Mahmoud Mohamed Hussein was 18 years old when he was arrested. Today he has grown a little older, and wonders at what age he will possibly be released from prison. Like thousands of young political detainees in Egypt, Hussein’s fate remains unknown due to an excessively long period of pre-trial detention that has surpassed 580 days.
Hussein, a teenager, is still unable to figure out the reason behind his detention. He found himself being transferred from one prison to another, and being held with criminal convicts and other political detainees he personally differs with ideologically, such as political Islamists.
Further, Hussein’s brother Tarek ‘Tito’ has been prosecuted under both the current regime and that of the Muslim Brotherhood. Daily News Egypt spoke to Tito, who is handling the files of political detainees, rights and freedoms at Al-Dostour Party, a political opposition party.
Going through the details of Hussein’s case, Tito sheds light on the injustice faced by many youth held behind bars, the oppressive practices of the post-30 June regime, and most importantly, pre-trial detention, a tool he explains is carefully manipulated by authorities to uphold youth repression.
Hussein’s ‘ambiguous’ case
Hussein was arrested on 25 January 2014. It was the third anniversary of the revolution and protests erupted across Egypt demanding the rights citizens had called for back in the 2011 mass riots: bread, freedom, human dignity and social justice.
On that day, thousands were arrested during and after the protests. Hussein was caught along with a friend at the security checkpoint of El-Marg, while he was on his way home to Qaliubiya. According to different testimonies, the moment of his arrest and the few days that followed were marked by physical assaults on him by security forces.
“He was taken to El-Marg police station, which we refer to as ‘the butchery’ for having a history and reputation in torturing detainees,” Tito said. “Hussein was beaten and electrocuted in different parts of his body,” he continued.
On his first day, Hussein was brought before National Security officials and El-Marg prosecution authorities for questioning. He was assaulted once more and threatened in order to confess to crimes of “belonging to the Muslim Brotherhood, terrorism, and a long list of charges”, said Tito, recalling how he had begged his parents to take him with them.
Hussein’s case has been ambiguous and confusing for his lawyers, family and even the public. On Wednesday, Tito said an unexpected court session was being held for Hussein. “I do not understand anything anymore,” he said.
They are no terrorists, yet spend their youth in prison
One of the hardest things Tito believes his brother is facing is that he is spending the best days of his life in prison, like many youth, who are not terrorists, but rather students and young people with dreams and aspirations. Hussein is talented in drawing and wants to pursue studies in arts.
“Take Asmaa Hamdy’s case for instance. She is a medical school student who happened to be at Al-Azhar University when a protest took place,” Tito said. “She is not a terrorist; on the contrary she was going to become a doctor and positively serve her society and country.”
Hamdy is spending her time in jail producing bags so she can support her family. Similarly, Hussein is deprived of his youth, “just because he dreamt of a nation without torture”, Tito said.
He also pointed to the fact that many youth suffer health conditions that call in to question allegations of their involvement in violence. “For instance Esraa El-Taweel was on a wheelchair and under treatment for a problem with her leg, and Hussein also had undergone an operation in the leg before his arrest, “he said.
According to his testimony, after spending a couple of months in prison, the detention time leaves the detainee with his own thoughts and emotions. “One feels severely oppressed and misjudged, thinking that all of this is happening after a revolution,” Tito said.
If books are allowed in, detainees can spend some time reading, but other than that they keep thinking of lost rights, and most of all they keep waiting, and the conditions of detention are inhumane and lack medical care, Tito said.
In addition, sudden security raids on the detention cells aim at ‘stealing’ their belongings and beating prisoners, according to details from formerly detained photojournalist Ahmed Gamal Ziada.
Family visits to detainees: A hardship
During imprisonment terms, both the detainee and his family are keen on seeing each other, and it is an emotionally complicated process. They have a lot to share, and it is their only free space together.
According to prison regulations, the prisoner is allowed one visit on a weekly basis, for up to one hour. However, Tito pointed out that prison authorities do not apply the law and are, on the contrary, intransigent towards relatives of political detainees.
“The maximum time they grant us during Hussein’s visits is 15 to 20 minutes,” he said. Moreover, there are supposed to be exceptional visits allowed during national holidays, as a humanitarian initiative to enable prisoners to spend occasions with their families.
“We can barely enter to put food on the table and leave,” Tito added.
Other visit restrictions have been previously reported, which Tito describes as “the endless list of banned items in jail, which are sometimes ridiculous”. According to the testimony of activist Nourhan Hefzy last August, prison authorities did not allow the entrance of desserts.
The list includes letters, pens, papers, books and newspapers as well. On one occasion, Tito recalled a security guard telling him that “it is through deprivation that prisoners would feel punished”.
Manipulating pre-trial detention beyond legality
To begin with, pre-trial detention is permitted for two years before a case can be referred to court. During that period, the detention is renewed every 45 days.
Tito described pre-trial detention as the new face of “emergency state and arbitrary practices”.
While former detainee Abol Ela Mady was released for completing the term without the case going to court, authorities have not yet released detained photojournalist Mahmoud Abu Zeid ‘Shawkan’, who spent one of the longest periods in pre-trial detention.
Shawkan is in jail for his 740th day, 12 of which were in “illegal detention”. So far, Hussein’s case is similar to Shawkan’s. However, besides the obvious legal violation, there are other means of “ensuring the detainee stays behind bars”, as Tito put it.
For example, prison authorities have failed to transfer Hussein to court for at least 22 sessions, stating that “security circumstances did not allow the safe transfer of prisoners”. The court session ends up being postponed and the detention automatically renewed.
By law, the defendant and his lawyers are to appear before the judge in every session, and each renewal is also supposed to be looked into by a different judge, to ensure fairness.
The Association of Freedom of Thought and Expression (AFTE) filed a lawsuit against the Ministry of Interior demanding an accurate definition of “security circumstances”.
According to Tito, this legal manipulation allows detainees’ destinies to be in the hands of the interior ministry instead of the judiciary.
Imbalance and lack of trust in the justice system
Due to unfair trials and strict prison terms, that are often viewed as exaggerated by human rights advocates, there have been concerns over the independence of the judiciary and even accusations by some lawyers that it has become ‘politicised’.
However, Tito provided a series of examples that explain why the young have become less trusting in the justice system as a whole. Perhaps his own case is the most evident example. Tito was arrested in March 2013 after protesting against the Muslim Brotherhood in front of their Guidance Bureau.
He was accused of attempting to overthrow Morsi’s regime, which fell after 30 June, amid wide popular uprisings, which both Tito and his brother were part of. “To my surprise, the case was referred to court after that,” Tito said.
Tito was released pending trial, before he was arrested again on the same day of Hussein’s arrest in protests in Maadi. “At the time, we were excited that religious fascism was gone, but we feared its replacement with military fascism, so went out to demand our revolutionary goals,” he said.
With his second arrest, Tito was charged with “belonging to the Brotherhood”. Ironically, Tito recalled that one day he stood in court for both cases. The contradicting charges seemed unreasonable, but Tito believes it is proof for questioning initial investigations that led to such charges, that are conducted by National Security authorities in secrecy.
“How can I trust a system that accused me of overthrowing a regime after it collapsed, then accused me of supporting that regime?” he stated.
Tito referred to other frustrating events that destroyed confidence in the justice system, such as the release and acquittal of former president Hosni Mubarak’s men, who were all charged with corruption, or National Security officers who were released despite being on trial for torturing lawyer Kareem Hamdy to death.
“By law, a suspect is innocent until proven otherwise, but in practice, the suspect is detained until charges are fabricated,” Tito claimed. He was convinced that National Security investigations are not always reliable.
“They accused my brother of being a Brotherhood member. How did they reach that conclusion? Did they evaluate his political affiliations, his ideologies, thoughts, influence, and activities? ”Tito said.
On a further note, he pointed out to the fact that political detainees Asmaa Hamdy, who was sentenced to five years, and Yassin Sabry, who received three years, were sentenced by a judge whose reputation has become questionable.
The judge he referred to is under investigations for demanding sexual bribery in exchange of a verdict. Tito believes that, regardless of his conviction or innocence, this raises questions on his fairness during others’ trials.
“Shouldn’t there be a re-examination of Hamdy, Yassin’, and others’ sentences, in case their trial by that judge were biased?” he added.
Another illegal trial and pre-trial procedure includes the constant questioning by National Security instead of prosecution authorities. “All of this raises doubts on the independence and fairness of the justice system,” he said.
State officials’ response to the issue
Tito explained that state officials are fully aware of the situation of detainees, pointing to President Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi’s numerous promises to “reconsider and release youth that were not involved in violence”.
Regarding Hussein’s case, Al-Dostour Party’s former president Halla Shukrallah presented his file to the prosecutor-general during his meeting with other party leaders. Furthermore, there had been an initiative launched by Al-Youm Al-Sabaa aimed at releasing non-violent students to protect their future, among which Hussein was included, as well as local and international initiatives.
“Whenever we have meeting with government representatives we tell them that torture in detention places must end, that the youth should be released and that the Protest Law should be abolished,” Tito said.
Nonetheless, he stated that the usual response consists of unfulfilled promises to reconsider some detainees’ cases. Tito believes that authorities lack awareness and understanding of the importance of improvement in human rights.
Since its establishment after the revolution, Al-Dostour Party has worked with political detainees; several of them were party members. “From the MB regime, to Adly Mansour’s transitional period to Al-Sisi’s rule, things are getting worse,” Tito stated.
Questions that have no answers
Many of the detained youth have been able to send out letters during their detention, which have in turn been published in the media. In all the letters, a common question recurs: “Why is all this happening?” The question is supposedly addressed to the persons in command, but they never seem to be answered.
“Pre-trial detention is supposed to be the time authorities collect needed information and evidence on the suspect,” said Tito. “Why is it taking over 580 days to investigate Hussein and his friend?” he asked.
Regarding his own case, Tito also wondered why the regime that came to power through popular protests is now “taking revenge” from revolutionary icons such as Alaa Abdel Fattah, Sanaa Seif, Hany El-Gamal, Mostafa Yousry, Mohamed Hossam El-Din ‘Kalousha”’, Ahmed Douma, Ahmed Maher, and Mohamed Adel, who are serving strict prison terms for demanding a better life.
Tito also asked why the regime passed a new constitution allowing the right to peaceful protests. And most importantly, how come the regime keeps speaking of “empowering the youth”?
Another question he raised is why the Protest Law is applied only to political opponents, despite several pro-state protests that took place, and why, despite security tightening, are terrorist attacks continuing?
The last question was answered by Tito as following: “Because simply, terrorists do not care for laws, and do not feel bound by them.”
“A fair judge with an unfair law is better than a fair law with an unfair judge,” says Tito