Imprisoned because of a song: How jail became a death sentence for Egyptian filmmaker, Habash

Imprisoned because of a song: How jail became a death sentence for Egyptian filmmaker, Habash
Comment: Medical negligence for political prisoners means time in Egyptian jail is nothing short of a death sentence, writes Sam Hamad.
6 min read
04 May, 2020
Egyptian filmmaker Habash died in prison after spending 800 days in pre-trial detention [Facebook]
The death of the young filmmaker Shady Habash in Egypt's notorious Tora prison complex on Saturday will come as a shock to few, and tragically, least of all to Shady. 

In his last letter, dated 26 October
of last year, the 24-year-old heartbreakingly wrote about how after two years of imprisonment he felt he was "slowly dying" and that "I need your support so that I don't die." 

There is widespread speculation among Egyptians that Shady caught and succumbed to coronavirus. It has already been noted at the highest levels that Egypt's squalid, over-crowded prisons are a hotbed of potential coronavirus outbreaks, with the virus known to flourish so destructively in clusters through institutions. With the Sisi regime widely thought to be lying about the extent of the spread of the disease in the country, it's certainly plausible that Shady did die from the virus. 

But, as Shady's letter from last year suggests, death in Egypt's prisons was an everyday reality, even before coronavirus hit the country. This is specifically true within the grim, impenetrable concrete walls of the supermax facility at Tora that held Shady and many other political prisoners, known as Segn El Aqrab (Scorpion Prison) or, among prisoners, as El Makbarah ('The Graveyard').

It's not hard to understand why the prison has gained such a macabre nickname: Between 2013 - the year of the counterrevolutionary coup that brought Sisi to power - and 2019, up to 800 Egyptians have died in prison, with 551 of those deaths occurring due to medical negligence. 

The overwhelming majority of these people were political prisoners who had either been found guilty of bogus charges or, like Shady, were being held indefinitely without trial on bogus charges. Though the names of most of these people are not known, it was just under a year ago that Egypt's first democratically elected president Mohamed Morsi died while in custody at Scorpion prison. 

In the context of coronavirus, the most horrific aspect of this is the widespread 'medical negligence' at these prisons

Morsi had been imprisoned for five years while awaiting his show trial, but the man who Sisi deposed was never supposed to make it that far. A few months after his death, an independent panel of UN experts concluded that Morsi's death amounted to a "state-sanctioned arbitrary killing", describing the conditions of his imprisonment as "brutal", with the overthrown president not only undergoing torture but also being denied life-saving treatment for diabetes and high blood pressure.  

Similarly, in the month following the murder of Morsi, three other prisoners died in Scorpion, including the 30-year-old Hossam Hamed (imprisoned for 25 years for alleged membership of the outlawed Muslim Brotherhood) who was identified by Amnesty as being effectively tortured to death in solitary confinement. 

That was the same month 130 prisoners of conscience began a hunger strike against the regime of murderous brutality, deadly medical negligence and squalid conditions that are the norm at Scorpion. One of these hunger strikers was Mustafa Kassem, a 54-year-old Egyptian-American New York taxi driver who was visiting family in Egypt in August 2013 during the coup. While out shopping, he was arbitrarily arrested on charges of "engaging in unlawful protests", and imprisoned for 15 years in a mass show trial. He died earlier this year.

Kassem suffered from and was denied medication for diabetes and health problems induced by the conditions of his imprisonment - he too knew that a hunger strike was the last desperate act for what was essentially a death sentence. 

It would be easy to list many more examples of murder within Egypt's prisons, and Scorpion in particular. But, within the context of coronavirus, the most horrific aspect of this is the widespread "medical negligence" at these prisons and the fact that this is itself, much like more familiar forms of torture, a very deliberate attempt to "break" political prisoners. 

Read more: As coronavirus spreads in Egypt, Sisi puts the truth on lockdown

One practicing doctor in Cairo, speaking under strict anonymity, put it to me that while conditions in Egypt's prisons were generally bad, special practices, often driven by the mukhabarat (secret police), were used specifically against political prisoners. As he put it, "it's better in prison to be a thief or gangster than a [political] prisoner - the regime want to break these prisoners as much as possible… to reduce their humanity… and death will be inevitable for some."

If there ever was a coronavirus outbreak among prisoners - political prisoners in particular - there's barely a doubt that the regime would just let it sweep through these prisoners who it has no qualms about killing by deliberate negligence. Though the regime has stopped already limited visitation rights due to the pandemic, this could actually serve to harm inmates even more, with visitors often being the only access they have to much-needed medications. 

Despite calls for Sisi to release the at least 438 doctors and nurses who are imprisoned in Egypt for political reasons, Sisi has essentially done the opposite - in line with his six-year-long war against journalism and free expression, he is using coronavirus to carrying out yet another crackdown on journalists and whistleblowers.

In March, a journalist who questioned the regime's official statistics on coronavirus was arrested and disappeared for a month, before being formally charged with "spreading false news" and "joining a terrorist organisation". According to Amnesty, at least 12 journalists have been arrested for contradicting the regime's line on the coronavirus epidemic. 

As is the case with everything in Egypt, any inconvenient truth is rebranded as "false news" and journalists and whistleblowers are called "terrorists".  

The ultimate destination of these journalists will be Scorpion, where one of them might end up inhabiting the same squalid hole where Shady spent too much of his young life. 

And now any sentence for critics of the regime is a potential death sentence. Scorpion prison has a brutal history comprising everything from British colonialist crimes, to use as a black site for torture and murder by the Bush administration during the "War on Terror".

In Sisi's Egypt, to even remotely criticise the tyrant is to forfeit your life

But the prison is transforming into something akin to a concentration camp, which is precisely what happens when a society transitions into totalitarianism.  

Shady Habash's "crime" was to direct a video of a song that mocks Abdel Fattah al-Sisi. And though no death sentence was passed for this "crime", the reality is that in Sisi's Egypt, to even remotely criticise the tyrant is to forfeit your life. 

Coronavirus, and its potential to spread among prison populations, would be a brutally convenient corollary to the regime's attempts to use Scorpion as a means to both "break" its critics within its walls, and strike fear into the hearts of potential critics outside. 

This is the tragic and nightmarish process of totalitarianism - for the state not just to have control over your body, but your mind, whether you're a journalist or budding music video director. 

The words of the human rights lawyer Ahmed Ezzat, reacting to Shady's death, speak to this totalitarian message being received:

"The Egyptian artist, Shady Habash, has died in prison after two years of unlawful detention, because of a song," he tweeted. "Calling on the authorities to release all detainees now does not concern only the opposition or activists. Anyone can be the next victim.

No one is safe…"

Sam Hamad is an independent Scottish-Egyptian activist and writer.

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Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.