A former warden at the notorious “Scorpion” prison in Cairo, Egypt, said it had been designed “so that those who go in don’t come out again—unless dead”.
This has proved the case with Dr Mohamed Morsi, who collapsed and died in a soundproof glass box on Monday attending the latest session in his protracted espionage trial. He became Egypt’s first democratically elected president when he came into power in 2012. Now, he dies in the custody of the same state apparatus that forced him from office a year after that election.
In March last year, I chaired a panel of senior British lawyers and parliamentarians tasked with reviewing the conditions of Dr Morsi’s detention. We concluded, based on the testimonies given by Dr Morsi’s family and others informed of his conditions, that he received “inadequate medical care, particularly inadequate management of his diabetes and inadequate management of his liver disease”.
We said that, on the balance of probabilities, his incarceration constituted “cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment”, the outcome of which would be a swift decline in his health and, possibly, his death.
The Egyptian authorities had a responsibility to ensure that as a detainee, Dr Morsi had access to proper medical care. Yet in the six years following his arrest, he was held in solitary confinement, cut off from the outside world. He was denied access to a doctor or to his lawyers, and was allowed to see his family only three times. In these appalling conditions, he lost weight, endured bouts of fainting and fell into a diabetic coma.
Our independent review was reportedly condemned by the Egyptian House of Representative’s Foreign Affairs Committee. No independent oversight of Dr Morsi’s detention was enabled by the Egyptian state.
The conditions of Dr Morsi’s detention were such that, in principle, President Sisi could be held responsible for the crime of torture – a crime which is of universal jurisdiction. Already, he is responsible for the killing of possibly thousands of people when the squares were cleared in Cairo in 2013, and extrajudicial killings and enforced disappearances have become frequent in the years since.
Recent estimates suggest there are some 60,000 prisoners of conscience rotting in Egyptian jails, and it seemed clear at the time of our review, as it seems even clearer now, that the treatment of Dr Morsi reflected a pattern of ill-treatment of detainees in Egypt. Indeed, Egypt’s National Council for Human Rights reported in 2016 that systematic degradation, humiliation and denial or interference of medical care was common at the “Scorpion”—the Tora Maximum Security Prison—and that serious abuses had been alleged elsewhere.
If the conditions in which Dr Morsi was kept had improved since we published our report, it would be in the interests of the Egyptian regime to establish an independent inquiry. But no sign of an inquiry is forthcoming. Hours after the 67-year-old Dr Morsi collapsed, he was buried in eastern Cairo with only family present. Dr Morsi’s son, Abdullah Mohamed Morsi, told Reuters that the family had asked the Egyptian authorities for a public funeral in Dr Morsi’s hometown, but this request had been denied.
An inquiry must take place. Indeed the launch of a reputable independent international investigation is the only step to take. After six years of chronic mistreatment in prison, culminating in the very public death of the first democratically chosen head of state in Egyptian history, there must be proper accountability.
Crispin Blunt is the Conservative MP for Reigate