Prison’s name and location
Its official name in papers is “Tora 922 Maximum Security Prison”, but it is known to prisoners, their families and others as “Aqrab” (Scorpion) owing to its grisly reputation and the harsh violations committed against its inmates in the past and at the present time.
Standing about 2 km from the main gate of Tora Prison Complex, the “Aqrab” Prison is located in Tora Prisons (B) at the Autostrade highway heading to Helwan in Cairo.
The “Aqrab” prison was established in response to what the Interior Ministry considered as inadequacy or insufficiency of prisons in Egypt in 1991, during the tenure of former Minister of Interior Hassan al-Alfi, which is known for the intense conflict between the government and militant Islamic groups such as “Jihad” and “Islamic Group” organizations.
It took two years to build the “Aqrab” prison and it was opened in the summer of 1993.
The prison from inside
According to a report published by “Al-Masry Al-Youm” news website, the “Aqrab” prison consists of 320 cells divided into 4 horizontal wards taking the shape of the letter “H”. Measured around 2.5 by 3 meters and 3.5 meters height, each cell contains a lamp that is controlled and operated by the prison administration, and each ward is composed of 80 cells in the shape of letter “H”. Each cell has a window of 90 cm x 80 cm and a height of 2.5 m from the ground. The window overlooks a fenced corridor topped with a concrete roof and the fence has some openings about 3 m above the ground. The air and sunlight enter the cell in an indirect way because its window deviates from the wall openings by a distance of 1.5 meters. The cell also has an iron door (2m high and 1m wide) which has a hole at a height of 1.5 meters, length and width of 25 cm x 15 cm, and inside each cell there is an electric searchlight with a 100-watt bulb that is operated through the external control room. (1)
The prison has also a place for “exercise” time; a piece of concrete land covered with sand in the shape of the letter “L”, located at the back of the cells. This piece of land, measuring 25 by 15 meters, is designated for 20 cells, each of which is intended for solitary confinement and disciplinary wards for political detainees, where there is no sunlight or fresh air and where talking is even prohibited.
The “Aqrab” prison can hold up to 1500 inmates, as stated by Major General Mustafa Baz, Director of the Prisons Authority, in an interview with Al-Masry Al-Youm newspaper. (2)
The “Aqrab” prison gained its notorious reputation since 1994 when political detainees were ordered to be held there while denying visitation, and later it included criminal prisoners. However, at the present time, the prison is holding both political and criminal prisoners who were convicted by court in addition to detainees held in remand detention. And although it is a maximum security prison that is intended for holding convicted prisoners, it was established upon a decision that stipulates the “permissibility” of holding pretrial detainees who may pose a threat to national security.
Among the most famous Aqrab prison’s inmates are the Islamic groups’ leaders such as Tariq al-Zomor, Aboud al-Zomor and Najeh Ibrahim.
And recently, the prison inmates included: journalist and researcher Hisham Jaafar, head of the Mada Foundation for Media Development, who was released in March 2019, as well as: Al-Jazeera correspondent Abdullah al-Shami. Currently, the prison inmates include, but are not limited to, some of the Muslim Brotherhood leaders such as: Khairat Al-Shater, the MB’s deputy guide, Saad al-Katatni, head of the dissolved Freedom and Justice Party, MB’s deputy guide Rashad al-Bayoumi, tycoon Hassan Malik and Helmi al-Gazzar.
This is in addition to others such as; journalist Moataz Wednan, Hazem Salah Abu Ismail, and the deputy head of the Wasat Party Essam Sultan.
Inmates of Aqrab prison go missing
The “Aqrab” prison witnesses complaints of manifold violations that make it one of the worst prisons in Egypt. Such violations range from medical negligence and excessive disciplinary penalties, such as extended solitary confinement, to the denial of family visits.
“The Aqrab” prison was designed so that those who go in don’t come out again unless dead,” Major General Ibrahim Abd al-Ghaffar, a former warden (superintendent) at the prison, said during a television interview following the January 2011 Revolution. He added, “It’s a prison where there is no sunlight or fresh air. A single cell should only hold two persons but the prison administration may place ten in it.” (3)
In the same context, lawyer Hafez Abu Seada, member of the state-affiliated National Council for Human Rights (NCHR), referred to some of the violations that he had observed during his visit in early January 2016, as part of the NCHR’s delegation to the Tora prison complex. Such violations include: stripping prisoners of their beds and mattresses and having short period of family visits that do not exceed 10 minutes from behind a glass wall, in addition to the prevention of medicine from entering the prison and the closure of the prison’s canteen food portion, asserting that all such practices are deemed “illegal”.
Also, the wife of one of the prison’s inmates said- in an interview conducted by “El-Masry El-Youm” newspaper- that she had to spend the whole night in front of the main gate of Tora Prison Complex to be able to write down her name in the visit lists the next morning due to the limited number of the allowed visits (a maximum of 30 visits a day) despite the increasing number of families, leading many of them be deprived of the opportunity to visit their relatives. (5)
Messages from the Aqrab prison
In mid-November 2019, one of the prison’s inmates wrote a message, which was covered in the media, complaining about the grave violations committed against them, such as depriving them from sunlight and air and the repeated insults they are subjected to, in addition to medical negligence, the small size of solitary cells and poor ventilation.
The message, entitled “deprivation of sunlight and air”, indicates that the “Aqrab” graves are opened (while exercising) during which detainees go out to concrete-roofed corridors where there is no sunlight or fresh air. These exercise platforms are not more than two meters width and are opened based on the political and security situation in the country.
“Why are we deprived of this window of life? Is it as officer Muhammad Abdul-Jawad told us in 2015: “We will not leave you until you are missed”, or is it as Investigation Inspector Ahmed Abu Al-Wafa did while entering the prison’s visitation booths where he insulted detainees in front of their families so that they ask them not to come again to avoid their relatives getting offended?”, a group of detainees wondered in the message. (6)
Prisoners lost their lives in custody
Due to the poor prison conditions at the “Aqrab” cells and the prisoners’ denial of many of their rights, sufferings increase and the matter becomes more critical especially for sick and elderly inmates, and hence cases of deaths among prisoners are on the rise.
Dr. Essam El-Erian was not the last of those who died in the Aqrab prison, and of course he was not the first. Before him, there was Nabil al-Maghribi, who died of a severe heart attack in June 2015, and Essam Derbala, who had been vomiting blood for several hours, in addition to former President Mohamed Morsi, and many others who are unfortunately still unknown and the causes of their deaths are obscured. Among these cases is the young man Ahmed Mohamed Abdullah, who was sick in the prison’s custody throughout 2018, and when he was transferred to the prison hospital, he was brought back in the evening and died on the same night.
The last case of death in detention reported by the Arabic Network for Human Rights Information (ANHRI) is the death of Dr. “Amr Abu Khalil,” brother of Haitham Abu Khalil (a journalist residing in Turkey), which took place on 6 September 2020. Amr had been held in custody in the Aqrab prison since October 2019, and his family accused the National Security Agency of practicing medical negligence which caused the death of his relative.
A lawsuit demanding the closure of the Aqrab prison
In 2017, lawyer Osama Nasif filed a lawsuit with the State Council demanding the closure of the maximum security prison “Aqrab”, acting on behalf of Ayatollah Alaa Hosni and others. Consequently, in October 2017, the State Commissioners Authority recommended referring the case to the President of Cairo University to assign a tripartite committee of experts in the fields of medicine, engineering and human rights to prepare a report on the prison.
The lawsuit was lodged against both the President of the Republic in his capacity and the Minister of Interior, arguing that the architectural design itself of the prison’s concrete buildings is harmful to human health since it doesn’t allow any direct sunlight or fresh air into the cells, not to mention the prison administration’s intransigence including forbidding ill inmates from receiving food and medicine and denying them the daily exercise hours and family visits. The case is now approaching its fourth year since it was filed but no ruling has yet to be issued so far.
1- The “Aqrab” prison, an American system that was transformed from a “stronghold of detainees” to “the end of the Islamists”- Monday 10 August 2015, last accessed on: September 4, 2020
2- Major General Mustafa Baz, Assistant Minister of Interior for the Prisons Sector, talks about the “MB prisoners” and “threats of the prison raid”: The MB members are obedient and strictly commit to the instructions- 4 August 2013, last accessed on: September 4, 2020
3- A televised interview available on YouTube- publshed on February 7, 2012, last accessed on September 5, 2020
4- A documentary entitled “Tora 922 Maximum Security Prison (Aqrab), starting from the 38th minute- last accessed on September 7, 2020.
5- “The Aqrab, established as maximum security prison and faces human rights criticism and accusations of law violations”- Sunday 06-2016, last accessed on September 4, 2020.
6- Egyptian detainees in Aqrab Prison complain of being deprived of sunlight and air.. “Arabi21” news website- Sunday, November 17, 2019, last accessed on September 8, 2020