During the last six months of Mohamed Soltan’s prison term, he has been placed in solitary confinement in Egypt’s infamous Torah Prison, where he has been beaten and mentally and physically tortured every day.
âI was completely cut off from the rest of the world, with no access to daylight and no sense of time,â he said. Only the imprisoned members of the armed group ISIL (ISIS) had access to his cell – and they tried to recruit him.
âThey tried to dissuade me from my hunger strike, because ‘the world only respects hard power, strength does good,’ they told me. They tried to convince me to take matters into my own hands and join their ranks to fight oppression, âsaid Soltan, an Egyptian-American human rights defender who was jailed for 22 months from 2013 to 2015.
Soltan, who was charged with “spreading fake news” for tweeting about the dispersal of the protests and spent much of his prison term on hunger strike, said he saw firsthand how members of the ISIL recruited detainees by exploiting their pain and grievances against the Egyptians. government.
Six years after his release, researchers from Washington, DC-based NGO Human Rights First (HRF) said ISIL members still had carte blanche to radicalize detainees in Egypt’s prison system.
HRF’s report – Creating Time Bombs: How Abuses in Egypt’s Prison System Fuels ISIS Recruitment – released Thursday builds on testimonies from prisoners released between 2019 and 2021, who said ISIL continues to recruit prisoners, a practice fueled in part by the torture and abuse that is rife in Egyptian prisons.
Since Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi took power following a military coup in 2013, thousands of people have been jailed for their political opposition, including doctors who have criticized the management by the COVID-19 crisis government and TikTok influencers, while death sentences have risen by three-fold.
Soltan’s father, Salah Sultan, was among 36 people sentenced to death in a mass trial in April 2015. Salah, a prominent Muslim scholar, has been in prison for eight years for supporting the 2013 anti-government protests.
El-Sisi has long claimed that there were “no political prisoners in Egypt”.
But rights groups have estimated that 60,000 political prisoners are held in Egyptian jails, more than half of the country’s estimated prison population of 114,000.
With an official prison capacity of 55,000 people, the prisons are severely overcrowded and, according to Amnesty International, the average space available for each inmate is 1.1 square meters (12 square feet).
‘Worse than ever’
Prison conditions are “worse than they have ever been,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, executive director of Democracy for the Arab World Now (DAWN).
The detainees face “brute force, absolute degradation, psychological and physical torture, the removal of anything resembling humane treatment,” Soltan said.
The abusive conditions resulted in the deaths of 958 detainees between June 2013 and December 2019, according to the Committee for Justice, an independent human rights group based in Geneva.
Prisons are âfertile ground for the development of extremist ideologies,â Soltan said.
Former detainees have said that allowing ISIS members to mingle with disenfranchised young prisoners who oppose the government on political grounds and are regularly tortured creates a “time bomb.”
“What is a disaster is that the authorities have not separated prisoners linked to real cases of terrorism from those who simply oppose the regime for political reasons,” Youssef *, an official told HRF. former inmate released earlier this year.
“I have never seen the prison authorities intervene to prevent this from happening,” he added.
For some inmates radicalization takes months, for others years.
Experiences of torture, living in inhumane conditions and long and unjust prison terms make prisoners vulnerable to being radicalized by ISIL, former detainees have said.
âIt’s a process, not a switch, the more oppression they face, the easier it is for them to be recruited,â Soltan said.
One of the main motivations for detainees to join ISIS is “an opportunity to take revenge on the system that tortured them,” said Brian Dooley, author of the report and senior HRF adviser.
Amr Hashad, a former prisoner who spent a total of five years in 11 detention centers from 2014 to 2019 after protesting the government, said ISIL fighters pledged to help him achieve justice.
“After 60 days of torture in which they break your mind, body and soul – which side would you choose?” Hashad said.
Access to better nutrition, treatment
Another motivation for detainees, who are deprived of medical care and often deprived of food packages from their families, is access to better conditions.
Former detainees said ISIL members had access to phones, better food and proper medical care, as well as four hours of leisure time compared to two for other prisoners.
âISIS is the best organized faction in the prison and many prison officers fear it. They use that power for better privileges, âDooley said.
Reports of abuse and torture in Egypt have done little to change the reception of el-Sisi on the world stage.
President Emmanuel Macron presented his Egyptian counterpart with the highest French distinction, the Legion of Honor, during el-Sissi’s visit to Paris last December.
The UK has licensed at least 218 million pounds ($ 300) of weapons to Egypt since the 2011 uprising, according to the British gun tracing group Campaign Against the Arms Trade.
Although US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said in February that human rights would be “at the heart” of US-Egyptian relations – a change of tone from Donald’s frequent praise Trump towards el-Sisi, his “favorite dictator” – activists say confronted with the abusive practices of his ally.
In February, the State Department confirmed a $ 197 arms deal with Cairo, following what Dooley called “a disappointing modus operandi as usual.”
American aid to Egypt
Over the past decade, the United States has conditioned an estimated $ 300 million in annual economic and military assistance of $ 1.3 billion on human rights reforms in Egypt.
The Obama and Trump administrations released the funds despite criticism from human rights organizations about the lack of improvement in human rights.
A decision on whether the United States will hand over the conditioned $ 300 million to Egypt is expected to be made in August.
Dooley said Washington should withhold that part of the aid, impose targeted sanctions on authorities that could be used to insist on accountability in blatant cases of abuse, and US officials should ask to visit prisons and assess. their conditions.
Whitson said locking in the $ 300 million “is the minimum” that can happen.
“The Egyptian government is launching new charges against human rights activists, extending the detentions of journalists and academics and passing dozens of death sentences against the political opposition,” she said.
âBy all legal rights, the United States should not provide a penny of military support to the grossly abusive Egyptian government. “
Going on as usual will not change the behavior of the Egyptian authorities or “end the policies that fuel violent extremism,” Dooley said.