Fear of coronavirus haunts crowded Egyptian jails

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A year ago medical student Mohamed Amashah stood on Cairo’s Tahrir Square with a sign reading “Freedom for prisoners”. He was detained.

Now awaiting trial since then on charges of misusing social media and helping a terrorist group, the Egyptian-American fears the spread of coronavirus in Egypt’s crowded jails.

Last month Amashah, who suffers from an autoimmune disease and asthma, started a hunger strike to draw attention to his plight, his parents said.

He is one of 114 000 prisoners in Egypt, according to a UN estimate.

Egypt, with a population of 100 million, reported 3 490 cases of coronavirus and 264 deaths.

Senior officials are confident they can contain the outbreak through measures including quarantine, a night curfew in place since March 25 and public information campaigns.

Since the  first case on February 14, relatives and rights groups have called for the release of detainees, including political prisoners swept up in a crackdown on dissent under President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi.

Some rights groups, lawyers and current and former prisoners say inmates are in cramped, dirty cells and lack running water, adequate ventilation and healthcare: conditions ripe for rapid transmission of disease.

Countries including Iran, Germany and Canada freed prisoners in efforts to contain the coronavirus epidemic, Egypt has given no public sign it will.

The government press centre forwarded an Interior Ministry statement saying it was taking all necessary preventative and protective measures for prison staff, ensuring cleaning, healthcare and testing inside places of detention.

Government suspended family visits to prisons on March 10 to limit risk of infection. Some families say the measure makes it harder for them to deliver supplies including soap and medicine.

The interior ministry allowed prisoners’ belongings to be brought in and exchange of messages.

In November, authorities organised supervised tours of Cairo’s sprawling Tora prison complex, where former President Mohamed Mursi collapsed before dying in a prison courtroom last year and where Amashah is held.

The tours followed a UN report that said that poor prison conditions may have led to Mursi’s death and put thousands at risk.

PRISON PROTEST

A hunger strike in several wards at Tora in February in protest over poor conditions, a lack of information about coronavirus and failure to disinfect cells, said a human rights lawyer in contact with inmates.

The lawyer added the hunger strike ended after a week when prison officials allowed medicine, clothes and letters in.

Amashah continued his protest and was moved to the prison hospital, his father Abdel-Megeed told Reuters, saying he feared his son could suffer the same fate as Moustafa Kassem, an Egyptian-American who died in prison in Egypt in January after staging a liquid-only hunger strike.

“Will they leave him until he dies? I know nothing about him, I am unable to talk to him to tell him to stop,” said Amashah’s mother, Naglaa Abdel Fattah. An Interior Ministry spokesman could not be reached for comment on Amashah’s case.

The US embassy in Cairo declined to comment on Amashah, but had requested permission to speak with an number of incarcerated American citizens by phone until visits resumed.

On April 10, a group of bipartisan US senators sent a letter to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo asking him to call for the release of US prisoners, citing risk from coronavirus. The letter mentioned Amashah and 14 other prisoners including two in Egypt and others in Saudi Arabia, Iran and Syria.

The US State Department declined to comment on the letter. David Schenker, Assistant Secretary for Near Eastern Affairs, said in February detained Americans came up “with some frequency” in dialogue with Egypt.

‘STATE OF PANIC’

Alaa Abdel Fattah, a leading activist in Egypt’s 2011 uprising held in remand detention at Tora on charges including spreading false news, belonging to a terrorist organisation and misusing social media, also started a hunger strike on April 13,relatives said.

“As Egypt enters its third week of curfew family members on both sides of the prison walls are in a state of panic,” they said in a statement.

Abdel Fattah’s mother, sister and aunt were briefly detained last month after a rare public protest to highlight the risk of coronavirus in prisons.

Rights researchers fear guards could bring the virus to prisons and said there were suspected cases in Tora and at Wadi al-Natroun prison, north-west of Cairo.

Reuters was unable to confirm independently whether prisoners tested positive. Two prison sector sources said 14 suspected cases in three prisons all tested negative.

Conditions at prisons vary.

A detainee contacted by Reuters feared spread of the virus because physical distancing was impossible at his Cairo prison, where 15 inmates in his cell each have about 0.5 sq m – not an unusual level of overcrowding, according to researchers.

The International Committee of the Red Cross recommends minimum accommodation space globally of 3.4 sq m per detainee.

In March, as Egypt began to see its first cases, information about the illness inside prisons was restricted, the detainee and a recently released detainee said.

At police stations, where men rounded up for breaching night curfew or closure of mosques are held overnight before being fined and released, overcrowding can be worse than prison, said the former detainee, who is required to report to a Cairo police station once a week.