Passport

The revenge of Tora Prison

If, as Dostoyevsky once said, the degree of civilization of a society can be judged by entering its prisons, Hosni Mubarak’s sons and top lieutenants will now get a chance to reflect on the impact they left on Egypt.  Gamal and Alaa Mubarak have reportedly been taken to Tora prison  where a number of other ...

KHALED DESOUKI/AFP/Getty Images
KHALED DESOUKI/AFP/Getty Images

If, as Dostoyevsky once said, the degree of civilization of a society can be judged by entering its prisons, Hosni Mubarak’s sons and top lieutenants will now get a chance to reflect on the impact they left on Egypt. 

Gamal and Alaa Mubarak have reportedly been taken to Tora prison  where a number of other figures from their father’s regime are already being held. Hosni is also in custody at a hospital in Sharm el-Sheik after suffering an unspecified "heart crisis" during questioning by prosecutors. The three have been charged with corruption as well as instigating violence against protesters during the uprising that removed them from power. 

It’s a stunning reversal for the Mubaraks — one underscored by the facility where they’re being held.  Tora — actually a complex of five prisons about 14 miles south of Cairo — has been home to some of the regime’s most prominent enemies, including opposition leader Ayman Nour and Al Qaeda founder and later defector Sayyid Imam "Dr. Fadl" al-Sharif

Tora has also been the site of some the regime’s worst crimes. For instance, a 1997 Amnesty International report decried the lack of medical attention given to prisoners at the complex: 

– ‘Abd al-Rahman ‘Abd al-Fattah ‘Abdallah Mohammadwho died in Qasr al-‘Aini hospital in Cairo on 7 October 1996 at the age of 53. He had been among the 54 members of the Muslim Brothersorganization sentenced to up to five years’ imprisonment with hard labour in two separate cases by the Supreme Military Court in Cairo on 23 November 1995. He was being held in Mazra’at Tora Prison, and had been transferred from there to the hospital a few days prior to his death. He had allegedly been suffering from medical problems and is reported to have died as a result of a blood clot which began in his leg and for which he did not receive anti-coagulant medication or other medical treatment while in prison.

 

– ‘Abd al-Ra’ouf Amir al-Guyush, aged 45, who was sentenced to 10 years’ imprisonment on 31 May 1995 by the Cairo Supreme Military Court in a trial involving 42 alleged members of the banned Islamist group Talai’ al-Fatah[Vanguard of the Conquest] and has been held since then in the High Security Prison in Tora. He is reported to be suffering from a number of medical problems for which he has been denied access to proper medical attention. According to Amnesty International’s information, his lawyer has lodged a complaint with the Public Prosecutor’s Office to allow the prisoner to have proper medical attention outside the prison.

 

 

In 2001, 52 men were arrested on board a floating gay nightclub called the Queen Boat and taken to Tora. They described the conditions to Human Rights Watch:

"We were received in the filthiest way possible" at Tora Penitentiary, Wahba told Human Rights Watch.[112]  Ziyad said, "They put us to sleep in this miserable room, more than fifty of us, no blankets, nothing, and mice and insects running over the floor."[113]

In the morning, the prisoners were taken out and ordered to strip to their underwear.[114] "One guy was stripped completely naked because he was ‘not normal’-he looked like a queen."[115]  Their heads were shaved; another prisoner recalls, "The barber was abusive and said we must have all had AIDS and that he was burning his tools after he finished with us lest he infect other prisoners."[116]

Muharram says, "Then we were beaten.  The policy is not to have the guards beat prisoners, so they can’t be sued, but to have other inmates beat prisoners. Many other prisoners participated in the beating."[117]

[…]

In Tora, Faisal remembers, "The door was closed for an entire month.  We were isolated in the room. They just opened it to give us food and collect garbage.  There was no running water almost all the time: only between about 5 and 6:30 p.m.  We used to have fights for the right to use the bathroom and wash clothes. We only had one blanket to sleep on, on the floor.  We put our shoes underneath our heads as pillows, and wrapped ourselves in the blanket for warmth."[120] For the first month the prisoners had no visits, letters, packages, or communication with their families. After weeks, the cell doors were allowed open for two hours daily-one hour at the beginning, one hour at the end of the day. Yet the prisoners were never allowed into the open air, only to stand in the corridor.[121]

Abuse by guards and inmates continued.   "If we were being led out to go to the niyaba, for example, the guards would shout, ‘Hello, devil worshipper, khawalat, perverts’ … and sometimes hit us with hands or sticks."[122]  Hassan says that as they gradually were permitted contact with the rest of the prison, "Other prisoners would join in playing games with us toward the end. But there were a few who were treated especially badly by everybody-the officers, other prisoners.  These were the ones who were obviously gay. … A lot of the other prisoners would beat them."[123]

Sadly, the United States is also implicated in the torture at Tora. The complex was a popular venue for the rendition of suspected militants for interrogation by Egyptian authorities. Here’s a description from the British prisoners’ rights group Reprieve:

After his 2003 abduction from Italy, Egyptian cleric Abu Omar was tortured at Tora for over a year. He was stripped and placed in a room ‘so cold it felt my bones would snap’ and then moved to a boiling hot cell. Electric shocks were applied to his whole body, which caused lifelong difficulties with walking.

Ahmed Agiza and Muhammed al-Zari report that they were regularly subjected to electric shocks and other torture while being held in secret detention Mulhaq Mazra. Only after they had been imprisoned for over two years were Swedish authorities finally allowed to visit Agiza and al-Zari in February 2004. Agiza’s mother was also able to see her son, albeit with Egyptian security supervision.

Agiza’s mother states that it was clear that her son had been tortured; he had been unable to even pick up his arms to hug her, and that he was very slow, very tired and very weak. Al-Zari’s lawyer said that he had been electrocuted with wires attached to the most sensitive parts of the body: “They fasten electrodes to the most sensitive parts of the body. That is, genitals, breast nipples, tongue, ear lobes, underarms.”

Mohammed Zarai, former director of the Cairo-based Human Rights Centre for the Assistance of Prisoners, confirms that Agiza was repeatedly electrocuted, hung upside down, whipped with an electrical flex and hospitalised after being made to lick his cell floor clean.

Hopefully such conditions will be a thing of the past in the new Egypt, and Mubarak’s family and associates won’t be subjected to the same treatment he applied to his foes. 

If, as Dostoyevsky once said, the degree of civilization of a society can be judged by entering its prisons, Hosni Mubarak’s sons and top lieutenants will now get a chance to reflect on the impact they left on Egypt. 

Gamal and Alaa Mubarak have reportedly been taken to Tora prison  where a number of other figures from their father’s regime are already being held. Hosni is also in custody at a hospital in Sharm el-Sheik after suffering an unspecified "heart crisis" during questioning by prosecutors. The three have been charged with corruption as well as instigating violence against protesters during the uprising that removed them from power. 

It’s a stunning reversal for the Mubaraks — one underscored by the facility where they’re being held.  Tora — actually a complex of five prisons about 14 miles south of Cairo — has been home to some of the regime’s most prominent enemies, including opposition leader Ayman Nour and Al Qaeda founder and later defector Sayyid Imam "Dr. Fadl" al-Sharif

Tora has also been the site of some the regime’s worst crimes. For instance, a 1997 Amnesty International report decried the lack of medical attention given to prisoners at the complex: 

– ‘Abd al-Rahman ‘Abd al-Fattah ‘Abdallah Mohammadwho died in Qasr al-‘Aini hospital in Cairo on 7 October 1996 at the age of 53. He had been among the 54 members of the Muslim Brothersorganization sentenced to up to five years’ imprisonment with hard labour in two separate cases by the Supreme Military Court in Cairo on 23 November 1995. He was being held in Mazra’at Tora Prison, and had been transferred from there to the hospital a few days prior to his death. He had allegedly been suffering from medical problems and is reported to have died as a result of a blood clot which began in his leg and for which he did not receive anti-coagulant medication or other medical treatment while in prison.

 

– ‘Abd al-Ra’ouf Amir al-Guyush, aged 45, who was sentenced to 10 years’ imprisonment on 31 May 1995 by the Cairo Supreme Military Court in a trial involving 42 alleged members of the banned Islamist group Talai’ al-Fatah[Vanguard of the Conquest] and has been held since then in the High Security Prison in Tora. He is reported to be suffering from a number of medical problems for which he has been denied access to proper medical attention. According to Amnesty International’s information, his lawyer has lodged a complaint with the Public Prosecutor’s Office to allow the prisoner to have proper medical attention outside the prison.

 

 

In 2001, 52 men were arrested on board a floating gay nightclub called the Queen Boat and taken to Tora. They described the conditions to Human Rights Watch:

"We were received in the filthiest way possible" at Tora Penitentiary, Wahba told Human Rights Watch.[112]  Ziyad said, "They put us to sleep in this miserable room, more than fifty of us, no blankets, nothing, and mice and insects running over the floor."[113]

In the morning, the prisoners were taken out and ordered to strip to their underwear.[114] "One guy was stripped completely naked because he was ‘not normal’-he looked like a queen."[115]  Their heads were shaved; another prisoner recalls, "The barber was abusive and said we must have all had AIDS and that he was burning his tools after he finished with us lest he infect other prisoners."[116]

Muharram says, "Then we were beaten.  The policy is not to have the guards beat prisoners, so they can’t be sued, but to have other inmates beat prisoners. Many other prisoners participated in the beating."[117]

[…]

In Tora, Faisal remembers, "The door was closed for an entire month.  We were isolated in the room. They just opened it to give us food and collect garbage.  There was no running water almost all the time: only between about 5 and 6:30 p.m.  We used to have fights for the right to use the bathroom and wash clothes. We only had one blanket to sleep on, on the floor.  We put our shoes underneath our heads as pillows, and wrapped ourselves in the blanket for warmth."[120] For the first month the prisoners had no visits, letters, packages, or communication with their families. After weeks, the cell doors were allowed open for two hours daily-one hour at the beginning, one hour at the end of the day. Yet the prisoners were never allowed into the open air, only to stand in the corridor.[121]

Abuse by guards and inmates continued.   "If we were being led out to go to the niyaba, for example, the guards would shout, ‘Hello, devil worshipper, khawalat, perverts’ … and sometimes hit us with hands or sticks."[122]  Hassan says that as they gradually were permitted contact with the rest of the prison, "Other prisoners would join in playing games with us toward the end. But there were a few who were treated especially badly by everybody-the officers, other prisoners.  These were the ones who were obviously gay. … A lot of the other prisoners would beat them."[123]

Sadly, the United States is also implicated in the torture at Tora. The complex was a popular venue for the rendition of suspected militants for interrogation by Egyptian authorities. Here’s a description from the British prisoners’ rights group Reprieve:

After his 2003 abduction from Italy, Egyptian cleric Abu Omar was tortured at Tora for over a year. He was stripped and placed in a room ‘so cold it felt my bones would snap’ and then moved to a boiling hot cell. Electric shocks were applied to his whole body, which caused lifelong difficulties with walking.

Ahmed Agiza and Muhammed al-Zari report that they were regularly subjected to electric shocks and other torture while being held in secret detention Mulhaq Mazra. Only after they had been imprisoned for over two years were Swedish authorities finally allowed to visit Agiza and al-Zari in February 2004. Agiza’s mother was also able to see her son, albeit with Egyptian security supervision.

Agiza’s mother states that it was clear that her son had been tortured; he had been unable to even pick up his arms to hug her, and that he was very slow, very tired and very weak. Al-Zari’s lawyer said that he had been electrocuted with wires attached to the most sensitive parts of the body: “They fasten electrodes to the most sensitive parts of the body. That is, genitals, breast nipples, tongue, ear lobes, underarms.”

Mohammed Zarai, former director of the Cairo-based Human Rights Centre for the Assistance of Prisoners, confirms that Agiza was repeatedly electrocuted, hung upside down, whipped with an electrical flex and hospitalised after being made to lick his cell floor clean.

Hopefully such conditions will be a thing of the past in the new Egypt, and Mubarak’s family and associates won’t be subjected to the same treatment he applied to his foes. 

Joshua Keating was an associate editor at Foreign Policy  Twitter: @joshuakeating

More from Foreign Policy

The Taliban delegation leaves the hotel after meeting with representatives of Russia, China, the United States, Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Qatar in Moscow on March 19.

China and the Taliban Begin Their Romance

Beijing has its eyes set on using Afghanistan as a strategic corridor once U.S. troops are out of the way.

An Afghan security member pours gasoline over a pile of seized drugs and alcoholic drinks

The Taliban Are Breaking Bad

Meth is even more profitable than heroin—and is turbocharging the insurgency.

Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya addresses the U.N. Security Council from her office in Vilnius, Lithuania, on Sept. 4, 2020.

Belarus’s Unlikely New Leader

Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya didn’t set out to challenge a brutal dictatorship.

Taliban spokesperson Zabihullah Mujahid

What the Taliban Takeover Means for India

Kabul’s swift collapse leaves New Delhi with significant security concerns.