By Michael Fox
Twenty foreign prisoners in Qanatr Prison are threatening to resume a hunger strike in protest over their indefinite sentences, saying they have no other hope and are prepared to lay their lives on the line.
The men, mostly Nigerians and all convicted of drug trafficking, have all served at least 20 years and currently have little chance of being released. They striked for several days last month but stopped after being convinced by prison officials that work would be done to help them.
They have called the indefinite sentences inhumane and are pleading for a pardon for all convicted drug traffickers who were first-time offenders and who have served more than 20 years, or for the imposition of an end date for life sentences.The law used to allow for prisoners who had served 20 years to be released, though that changed in 1989.
“There must be a limit to punishment,” one prisoner, 52, said from Qanatr Prison.
“They can’t just throw people in the prison and leave them there forever. If it’s going to be 30 years let it be 30 years if it’s going to be 40 let it be 40 but you can’t leave people in prison forever.”
The father of two, who does not wish to be identified, has served just over 20 years for dealing heroin and wants to retun home to be with his family.
“When there’s no hope of freedom then you’ve got to put your life on the line because there’s nothing left. It’s better to put our lives at stake… we’re only begging for a second chance.”
The men have given the government until the end of this month and say if nothing is done by then they will resume the strike.
Another member of the group who also does not want to be identified, has served 23 years after being caught with heroin at Cairo Airport.
He said they have written to the government prisoner’s rights organisation, which they were told could help and have engaged lawyers to argue their case.
The men had thought things might improve after the revolution, especially when a number of prisoners were pardoned, but this had not proved to be the case.
The man has previously applied for release but was told he is not eligible.
He too says he is ready to die if nothing is done to help them.
“We don’t want to hurt ourselves but there’s no other thing to do. We’re telling them that they can kill us and let us die straight away rather than letting us die slowly for a long time… the situation here is not giving anybody hope at all.”
Embassy representatives came occasionally but were no help, the men said.
Lawyer Fathallah Soliman, who has represented many foreigners arrested here for drug trafficking, previously questioned the detention of the men.
“How come they release murderers and rapists for good behaviour and not these men?” Soliman asked in an interview with Ahram Online.
Soliman, who has filed a number of suits against the law, said it was unconstitutional and unequal.
As it currently stands, the only way prisoners can be released is if they are pardoned by the
president. The Ministry of Justice can also agree to deport them but the men would not be able to afford the hefty fine required for this to happen.
The only way these prisoners could be transferred home without paying a fine is for the ministry to officially acknowledge that the prisoner’s could not pay, though these appeals were seldom accepted, Soliman said.
Since his election, President Mohamed Morsy has shown he is willing to pardon prisoners but that leniency has not extended to these men and they have received no indication as to whether it will.
One man, who works with the prisoners but who did not want to be identified for fear it would jeopardise his work, said the men deserved a second chance.
“Twenty years of punishment is enough.”
He believes the men will carry out their threat to strike indefinitely.
“They have hope but at the same time they are hopeless. They have hope because they believe they can’t spend all their lives in prison because of what they have done… they have to get out. This is their belief.”