life and asked to speak privately to the judges.
In March 2018, Crispin Blunt MP, former Chair of the UK Parliament’s Foreign Affairs Select Committee, accused Cairo of running afoul international standards and safeguards for political prisoners, and predicted Morsi would die as a result of lack of medical attention. The Detention Review Panel, headed by Blunt, published a report on Morsi’s treatment in custody. Blunt found, among other abuses, that Morsi was being held for 23 hours a day in solitary confinement in a bare concrete cell. After Morsi’s death, Blunt said the circumstances should be examined, calling for a reputable independent international investigation.
Morsi was imprisoned in the notorious ‘Scorpion’ maximum-security section of Tora Prison, designed to break political detainees, particularly Islamists. He told his family he had no bed in his cell and was forced to sleep on the concrete floor, subsequently developing back and neck pain.
HRW says Morsi ‘avoided prison meals for periods because he was afraid for his life and relied only on canned food. Judges hearing the various cases against him never ordered an investigation of his detention conditions. Even when they ordered prison officials to allow him visits, the security officials would ignore the judges’ orders.’
Ever since the country’s military started a crackdown on Islamists in 2013, Egypt’s prison population has risen substantially, filling already overcrowded cells. HRW says it has documented ‘the systematic ill-treatment in Egypt’s prisons’.
The repression campaign initially started with members of the Muslim Brotherhood for their role in the 2011–2012 protest movement but was later expanded to include many secular forces, dissidents, independent journalists and even football supporters.
Emad Mekay is the IBA’s Middle East Correspondent. He can be contacted at email@example.com