Egypt rights lawyers say new prison law legalizes abuses
Oct. 26, 2015
CAIRO (AP) — Egyptian human rights lawyers said on Monday they are concerned that new amendments to prison laws, which give administrators wider leeway for the use of force, could open the door to more violations in Egypt's prisons, despite some amendments they see as positive.
Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi issued the amendments and additional articles in the official gazette late Sunday.
The lawyers' main concern is an amendment which allows prison personnel to use force against prisoners who resist orders based on laws or prison regulations, beyond the previously authorized use of force for self-defense and to prevent an escape attempt.
"This is a legal cover to all forms of violence that could occur inside prisons," said Mohamed Abdelaziz, a rights lawyer and director of al-Haqanya legal center.
What's especially worrying about the amendment is that it opens the door to physical punishment of prisoners for any sort of insubordination, said Reda Marey, a lawyer who handles prison issues at the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights.
"This might mean if the prison administration for example brought the prisoner food, and ordered him to eat it and he resisted, it allows them the use of force for the prisoner to obey the order. The phrasing is too vague," said Marey. Resisting orders should carry a legal punishment, not a physical one, he said.
In addition, the maximum time a prisoner can spend in solitary confinement has been increased from 15 days to 30 days.
Other amendments the lawyers see as positive include that prisoners can make phone calls in exchange for money, while in the past the law didn't provide any information on phone calls, and that they can receive visitors twice a month, up from once per month previously, according to lawyers. Individuals detained pending investigation shall now have the same right to make phone calls unless decided otherwise by a judge or the prosecution.
Female prisoners who give birth inside prisons could keep their children with them up to four years, increased from two years, and pregnant women on death row won't be executed for two years after giving birth, compared with the previous two months.
Also in the amendments, embassy and consulate representatives are now allowed to visit imprisoned nationals of countries they represent, and to be provided assistance on condition of reciprocity.
Still, "there are no guarantees that the positive aspects of these amendments would be actually implemented," said Marey, whose organization opposes capital punishment.
The lawyers both say that without authorized surprise inspection visits from an independent organization, there are no guarantees that the existing regulations will be implemented.
Abdelaziz says among their main demands is for the state-sanctioned National Council for Human Rights to have the right to make surprise visits to prisons. The law currently only authorizes sudden inspections by state institutions including the prosecution, and the interior minister's assistant for prisons department. Inspections by the National Council for Human Rights are allowed, but only after approval from the prosecutor general.
Rights groups say conditions in Egyptian prisons fall below international standards, where prisoners are kept in overcrowded conditions with poor ventilation and hygiene and don't always have access to needed medical assistance — leading to situations such as the death of three detainees in a prison north of Cairo during a heat wave in July and August. Marey says conditions in each Egyptian prison vary widely though.
"In the end, we'll come back to the initial point that if there is real oversight and inspection on prisons, so many problems in the prisons would be resolved," said Marey.
El-Sissi led the July 2013 military ouster of former Islamist President Mohammed Morsi, amid mass protests against his rule. Since then, the government has waged a sweeping crackdown on Morsi's Muslim Brotherhood and jailed secular activists for taking part in unauthorized street protests. Thousands of political detainees are behind bars, according to rights lawyers.