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Lawyer pushes for jail reform in Egypt

Rights groups hail advocate's initiative on the plight of prisoners, but critics say he is fighting for better treatment of the Brotherhood men behind bars.

Moataz Ahmed, a Brotherhood  activist, was released last month from the Burg al Arab prison.
Moataz Ahmed, a Brotherhood activist, was released last month from the Burg al Arab prison.

CAIRO // Over the past 10 years, conditions in Egypt's notorious jails have been steadily improving, said Abdel Moneim Abdel Maqsoud, a lawyer for the Muslim Brotherhood, an Islamist political organisation.

Most prisoners now sleep in beds as opposed to floor mats. They have access to televisions and are no longer subject to the routine beatings and torture that former inmates say once defined life behind bars. But one exception remains, said Mr Maqsoud. At the Burg al Arab prison, which hosts 15,000 inmates outside Alexandria, Egypt's second-largest city, the abuse and neglect continue unabated. "Until now, there has hardly been any improvement," Mr Maqsoud said. "A cell that is three or four square metres accommodates 13 or 14 people, and this helps in the spread of diseases. And they don't get the necessary health care so the health conditions of the prisoners is bad."

Members of the Muslim Brotherhood - Egypt's most powerful but illegal opposition movement - are regularly jailed, and of the 350 Brothers who Mr Maqsoud said were currently imprisoned, 46 are in the Burg al Arab. Indeed, of the estimated 800 "prisoners of conscience" in Egyptian jails, about 400 are in Burg al Arab, said Gamal Eid, the general director of the Arab Network for Human Rights and Information, a Cairo-based non-governmental organisation. Most are imprisoned without trial under Egypt's emergency law, which awards broad powers to the security services.

Mr Maqsoud has launched a campaign to try to improve the prison's conditions. Last month, he and members of his civil society organisation, the Swasya Centre for Human Rights and Anti-Discrimination, visited the public prosecutor's office in Cairo to appeal for better treatment, including relaxed visitation rights for detainees' family members and lawyers as well as improved sleeping quarters, cleaner water, better food and more humane treatment at the hands of penal officials.

Among those jailed in the latest wave of Brotherhood arrests in February was Moataz Ahmed, a student activist in the Brotherhood. Mr Ahmed, who was charged - but never tried - with membership in a banned organisation, hindering national unity and organising a coup d'etat against the regime, was released last month after more than four weeks in what he described as inhumane conditions. "We were kept inside the cell. We weren't allowed out except for a very limited period of time," Mr Ahmed said.

"Every now and then [the guards] would come to the cell and they would bring the police dogs to frighten us. This was how they treated the political prisoners, but the criminal prisoners are treated much worse." Mr Ahmed recalls 50 non-political, or "criminal", prisoners being forced to defecate en masse in the prison's main yard so that the guards could be sure they were not carrying contraband in their intestines. While Muslim Brotherhood detainees slept 13 to a room built for eight prisoners, 31 convicted criminals were squashed into the same-sized cells, it is claimed.

"They used to tie up blankets to create a 'second floor' so that prisoners could sleep," Mr Ahmed said. During the height of Egypt's militant Islamist movements in the 1990s, it was the political prisoners who took the brunt of prison officials' routine harassment, which included lashings and hard labour. When fundamentalist groups such as Al Gama'a al Islamiyya renounced violence in 2003, authorities stopped singling out Islamist prisoners for collective punishment.

Where there were once about 23,000 Islamists in Egyptian jails, said Mohamed Zarea, a lawyer and the chairman of the Human Rights Organisation for the Assistance of Prisoners, there are now only about 2,000 to 3,000. Yet for most political prisoners, the treatment and conditions depend on a given political group's relationship with the government, said Mr Zarea, whose organisation regularly visits penitentiaries to evaluate the treatment of prisoners.

For example, prison conditions for Muslim Brotherhood members remain relatively good compared to those of militants, criminals or other perceived enemies of the state. While human rights activists have applauded Mr Maqsoud's campaign to improve prison conditions, some complained that Swasya's efforts focus on the needs of Brotherhood members while ignoring the plight of Egypt's wider penal population.

"I'm not a part of Abdel Maqsoud's campaign because there are about 40 prisons in Egypt and the conditions inside all of them are horrible," said Mr Zarea, who spent time in prison for his involvement with the left-wing Nasserist movement in the 1980s. "I believe that any organisation that focuses on defending just one group of people - Muslims only or Christians only - are not human rights organisations." @Email:mbradley@thenational.ae