Rights groups push for better prison treatment of Muslim Brotherhood Morsi

The harsh prison conditions of former Egyptian president Mohamed Morsi are calling attention to the country's crackdown against democracy since Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi came to power four years ago. 

Brian Rohan/AP
Abdullah Morsi, the youngest son of Egypt’s jailed former Islamist President Mohamed Morsi, sits in front of a framed image of his father that was printed on a flag during the 2013 Rabaah al-Adawiya sit-in, at his home in Cairo, Egypt.

Once a month, Abdullah Morsi waits outside Cairo's notorious Tora prison for hours, standing without shade under the blazing Egyptian sun for a chance to see his father.

And almost every time, for five years, he has been denied access to Egypt's most famous, but least heard-from prisoner – former President Mohamed Morsi, the Islamist whose divisive year in power ended with a military ouster in 2013.

"I won't sit on the ground while I wait, it's not dignified," he said in an interview with The Associated Press. "I know they will deny my request, but I still have to try."

Mr. Morsi's family is campaigning to gain more access to the former president, who since his overthrow has appeared only in court, almost always in a soundproof cage. The family says the 67-year-old Morsi is suffering from ill health due to harsh conditions, including years of solitary confinement. Last month, they were granted a rare, police-supervised 25-minute visit – only the third time they've seen him in five years.

"He has no idea what's going on in the country since he was arrested, they don't allow him newspapers or even a pen and paper to write down his thoughts," Abdullah said, speaking at the family's home outside Cairo.

"He's in strong spirits but held in total isolation, without sufficient care for his diabetes and high blood pressure, and he sleeps on the floor," Abdullah said. "We want him to be able to have a life – visits and medical care, and eventually freedom."

Abdullah studies finance but says he has little chance of finding work in Egypt – employers are scared to hire him, requesting authorization letters from state security.

He has no passport, only an ID, and has been refused a driver's license. Recently, his older brother Osama, who had already been detained for two years, was sentenced to 10 years in prison in a mass trial that Amnesty International decried as a "mockery of justice." He and the other defendants were convicted of allegedly inciting violence at a pro-Morsi sit-in that police stormed, killing hundreds of protesters.

With most of the family on a terrorism watch list and banned from public life after authorities blacklisted Morsi's Muslim Brotherhood, the campaign to improve conditions of his imprisonment has been run from London, where several prominent British politicians have backed it.

"I am not fighting for anything here except for his rights," Abdullah said of his father.

Morsi, who won Egypt's first and arguably only free presidential election in 2012, has been imprisoned since he was overthrown by his own defense minister, now President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi. He has been held incommunicado since, having only seen his lawyers four times.

In Egypt, convicts are typically allowed family visits although that can be revoked at the authorities' discretion, as seems to be the case with Morsi, whose family has been given no explanation for it. Families of many detainees report similar restrictions, especially for those with alleged Brotherhood ties.

During his year in office, Morsi's opponents accused his Muslim Brotherhood of trying to use election victories to impose their domination over the state. Morsi cracked down at times on protesters and used executive powers to force policies, but never managed to control the levers of power, facing opposition in the courts and among police. In the end, his opponents organized mass demonstrations against his rule, and it was against this backdrop that Mr. el-Sissi overthrew him.

Since then, the government has declared the Brotherhood a terrorist organization and largely crushed it with a heavy crackdown. Tens of thousands of Egyptians have been arrested since 2013, the vast majority of them accused of working with or for the Brotherhood, says the US-based Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy.

Morsi still considers himself Egypt's legitimate president and does not recognize the charges against him, which include treason and incitement to violence. He has been sentenced to 20 years after being convicted of ordering Brotherhood members to break up a protest against him, resulting in deaths. An earlier death sentence was overturned. Multiple cases are still pending.

Morsi is held in a special wing in the sprawling Tora detention complex nicknamed Scorpion Prison. Rights groups say its poor conditions fall far below Egyptian and international standards.

Egyptian authorities deny mistreating prisoners. The Interior Ministry could not be immediately reached for comment.

The London campaign, which calls itself the Detention Review Panel, says poor prison conditions and lack of visits for Morsi should be considered cruel and unusual punishment and may meet the standards for torture under international and Egyptian law. The panel also says it is pressing for the international community to intervene to improve Morsi's conditions.

The panel is headed by Crispin Blunt and Paul Williams, both members of Parliament, and Edward Faulks, a member of the House of Lords. They requested to interview Morsi earlier this year to check on his health and conditions, but received no response to the request.

The government has depicted the Brotherhood as a terrorist threat, lumping it in with extremists like an Islamic State affiliate that has waged a campaign of attacks, killing thousands of security forces and civilians. The fighting is centered in the Sinai Peninsula but has also erupted in other parts of the country, although in recent months attacks have waned.

Authorities describe several smaller militant groups as splinter factions of the Brotherhood and say imprisoned Brotherhood leaders have sent messages to militants from their cells. It is with such justifications that authorities sometimes ban prison visits.

"The terrorism claims, that's all theatre – it's the only way they can explain what they did to my father," Abdullah said.

The United States and Europe have all but endorsed el-Sissi's security solutions in dealing with terror groups and raised little criticism of crackdowns on dissent – instead turning to el-Sissi as a key regional partner and recipient of arms sales. No formal political organizations oppose el-Sissi, who won re-election earlier this year in a contest where he faced no serious competitors.

Popular anger at the rising cost of living and lack of economic opportunities for most Egyptians have surfaced occasionally, prompting el-Sissi to warn that Egypt would not survive another "revolutionary" phase like the 2011 popular uprising that toppled longtime autocrat Hosni Mubarak.

Abdullah and his family point to Mubarak's case as they press for Morsi's transfer to incarceration in a private hospital for care at his own expense. After his ouster, Mubarak never saw the inside of a prison cell, and instead was held in a military hospital. After lengthy trials on several charges, Mubarak walked free last year.

"When my father was in charge, Mubarak was never held in such conditions, my father respected human rights," Abdullah said. "He deserves the same."

This story was reported by The Associated Press. 

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