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

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.

Rabaa crackdown
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.

Terrorist charges
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.

Kicking from police
A few metres away, Gamal Siam was searching for his son. Close to midnight, he was shown a YouTube video of Sherif getting a kicking from a police officer. “I was so pleased, even though what it showed was so inhuman,” Siam said later. “At least he was alive.”

Abdelmahboud and his friends stumbled across their friend. They put his body in the back of a pick-up truck and began the drive home to Sharqiya – a northern province two hours northeast of Cairo – for his funeral. There were about two dozen of them huddled over the corpse, making their way through the darkness. Ten miles into the journey, an army checkpoint loomed in the headlights. A curfew had been called to control the spread of violent clashes, and they were breaking it.

The soldiers took their belongings and their money, and called the police. After an hour, they released most of the villagers, but kept back five, seemingly at random. Abdelmahboud was one; Abdel Moneim, the local physician, was another. “They said there were warrants out for our arrests,” said a third, Mohamed Sayed Gabal, a 29-year-old pharmacist. “That was surprising, because none of us had ever been involved with the police before.”

Heliopolis station
The five were hauled back to northeast Cairo, to a police station in Heliopolis, a few hundred metres from the presidential palace. There, they were accused of carrying a corpse without a permit and of vandalism, and thrown into a crowded cell.

Hussein Abdel Aal, a 60-year-old former official at an Egyptian oil company, had spent the night in custody, lying on a football pitch with thousands of other prisoners.

Abdel Aal had arrived at Rabaa a few hours before it was cleared. He wanted to stand alongside his son, Ramzy, a Brotherhood official who had been at the camp from the start.

As the violent clearance began, Ramzy was shot by a sniper from the top of a nearby building. “We were far from the frontline, but my son got a bullet in his forehead,” his father later remembered, “and it went out of the back of his skull.”

At the gates of a private hospital where Ramzy’s body was taken, Abdel Aalwas arrested and taken to Cairo stadium.

When the curfew ended the next morning, Gamal Siam set about trying to find a lawyer to help free his son. Siam was a connected man – he was once an adviser to the Mubarak-era agriculture ministry – but none of his friends dared get involved. So Siam went to the stadium himself, but by the time he arrived on Thursday morning, Sherif had already been taken to the Heliopolis station.

After visiting three different police buildings, Gamal Siam and his family finally tracked Sherif to Heliopolis on the Friday. At first, police denied he was inside but, after some arguing, they were allowed to see him. Sherif broke down in tears as his father hugged him.

Handcuffed in pairs
At about 6.30am on Sunday, August 18th, 45 prisoners were handcuffed in pairs, apart from Mohamed Abdelmahboud, who was attached to two men. The five from Sharqiya were the last to be crammed into the back of the van, which was already full by the time their turn came.

“I said to the officer: how can we fit in there?” Sayed Gabal said. “He said the car fits 70, and shoved us inside.” An engineer’s report specially commissioned by prosecutors later said the van’s maximum capacity was 24. With 45 crammed inside, the police struggled to close the door.

It took just over an hour for the van and its escort vehicles to reach the prison. Inside, the men were squashed against each other, and most could not stand properly.

Things worsened once they reached the forecourt of the prison. Driving there, breathing had been easy enough: a breeze blew through the van’s four grilled windows, creating ventilation. But once the van parked at the prison, the airflow stopped and the men inside struggled to breathe.

What happened next was the subject of an inquiry in which one of the police guards gave an account that corroborates the surviving prisoners’. The testimony of the policeman concerned, Abdelaziz Rabia Abdelaziz, was revealed by the survivors’ lawyers, and confirmed by two other police sources.

Abdelaziz claimed the van’s ventilation tubes were broken. Capt Amr Farouq, the leader of the convoy, said he had inspected the ventilation system and found it in working order.

The temperature near the prison that August day peaked at 31.1 degrees. The 45 men in the van were forced to wait as more than 600 of those captured near Rabaa were delivered to Abu Zaabal. There were about 15 trucks waiting in the forecourt and each one took about half an hour to unload. The van from Heliopolis was 11th in the queue, the prisoners were in for a long wait.

The heat became unbearable, the survivors said. People were standing on one leg, and their clothes were drenched in sweat. “We started to get short of oxygen,” Abdelmahboud said, “and people started to shout for help. We started banging on the walls, we started screaming, but no one answered”.

In his statements to prosecutors, Abdelaziz claimed that the dozen junior policemen guarding the vehicle repeatedly asked their four commanding officers – who were drinking tea some way off – for permission to open the van’s doors and give the prisoners more to drink. “Every one of us went telling them the prisoners want to drink,” Abdelaziz said. The officers refused all but one request: at some point between 10am and 11am, about four hours after the prisoners were first shoved inside, they were given water.

Lost the key
At first, the police could not open the door because the officers had lost the key. Instead, Lieut Mohamed Yehia took a piece of scrap metal lying nearby and used it to smash open the lock. Even then, most of the prisoners were kept inside. Only Abdel Aal, who was standing next to the door, was briefly allowed to stand on the ledge at the back of the van and splashed with water. Then he was pushed back inside.

Capt Farouq claimed the prisoners were let out three times in all, a claim denied by both the survivors and Abdelaziz, who, barring a 10-minute toilet break, was at the scene throughout the day. In the end, he said, “We took it upon ourselves as guards to bring water in bottles and pour it through the windows.”

Inside the van, in the midday heat, the prisoners had reached breaking point. Many were delirious, some were giving each other messages for their families. “People started passing out, one after the other,” Sayed Gabal said. “Of course, the elderly went down first. And the others started banging harder and harder. And outside they continued laughing and cursing Morsi.”

Abdelaziz said it was obvious by this point that conditions inside the truck might cause the prisoners to suffocate, but he claimed that the four officers still refused to open the door. The truck eventually fell silent. Most of its occupants had collapsed.

Some time after 1pm, the prisoners who were still conscious heard shouting outside. It was their turn to disembark, the voices seemed to say, and they should prepare to hand over any remaining valuables to prison staff. But few of those inside could stand up.

What happened next is the subject of two vastly conflicting narratives. Farouq and most of his subordinates told investigators that, when the door was finally forced open, Lieut Yehia was pulled inside and held captive by the prisoners. The chaos brought more policemen from other convoys running to the van. Abdelaziz and another colleague were injured trying to rescue Yehia.

In the commotion, and in an attempt to subdue the rioting prisoners, an unknown member of one of the police units fired a handheld canister of gas – issued to officers for their self-defence – through one of the side windows. Yehia and two others were later taken to hospital for gas exposure, Farouq said, while Abdelaziz was treated for facial wounds.

But, according to the survivors and Abdelaziz, the claim of a clash is a fabrication. “It didn’t happen,” Abdelaziz told the prosecution. He claimed that an officer later struck him across the face to make it look as if there had been a struggle.

“Let’s be logical,” Abdelmahboud said. “We were so exhausted, we couldn’t even walk. Most of us collapsed inside the van. Only five or six of us were able to stand. How could we possibly beat an officer?”

Weakened state
Egypt’s interior ministry has not responded to requests for comment, or for interviews with police and prison personnel. But Abdelaziz’s testimony indicates that the prisoners would not have been in any state to kidnap a guard.

Looking through the truck’s back window, the policemen were met by a horrific sight. “Everyone inside was slumped over each other,” Abdelaziz recalled.

Dr Hesham Farag, spokesman for the mortuary where the 37 casualties would later be taken for autopsy, said the men would still have been alive when the gas was fired, since traces of CS gas were found in each corpse’s blood. He doubted that the single self-defence canister contained enough to kill so many men on its own, but it would have been the final straw for a group already starved for so long of adequate oxygen. “We decided that the police [are] responsible for all these casualties, because they loaded the vehicle with 45 prisoners, which is a very large number, because the vehicle should carry no more than 24 people,” Farag said. “Therefore, there was a lack of oxygen, which accelerated the deaths when teargas was used.”

Rather than blocking the door on purpose, the prisoners had simply been unable to move. Most of them were unconscious, the survivors said, while the few who were still just about conscious were handcuffed to people who weren’t.

37 corpses
The next day, footage emerged of the 37 corpses on their arrival at Cairo’s main morgue. Most of the bodies were bloated, their faces red or black. Sherif Siam’s was swollen and blackened almost beyond recognition. State media reported that the men had died when Muslim Brotherhood gunmen attacked the vehicle, in an attempt to free the prisoners.

Four of the 15 policemen who accompanied the truck were put on trial for negligence, but in January that trial was postponed indefinitely; government officials are still able to claim the deaths were provoked by the prisoners. Four of the survivors remain in jail.

– (Guardian service)