Egyptian Authorities ‘Beat Up’ Ohio State Grad in Cairo Prison

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Ahmed Gomaa / AP

Egyptian security forces clear a sit-in camp set up by supporters of ousted Islamist President Mohamed Morsi in Cairo on Aug. 14, 2013

An Egyptian-American activist arrested in August claims in a letter smuggled from prison that Egyptian security personnel beat him, denied him medical attention and joked about killing detainees.

Dual citizen Mohamed Soltan, a graduate of Ohio State University, had been a press spokesperson for the protest camp in Cairo’s Rabaa al-Adawiya Square demanding the reinstatement of deposed President Mohamed Morsi. He was shot in the arm when security forces firing live ammunition forcibly dispersed protesters from the square on Aug. 14, killing hundreds. The government asserts that police simply responded to gunfire from the protesters, though a Human Rights Watch investigation found that the number of gunmen in the camp was small. In an interview then with TIME, Soltan said he feared he could face arrest in a public hospital, so he had the bullet removed by a private doctor. Days later, Soltan was arrested.

“The brutality with which I have been treated has been mind boggling,” he writes in a letter addressed to his mother and given to TIME by his family. “During the day, soldiers and police would get in two straight lines, and we would have to run in between them as they beat us with rocks and sticks.”

He continues: “The officers stripped off our pants and shirts as they beat us with clubs. They put us in jail cells with what must have been 60 other inmates, and it was terribly hot and water was not made available to us. I saw an inmate suffer a heart attack right before my eyes and not receive proper medical attention. The surgical wound on my arm was open and oozing, and not one of the guards seemed to care because I was labeled a political prisoner.”

The account emerges amid mounting concern over conditions for those detained in the summer crackdown on the pro-Morsi movement. Since July 3, at least 3,000 people were arrested, though at least 600 were released by mid-September, according to Amnesty International. The detainees also include two Canadians — medical doctor Tarek Loubani and filmmaker John Greyson — who are now on hunger strike. The pair was arrested after asking police officers for help after the deadly clashes between protesters and security forces in Cairo’s Ramses Square on Aug. 16. In a newly released letter the pair wrote from prison, they said they witnessed more than 50 Egyptians die in the square, many of them from bullet wounds.

Asked about the claims in Soltan’s letter, a U.S. embassy spokesperson says, “We continue to provide all appropriate consular assistance, which includes routine prison visits. We take any allegations of mistreatment seriously and investigate them to the fullest extent possible.”

Brigadier Hatem Fathy, the director of the International Relations Department at Egypt’s Ministry of the Interior, says he can’t speak to the specifics of Soltan’s case. As for the abuse allegations, he says, “The Egyptian government has several mechanisms for complaints of any ill-treatment by police or any other department of the government.” Officials at Egypt’s public prosecutor’s office could not be immediately reached for comment.

In his letter, Soltan also describes the conditions in the initial hours and days after his arrest in August: “We were taken to a police station and tossed into a room nicknamed ‘The Fridge,’ which was a room without seats, benches, windows, and lights,” he writes. “I was not allowed a phone call, nor any communication with a lawyer, with one guard quipping that he could get me anything I wanted, drugs, alcohol, prostitutes. Just not due process.”

“The next morning the officers blindfolded me and led me to a room where a man I could not see asked me a series of questions about our home, our family, and our reasons for being in the country,” he writes.

“One officer sarcastically shared with a fellow officer that he was confused as to why they hadn’t just shot us dead and that he hoped we would attempt to escape so they could hunt us like chickens and kill us,” he writes. “At one of the prisons, I was handcuffed to another inmate, mandating that when I used the bathroom I had to take him in with me.”

During interrogation, security officials accused him of a range of crimes including membership in a terrorist organization and attempting to kill protesters, he says in the letter. “I was completely shocked that such charges, none of which had any basis in reality,” he writes. His attorney, Ahmed Alghayesh, says in a phone interview that the charges are politicized and that there is “no evidence” for any of them.

Soltan’s father, Cairo University professor and prominent Muslim Brotherhood member Salah Soltan, was also arrested in September. His detention came a few days after he broke ranks with the Brotherhood by publicly apologizing for the movement’s mistakes.

According to Mohamed Soltan’s sister, clinical social worker Hanaa Soltan, the letter was handwritten in pen on a yellow legal pad and transported from the prison by a visitor to the detention facility. Members of his family then typed up the letter before releasing it to the media.

Speaking on the phone from Washington, D.C., she says that the physical abuse described in the letter took place in the initial days of her brother’s detention in the Wadi Natrun prison, north of Cairo. Soltan has since been moved to Cairo’s Tora prison. She says her brother told her in a phone conversation that he had been beaten directly on the incision left by the surgery to treat his gunshot wound and that his shoulder had been dislocated.

She also says the wound had been treated by a doctor who was detained in the same cell as her brother. Initially, she says, prison officials refused to allow bandages into the cell. “In the meantime he had to tear up a worn undershirt and bandage [the wound] so he could at least cover it,” she says. “It was a really overcrowded cell. You couldn’t sleep, they had to take shifts; most of them would stand while some lay down and got some sleep.”

Visitors were eventually allowed to bring bandages with which to treat his arm, she says. Officials had told her that Soltan would be permitted treatment in a hospital by Monday, but she was not able to confirm that the hospital visit had taken place. She says U.S. embassy personnel were also eventually able to visit him more than three weeks after his arrest.

“There is no system there,” says Hanaa, expressing frustration over what she says was lack of due process. “It’s laughable, almost, how unsystematic it is.”

Though Egypt’s recent season of political violence has subsided for the moment, the interim government shows no signs of easing its nationwide clampdown on Islamists and other opponents. As a result, with a police force and judicial system deeply shaped by decades of authoritarian rule under former President Hosni Mubarak, those imprisoned in the recent season of political violence face an ordeal that is unlikely to end soon.