Uncovering the story of Egyptian jail atrocity
Last August 37 men trapped in a sweltering van for over six hours perished as their guards stood outside
An Egyptian woman mourns over a coffin that reportedly contained the body of one of the 37 Islamist prisoners who suffocated. Photograph: STR/AFP/Getty Images
Some time after midday on Sunday, August 18th, 2013, a young Egyptian film-maker called Mohamed el-Deeb made his last will and testament. It was an informal process. El-Deeb had no paper on which to sign his name and there was no lawyer present. He simply turned to the man handcuffed next to him and outlined which debts to settle if he should die, and what to say to his mother about the circumstances of his death.
El-Deeb had good reason to fear for his life. He was among 45 prisoners squashed into the back of a tiny, sweltering police truck parked in the forecourt of Abu Zaabal prison, just northeast of Cairo. They had been in the truck for more than six hours. The temperature outside was over 31 degrees, and inside would have been far hotter.
There was no space to stand and the prisoners had had almost nothing to drink. Some had wrung out their sweat-drenched shirts and drunk the drops of moisture. Many were unconscious.
Most of the men inside that van were supporters of Mohamed Morsi, Egypt’s first elected president. Squashed against el-Deeb was Mohamed Abdelmahboud, a 43-year-old seed merchant and a member of Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood.
Following four days of mass protests against his year-long rule, the army had overthrown Morsi and the Brotherhood in early July. In response, tens of thousands of people camped outside the Rabaa al-Adawiya mosque in east Cairo to call for the president’s reinstatement.
For Islamists, Rabaa was one of the last remaining symbols of freedom. But for the millions who opposed Morsi, it was a hideout for violent extremists who were holding the country to ransom. Confrontation became inevitable.
On Wednesday, August 14th, some time after 6am, police and soldiers surrounded the camp, which still contained thousands of women and children. In the 12-hour operation that followed, more than 900 protesters were shot dead, many by sniper fire. A group of armed protesters fought back, killing nine policemen, according to Human Rights Watch. But they were vastly outnumbered.
On Sunday, August 18th, Prof Gamal Siam, an economist at Cairo University, arrived at the office of Egypt’s chief prosecutor, Hisham Barakat. His oldest son, Sherif, had been arrested the previous Wednesday, during the crackdown at Rabaa. But there had been a mistake, his father told the chief prosecutor, and he needed help.
Sherif Siam was not a member of Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood, nor even a Morsi supporter. He had visited the camp at Rabaa al-Adawiya two or three times, but he’d been to anti-Morsi marches too. When the news broke of the Rabaa camp’s dispersal, his father said Sherif went down to help the wounded. Barakat gave Sherif’s father a signed letter to present to prison officials, to help speed up the processing of Sherif’s case. But what neither he nor Siam knew was that it was already too late. Police had seized Sherif at about noon a few streets from the camp.
Like the thousands of others arrested that day, Sherif was accused of a raft of catch-all charges, including membership of a terrorist group (as the state later designated the Muslim Brotherhood), attempted murder and possession of lethal weapons. It is impossible to know the precise circumstances of his arrest, but for his family, these are preposterous charges. He was a telecoms engineer by day, and had a second career as a life coach. Four days before his arrest, he was interviewed on Egyptian breakfast television about how to find happiness amid the tension and disruption wrought on Cairo by the Rabaa camp.
Shukri Saad, a resident of Nasr City, the area surrounding Rabaa, had just bought a month’s worth of diabetes treatment when he was stopped by police. They suspected him of buying medicine for people wounded at Rabaa.
Nearby, Talaat Ali was serving tea to off-duty soldiers and policemen on a break from clearing the camp. The cafe owner decided to close early, because the officers refused to pay for their drinks, so Ali started to make his way home. He said he was stopped by the same policemen he had served. “Hey, I’m the tea guy, I gave you tea,” Ali apparently said before he, too, was arrested.
He was soon joined by Mohamed Ramzi, a vegetable seller from west Cairo who had come to Nasr City to sell cucumbers. Then there was Ahmed Hamrawy, on his way to sell his clothes in a market in the centre of town. Rafiq Abdelghany was stopped on his way to work, and would later be granted bail – but he was taken to Abu Zaabal before the bail money could be delivered.
Mohamed Abdelmahboud was arrested far from the camp, several hours after the shooting had stopped, as he drove home. He had been at Rabaa since its tents were first pitched in late June. When the siege began, he stayed put. Abdelmahboud says he stayed behind to help the wounded. After 3pm, once the gunfire became too intense to rescue any more of the injured, he made a run for it. Later, he joined up with a group of friends from his home town, a tiny hamlet down a backroad in the Nile delta. They had heard that a friend had been shot in the chaos and they were looking for his body at the Iman mosque, a few streets east of what had been the Rabaa encampment.