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Prison visit sheds light on plight of Egypt’s pro-Morsi inmates

Amina Ismail

The wallpaper in the room where Gehad Khaled sits holding hands with her husband, Abdullah al Shamy, for their visit carries pictures of the sky, flying birds, trees and greenery. It’s an unusual contrast to the sea of prisoners dressed in white uniforms.

Shamy, a journalist, was one of thousands detained Aug. 14, the day security forces stormed sit-ins supporting ousted President Mohammed Morsi and killed roughly 1,100 people. As many as 10,000 suspected Morsi supporters have been arrested since.

Now, like Shamy, they’re dispersed throughout the nation’s prisons. Little has been said publicly about where they’re being held, under what conditions or what they’ve been told about the charges they might face. A McClatchy reporter accompanied Khaled on her recent visit with her husband in an effort to find out what’s happening to those prisoners.

The experience was trying for Khaled, who endured four hours of security checks and waiting to see her husband for only about a quarter of an hour.

The prisoners endure far worse, allowed only 30 minutes of running water each day, making even going to the bathroom a trying experience. They’re crammed in tight spaces with little knowledge of the Egypt that’s emerged around them, in which many people are so angry about Morsi and his former rule that they readily accept the mistreatment of his supporters.

Khaled said that on the day Shamy was arrested, they’d been evacuated from a field hospital where he was reporting in Cairo’s Rabaa district, the scene of the greatest bloodshed that day. As they made their way out, they were confronted at a military checkpoint. Shamy presented his passport for identification. The soldiers, viewing the many visas from other countries, realized that he was a reporter for Al Jazeera, the satellite news channel that many here thought was aligned with Morsi.

For two days, Khaled didn’t know where her husband had been taken. She eventually learned that he was at Abu Zaabal prison, 13 miles south of Cairo. In the first 60 days, she was allowed to visit five times; now she goes weekly, though never for more than 30 minutes.

The line to enter the prison’s main gate is long, and there are no restrooms; children heeding the call of nature use the ground. Flies are everywhere. Once inside, the waiting area is filthy, with trash piled in every corner. Women are crammed together, pushing and shoving.

“Move forward!” one says, without effect, to the crowd. She carries a toddler covered with flies in one arm. A huge bag is clutched in the other.

Khaled knew to bring supplies for her husband and his fellow prisoners, after she heard that 15 prisoners were poisoned from the water in the prison. Shamy is housed with 63 others in a 700-square-foot cell with four bathrooms and no furniture. Until Khaled brought a sleeping bag on a previous visit, Shamy slept on the floor.

This time Khaled is carrying three heavy bags that hold water, clothing, food, books and notebooks, so he can document what’s happening around him. He is still a journalist.

Khaled prefers to wait outside till she can register to be allowed inside. “I’d rather sit on the pavement than sit inside the waiting room. The smell inside is not bearable,” she says.

At the registration desk, Khaled pays the first of two bribes – 10 Egyptian pounds, or $1.42 – to avoid a physical search. “I don’t like them touching me,” she says. “I consider it harassment.”

Anti-military graffiti covers the walls of the one-story building that houses the waiting room, clearly created by visitors. “Down, down with military rule,” one slogan reads.

Two hours later, an officer calls Khaled and the other visitors whose relatives are in the same section as Shamy. Many people whose relatives aren’t connected to political events have waited less time.

“Isn’t your husband an Al Jazeera reporter?” asks the jail guard in the striped blue and red shirt. “Then why didn’t the channel get him out of here?” He sends Khaled to the front of the line that’s pushing to enter the prison building.

As Khaled steps into the building, a police officer stands in his taupe suit and black sunglasses and points at a room adjacent to the gate. For the second time, Khaled pulls out money, a 10-pound note she gives to a policewoman to avoid the intrusive pat-down.

Then she spots her husband. Shamy, once clean-shaven, has grown a beard. His black hair is long and shaggy. He has dark circles under his eyes.

Khaled and Shamy, married just a year, look like honeymooners once again.

How soon Shamy might be free is unclear. Mustafa Atteiia, his lawyer, told McClatchy he’s been charged with inciting violence, disturbing the peace and destroying public property but that he hasn’t been able to see the evidence against him. When Shamy appeared before a judge, he wasn’t allowed to speak. But he’s been allowed to start an appeal.

Atteiia and Shamy claimed that Shamy had been beaten and his head shaved, which is considered humiliating in Egypt.

He’s continued working as the journalist he is, documenting what he’s seen and heard since he was imprisoned.

He’s talked to prisoners who witnessed the Aug. 18 deaths of nearly 40 Morsi supporters who suffocated in a police truck at the prison. According to the witnesses, he said, the prisoners had been left inside the truck for hours. One of them banged on the side of the truck, trying to draw attention. Then all the prisoners in the truck started banging. The police responded by throwing three tear-gas canisters inside. Shamy said the witnesses told him they heard the police say, “Let them die.”

He also said the six survivors of the incident aren’t allowed to see their families except briefly, and are held separately from the other prisoners.

Twenty minutes after Shamy and Khaled begin their visit, a clap suddenly echoes through the room. The smiles start fading. Time’s up.

Khaled and Shamy ignore the claps at first, but finally stand up as the claps continue. They hurriedly whisper everything they want to say to each other. As people start to leave, Shamy walks his wife out, holding on to her hand until the last possible moment.

Nancy A. Youssef contributed to this report from Cairo.


By Amina Ismail
McClatchy Foreign Staff