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Here, Your Name is “106”... Egypt’s Prison Life

Here, Your Name is “106”... Egypt’s Prison Life

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Wednesday 25 August 202102:20 pm
إقرأ باللغة العربية:

هُنا عليك أن تنسى اسمك القديم، اسمك الآن 106... عن "الجماعة اللي تحت"

I have written about my first term in prison a lot, as a journalist, I believed in documenting everything. I was afraid of the consequences of writing, but I never thought of backing out. I believed that whoever works in the press in a military country must forget the idea of living in peace; You won’t sit at a desk any more than you would at a prison cell cot. You must know that your life might be in danger - or at least your freedom is - especially if you are not a supporter of oppression, or one of those who propagate intelligence messages to the masses... This is what I told myself.

I was not as brave as some thought I was; I was endlessly afraid. Sometimes I tremble from all the things in this country, big or small. I unconsciously watch those around me, I become suspicious of whoever passes by, and I stare at every car, thinking they are all following me. I decided to keep writing, and just live with the fear.

I wrote about Egypt’s National Security Agency investigating me several times. After one of those times, the agency summoned me, and I refused the summons in fear. I tried to convince myself that what I did was right. “This is not a legal summons,” I told the person on the phone. He threatened me, so I prepared myself for prison again. I know very well how prison life is, how the disciplinary cell is, how to live with its insects, how to sleep in police stations - standing or sitting - and I know how to avoid the strikes and blows of the officers during the “welcome parade” (torture). I can stand the harshness of the deadly prison transport vehicle, its stench and suffocating stuffiness. There is no need to worry, I’ll leave things to happen in their own time. Now I have a chance to write, and tomorrow I have a chance to cry whenever my freedom is restricted once again.

I did not know that things could go farther than imprisonment; two unknown individuals attempted to kill me in front of the Cairo University metro station. My lungs almost stopped. The doctors performed two surgeries on me, one at Boulaq El Dakrour Hospital, and the other at Ahmed Maher Hospital. I miraculously escaped death, but I have yet to escape oppression.

While working with the El Nadim Center for the Management and Rehabilitation of Victims of Violence and Torture, I prepared a report on Al-Warraq Island and what happened there, and I was not summoned. But security services asked some of my colleagues about their relationship with me, and how they helped me prepare the report and cover the events of Al-Warraq Island. This was yet another message of fear.

Documenting has a price that many pay. They imprisoned Alaa Abdel Fattah again, because he did not stop documenting and writing, and imprisoned his sister, Sana, for the very same reason. We may remain oppressed forever. This is not pessimism. This is a reality, but there just cannot be one single account of events, even if all the websites are blocked, even if newspapers and non-affiliated channels are closed down, and every journalist or human rights defender is imprisoned.

I have worked without pay so that I could join the Press Syndicate. Some of my colleagues would laugh at my insistence on joining it. I shared their ridicule and laughed at myself, but I believe that the union is my right, and a right for all those who work in the press. It was an attempt on my part to continue working in journalism within an environment that’s hostile to the press, and also to search for union protection, so that I can work legally, because the state considers that only members of the union have the right to work in the press.

I do not like to travel outside Egypt. I have always been afraid of the moment I would decide that I will not return to Egypt ever again. These are not just words, for I love simple things, such as sitting in a popular local café, my family inviting me to eat, staying up with friends, and constantly practicing hope and despair. The syndicate decided to postpone my registration for no apparent reason, even though I had met all the requirements. I stayed quiet and traveled to Tunisia in 2018, intending to train in investigative and data journalism under the support of an international organization. Months later, I returned to Egypt to join the Press Syndicate once again.

Sometimes I tremble from all the things in this country, whether big or small. I unconsciously watch those around me, I become suspicious of whoever passes me by, I stare at every car, thinking they are all following me. I decided to keep writing, and just live with fear.

Welcome to Cairo Airport

I wanted to stay in Egypt, and some party wanted me to stay in its prisons. It wanted to give me more chances to think about why I’m holding on to this country, and also take me on a rough journey to one of the National Security headquarters to witness what was happening there. I had never seen systematic torture before, nor have I heard the screams of the tortured every night, but the security wanted me to. I lived through some difficult times there, but at least, it was not daily, and it was not organized.

On January 29, 2019, I got off the plane, not wanting to take my coat off, even though it was hot. I felt that I would need it during what was to come, and I do not know what made me feel I wouldn’t be able to leave Cairo airport and go home. I remembered that in the first prison, the cold and chill penetrated my body deep into my bones, and that my family could not visit me until about three weeks later. I had severe body aches and back pains, which I have not yet recovered from. I thought of all this when my wife asked me why I was wearing the coat! I thought that I perhaps would not be able to sit in front of the registration committee in the Press Syndicate after all, and that sitting on the prison cell cot was the more likely scenario.

My wife was able to pass through in peace, then my turn came, and the expected happened. The officer picked up the phone, and the speakerphone was on:

Officer: “Number 67 is with me, Pasha (sir).”

The voice on the receiving end told the officer my full name, and the officer confirmed it.

I am now wanted for justice?! What justice? A justice with a very tilted scale. Wanted by a security apparatus that knows nothing about the law, and only cares about being security to the state, and the state - as far as it is concerned - is the current ruler. I tried to send my wife faint smiles to reassure her, while a child was crying out loud inside me. I think of the syndicate, of my family, of my friends waiting outside the airport. I wonder: will my whereabouts be known? Or is my fate like that of Mustafa al-Najjar, Ashraf Shehata, and Mostafa Masouni, who have vanished into thin air?!

I’m sorry, I thought as I looked straight into my wife’s eyes, knowing that she would not rest from this moment on.

A detective in civilian clothes came and seized my passport and then seized me! My wife tried to run after me, but the officer told her to get out of the airport.

He took me to a detention facility inside the airport, similar to a police station, but it was a different world altogether. A small prison for different nationalities. I sat on a sofa in front of a reception desk with a police secretary, and waited for a long time, with no one giving me any information. What I saw gave me information; women detained with their children for days. I do not know how many. One of them pleads with a security man who can do nothing; she wants milk for her constantly crying baby. She wants to talk to someone she called “the Pasha”, and she tries to get him to sympathize with her, saying, “For four days, you’ve barely brought me any milk.”

Hours later, I asked for a phone call, even though I didn't know who I was going to call?! But the police secretary refused, saying that I could use the phone of anyone sitting next to me, and that there was no need to worry because many would pass by for the very same reason I am here. He concluded with, “Do not tell the ‘Pasha’ that I told you this.” After a while, he answered a call that seemed to be about me, and then took me to a large cell in the same place.

I went on Wednesday. They blindfolded me, and tried to convince me that they had done me a favor, that they wanted me with them. I told them: “I only want you to leave me be.” They left me be, but the traces of their crime never did.

OK, so this is a prison, not an airport. A room with bunk beds, sofas scattered here and there, a bathroom that gives off a bad stench with barely any running water, as well as dozens of people from Egypt, Palestine, Syria, and a few Africans. There is no place here but for the weak it seems. I learned from the Palestinians that whenever they pass through Cairo airport, security forces hold them until the Palestinian Consul comes to pick them up. One of them was held in the very same place about three weeks ago, he told me. There are also Syrians - including asylum seekers detained by security for days on the basis of investigating them - and some Egyptians, including those who were headed to Greece in search of work, and others security have accused of having falsified their entry visa to Europe. They were not referred to the prosecution and did not go to Europe; but have been here for 36 days!

Now that I was with these prisoners, I felt like I would never be released, and things will never be okay. At around eight in the evening, someone called my name, and my first interrogation began in front of two National Security officers.

One officer asked me what I was doing in Tunisia, and I told him that I was working at a news site and training in investigative journalism. The man did not know what investigative journalism meant, and it seems that all people I met there did not seem to understand it, from the airport officer to the prosecutor who asked me to spell the word letter by letter!

The officer asked me very old and perhaps random details; Did you participate in the January revolution? What is your relationship with the April 6 Youth Movement? With revolutionary socialists? What type of journalism do you write? What is your relationship with some civil society organizations and human rights defenders? He asked me about some journalists and human rights defenders by name, and what I think of the recent constitutional amendments! When I would give a simple answer, he would smile and write what I said, as if he got his hands on some important piece of information! Anything I say here, I’ve already announced, so what is this impressive discovery that you’re going to get a promotion out of?!

He asked me about my phone and my bag, and grew very angry when he learned that they were not with me. My wife had taken them with our other bags, so he ordered me to be taken back to the cell for a while. He then brought me back out to promise me that he would let me go, but he wanted the phone and the bag. He had me call my number, and a friend of mine answered. I told him to send the phone and the bag, and he was able to send them.

They searched the bag, after he asked me about some things inside, without letting me see them, to make sure that it was my bag.

- “The bag contains nothing but some Tunisian gifts that I brought to my friends and family. As for my clothes, I left them in Tunisia because I will return in two weeks!” I said.

- “Return?” the officer replied and laughed.

He went through my phone, took a closer look at my email, and asked me about my Facebook and Twitter accounts. I said that I deleted the apps, so he smiled and said, “Do you think we don’t know what you write?!”

He opened my account on Instagram, and found an old sarcastic message from a friend: “Ziadeh, what are you doing in Dahab? We are very poor!”

- “She is a member of the Brotherhood?!” he said.

I smiled without answering, and it seemed like he didn't find anything in her profile to back this claim.

He found an empty file on Google Drive, entitled “Medical Neglect in Prisons” Because it was empty, the officer was very angry, and said that if I didn’t tell him what had been written in it, “You’ll be upset with me (won’t like what I’ll do)”!

I only told the truth. The title is self-explanatory. I was documenting medical negligence in prisons, but I deleted its contents because I had already documented it.

He smiled in victory, now those higher in rank will be pleased with him!

Another officer who had just been silently sitting and watching finally spoke up:

- “What brought you back to Egypt? Are girls not pretty in Tunisia?”

- “I want to join the Press Syndicate.”

They took me back to the airport’s detention facility, then five heavily armed men, headed by an officer who seemed to have come especially for me, took me out the back door of the airport, and put me in a car with black-tinted windows. Someone ordered me to rest my head on the headrest in front of me, and to never raise it. And so began my forced disappearance.

With a quick look, I knew that I was on the 26th of July Axis, and it was clear from the driver’s voice that he was drunk, as he was speeding like crazy, and the officer said to him:

- “You’ve been drinking, and it looks like you will kill us, should I come drive?”

- “Don’t worry, Pasha, all is well.”

But we almost did not make it in one piece, as the car collided with another, and I heard yelling from outside, “You jackass!” What sounds like a fight began between the driver and the man, but it ended quickly after the officer intervened. Eventually, I heard the same man say in a voice mixed with hypocrisy, “It’s alright, Pasha, no problem.” Everything calmed and went back to normal: The drunk is speeding once again, and I’m on my way to disappearing.

Five heavily armed men, including an officer who seemed to have come especially for me, took me out the airport’s service gates, put me in a car with black-tinted windows. Someone ordered me to keep my head down and never raise it. And so began my forced disappearance.

“The Ones Below”... and Forgetting your Name

We arrived at the National Security headquarters in the Sheikh Zayed area, according to my deductions. Since we took the 26th of July Axis, there is no security building here except the ‘Ten and a Half Kilometer Prison’, an official detention facility that I had heard many stories of torture and the like that I thought to be fictional, but didn’t know I would be a witness to myself.

The car stopped for a second at the entrance, I was blindfolded, and the world turned terrifyingly black. I have been imprisoned before and subjected to numerous investigations, but now I noticed that the treatment had become much harsher than before. The blindfold was very tight, smelled bad, and was squeezing my head so much that I felt it would explode. Then handcuffs were placed around my hands, and the car moved, apparently passing through several checkpoints, after which the officer told the driver:

- “No, no, not here, to the ones below over there.”

This sentence was enough to make my body automatically shiver. It seemed that we were really going “below”, underground. I feel it as the car moves slowly, stopping at several passages. When it finally stopped, someone told me to get out, my violent treatment began; a group behind me pushing me forward, and someone threatening that if I don’t move faster, a baton will fall on my head.

One of them knocked on an iron door, and a heavy voice answered from inside to ask who it was. The officer said, “Faraj, open the door.”

The name Faraj was not that man’s name. Rather, it is a fictitious name for all those who work in national security. Everyone here is called Faraj; tall Faraj, fat Faraj, bald Faraj, and white Faraj. I did not hear another name throughout the next 15 days, except for the name “Hisham,” which the investigation officer on the third floor used to call out. By the way, he is an officer that would sympathize with me in secret, and would turn into a monster when in front of other officers, or any informants.

After five minutes of standing, I heard the creaking of the door being opened, causing a chill to run down my spine with insane wishes that some miracle would take place, like the door shutting, and them being unable to open it again. But this only happens in dreams, and we are now in reality. We are in a place that the “blue jinn” doesn’t reach, as we say.

Someone pushed me inside hard, while another hit me in the face in a humiliating manner without physically hurting me. A thick hand gripped the back of my head, holding my face against the wall. Many hands search me everywhere. They took my glasses, because of course I would see nothing here but black, and they took my wallet, some papers and gifts.

Someone whispered in my ear for my name, threatening that if someone else heard it, “I will make you light up with electricity.” I said my name in a low voice, as it seemed like he wrote it down on a piece of paper, then said, “As long as you are here, you must forget your old name. Your name is now 106, and when I say 106, you reply.”

I was (forcefully) disappeared person number 106. After eight days, they changed my number to 102, which means that four were released or transferred to the prosecution. After 15 days, we had become 172 (forcefully) disappeared persons. Of all these numbers, our oldest member was number 1. More than a year has passed since his disappearance. I do not know his name, but he is the first one there and has privileges because he deals with security and provides them with information about everyone. For example, Number 1 was responsible for the cleanliness of those who would appear in front of cameras to confess after being tortured. He had clean clothes that he would replace their dirty clothes with, and only he was allowed to speak with informants.

Now I have a chance to write, and tomorrow I have a chance to cry when my freedom is restricted once again.

Among these numbers, I came across human rights lawyer Ezzat Ghoneim, who had been missing for four months. I learned this after someone found out that I’m a journalist, and whispered in my ear, “If you are a journalist, then you surely know Ezzat Ghoneim, he is here too.” Ghoneim had received a release order in the case accusing him of “spreading false news” on September 8, 2018. Since then, his location has been hidden, and none of his family members or his lawyer has been able to find out where he is being held. I now know, but what’s the use?!

Blindfolds and Cuffs... Might As Well Be Dead

Other than the fact that I have to forget my name, I received other supra-constitutional principles. For example, “No talking, no standing, not even sitting. You must stay lying on the ground, and must not try to widen the handcuffs in your hand, because they will be restricted even further, and we will not uncuff you until after you get out.” In truth, they would untie one hand during the night; I democratically choose one hand, and then they tie my other hand to an iron bar about 70 centimeters off the ground. I sleep like this from night to morning. This is how I had been forced to sleep one day on my right side, and the next on my left. There were no other options, and I knew that all the cells had cameras to monitor whoever moves. It’s a tragedy to consider moving a little bit, because you will suffer a great deal.

We all ate and drank with our hands tied, and blindfolds covering our eyes. The purpose of this is for us to eat like “rabid” dogs, as one of them described.

The food would arrive at specific times, and the corridor would be littered with open cell doors that you had to avoid bumping into. Also in the “hallway”, you must avoid stepping over the people lying on the ground in your way. Those were always the first to get food.

The corridor is a passage leading to six cells with iron doors that never close, and it was hell in and of itself. It is a phase that every disappeared person must go through, and that becomes his dwelling for a while. Here, you are not only in view of the cameras, like in the cells, you are also in full view of the informants, who are always watching. You don’t have the luxury of whispering like in the cells. In the corridor you are easily heard, and sometimes, you’ll suddenly find the informant sitting next to you to hear what you are saying.

Even after the informant orders the new ones to not speak, they try to get information from their neighbors, “Is there torture? What kind is it? How long have you been here?” It seems that those who have passed through here have all fallen into the same trap, even me. A trap that results in a beating if the officer in charge of you is not present, and if he is in his office, torture that makes you regret being born.

As we stand in lines, anyone who stumbles gets a beating or heavy insults thrown his way. The plastic plate must not fall from your handcuffed hands, because this would lead to yet another punishment. A man waits for us to pour food on our plates; “Fava Beans (fool), bread, and halawa. For lunch, rice or lentils, and on some days, a smelly piece of bad meat, or a small piece of chicken.” After we finish eating, we must wash our dishes well, with cold water and no soap. This is unbelievable, we work miracles, cleaning things that we don’t even see, with our hands further restricted by cuffs if we make one wrong move.

We can only urinate in the toilet within the cell, anything else and the sewers would get horribly clogged. We had to use the bathroom in the opposite cell. It was difficult, as I had to go out and say, “Pasha, I want to go to the bathroom.” Either “Faraj” - who is no pasha - would let me use the bathroom, or he would just say, “no”. There would be no room for discussion, and any begging would result in electrocution. We were just using the toilet, trying to clean ourselves up with handcuffed hands and blindfolded eyes.

Infectious scabies spread among the confined men, and this led to the isolation and solitary confinement of some, including well-known figures. Scabies is a very logical outcome, since we do not change our clothes here no matter how long we stay. I wasn’t able to change my clothes until 15 days had passed, and this was considered a luxury, because there are people who haven’t changed for months. We can’t even shower with the most basic requirements - soap, and can only shower once a week with water of questionable cleanliness - the same cold water we drink, of course. Some were able to clean themselves well with water, after they had gotten the cuffs out of one hand. But the ones who could not put them back on suffered severely. He would be taken to the top to be tortured and made an example of. We’d hear his screams, then he is brought back as if he had just narrowly escaped death.

We smelled really bad all the time. Even the doctor who would pass by us seemed that he couldn’t stand our smell and would hurry away. He always blamed us for not showering!

When the scabies spread, they tried to treat it in the strangest way, shaving our heads with the same razor, meaning that whoever wasn’t already suffering from scabies may have gotten it now. Anyway, it was a nice opportunity because a command came from above to uncuff us in order to exercise and take a shower with soap.

An informant said as he beat him up, “I am sick and tired of you, aren’t you tired of making requests?” When I heard the informer complain, I couldn’t but laugh, then cry when the doctor said, “Let him put this ointment on his genitals six times.”

The Torture

Once, I was standing in line for the morning meal, and I had secretly raised my blindfold slightly, so that I could see the ground as I stood in line. I regretted being so cunning, after I saw a prisoner in a white interrogation suit that was completely drenched in blood. He was a young man with thick hair, a long beard, and looked to be from a village. His hands were cuffed from behind, and his feet were tied to his hands, so that neither his hands nor his feet could move. He was whimpering, but no one paid him any mind. From the day he came to the National Security headquarters to the day I got out, he remained in the same position. I used to hear the informants tell him, “The orders haven’t come yet,” since he was asking to have his position changed every day. An informer once said as he beat him up, “I am sick and tired of you, are you not tired of making requests?” When I heard the informant complaining, I couldn’t help laughing, then crying when the doctor said, “Let him put this ointment on his genitals six times.”

One man was a trainer at a gym, and when they called on his number, we would hear his screams shaking the walls of the place as he was being electrocuted. His cries would pierce the stillness of the night, and he was always carried back in the morning. I once heard him complain to the doctor that he felt bleeding from his behind, and that he could not feel his limbs. The doctor replied, “Drink plenty of water.”

One of the captives couldn’t move his arms, so another man was allowed to feed him and go to the bathroom with him. I thought that this young man was born this way, but I found out that about seven months ago they had tied his hands from behind, then suspended him from the ceiling and electrocuted him. He dislocated his shoulders and couldn’t move them anymore. He is optimistic because he hasn’t been interrogated since and may get better one day. He believes that they left him be so that he can heal, and be presented to the prosecution free of any evidence that he had been tortured.

The method of treatment utilized at the National Security headquarters did not suggest that they wanted to cure. They want us to continue living with our pains, and for none of us to die without permission. The doctor would pass by the cell, and ask, “Does anyone suffer from any illnesses?” If the patient is lucky, the doctor will not tell him, “Drink plenty of water,” but rather will write his number on a piece of paper, and next to it the name of the medicine that he must take. The next day the informant comes and calls out, “Anyone who has a prescribed medicine, come out and stand in line.” If you are going to die, and the doctor didn’t write down your number and the medicine you need to take, then you have no right to this unknown and mysterious medicine.

For the record, if you try to go on a hunger strike to send out any messages of protest, it means that you are asking to sit in the electric chair for a long time. Even if this strike is of a religious nature, it is not permissible except after acquiring the approval of an officer. For anyone, even when fasting for religious purposes, one had to give notice a day beforehand, and the informant would collect the numbers of those who wanted to fast on a paper, and would later return with the subsequent approval, or rejection.

I remember that someone used to sing in a soft, low voice, so that the informants would not hear him:

“Blindfolds and iron cuffs

And eyes that don’t see color

Heartache and body ache

We wish we could go back like before

We ease the suffering of the people

And no one eases ours

O Lord, You ease our suffering for us

Lessen the burden we carry”

An informant called out my number (106), and I didn’t notice because I wasn’t used to being just a number yet. You’re awarded yet another punishment if you’re late to answer. The man sitting next to me knew my number, so he nudged me with his foot so that I could reply quickly. After a while, I came to learn that the prisoners manage by memorizing each other’s numbers, and although they whisper amongst each other, the majority are afraid to reveal their names.

I would say, “I need to use the bathroom.” Either he'd allow me, or would simply say no. There's no room for discussion, and any begging would result in electrocution. We were just using the toilet, trying to clean ourselves, handcuffed and blindfolded.

Less than five seconds later, the informant called my number again. His voice was starting to feign anger, so I ran out. He violently struck me in my chest, and said, “I’ve been calling you for an hour, you bastard.” He ordered me to keep my eyes closed when he removed the blindfold and put on another one. It seemed to be a piece of a rough blanket and covered almost my entire face. It was pressing on my eyes, nose, and ears with excessive force, so I could not hear well and could only breathe through my mouth. Someone pulled me with the handcuffs, and we went up to the fourth floor. I was forced to sit and wait on the cold tiles of the floor. After about an hour, an officer decided to put a “cardboard carton” under me, after he saw my body shudder. I entered an interrogation room that smelled clean, and I don’t know if there was an air conditioner above me, or if I was just really cold. Suddenly, the air conditioning turned into hot air! I remained standing without moving for some time, and the soldier told me, “Do not speak unless the ‘Pasha’ gives you permission.”

When the person sitting at the desk finally spoke, my back and feet were very tired from standing. My back had already been breaking down from the first prison, and my nerves were frayed.

He asked me about my activities throughout my entire life, from my upbringing up to my arrest at Cairo airport. He discussed some ideas and historical dates with me - or tried to; he was either ignorant, or trying to come off as such.

It was a long night, I don’t know how many hours passed as I stood before him. I was fighting my body aches so that I wouldn’t collapse. But an officer came up from behind and kicked me hard in the back, so it was impossible to escape the fall. The blow was painful, and I just couldn’t get up again.

I told them that I suffer from back pain. The interrogator said, “It’s alright, Abu Hmeid, the Pasha was just joking with you.” Some officers, by order of their senior officer, helped me get up again. I said that I could not go on, so one of them hit me in the face, and the interrogator said, “Don’t strike unless I tell you to, Hisham. Rest for a while, Ahmad, and then we will continue.”

I don’t even know what it is we are going to continue. They were all random discussions. For example, he would ask me about journalism, and how I chose it, then ask me about religions, my relationship with human rights organizations, where I get funding from, then about football, and which players I like. He asks me about a Sudanese activist named Mohamed Boshi, and my relationship with him, because I have written about him before, and about my political, economic and social views, about the definitions and divisions of communism, and liberalism, including its advantages and flaws. He then asks a strange question about my relationship with the so-called “Students Against the Coup”! On this last question, he assured me that he just has blank papers about me that he must fill out!

The method of treatment utilized at the National Security headquarters did not suggest that they wanted us to heal. They want us to continue living with our pains, and for none of us to die without their permission.

They took me back to the cell for a little while, and I must have fallen asleep for a few minutes, because they woke me up to complete the investigation. I am not exaggerating when I say that he repeated every question but in a different order, and that these were the same questions I have been answering during 15 days of interrogation. The interrogation continued with the same officer and in the same manner for three days, then no one interrogated me for a while. It seems that I was waiting for a senior officer who specializes in journalism and knows a lot about human rights work.

This senior officer seemed more educated than his predecessors, and began his investigation by saying, “Hmm, there’s room for everyone, there’s room for everyone”. I knew what he meant of course. “There is room for everyone: Egypt’s prisons before and after the January revolution”, a report I co-authored with the Arabic Network for Human Rights Information, and published in September 2016. It reveals the construction of 19 prisons following the January revolution, and estimates that the number of political prisoners in them has reached 60,000. The investigation revolved a lot around this particular report, and about my work as a researcher in the Arabic Network, then we moved on to my work at the Al-Nadeem Center. It seems that they discovered this by chance from my phone since he didn’t have much information about it.

He tried to pressure and intimidate me into admitting things that did not happen, “I don't want to talk about this, I want the transgressions that you were doing on the network, and watch out this is your last chance.”

I said that we were writing reports on freedom of thought and expression in the Arab world, and we were participating in campaigns calling for the release of prisoners of conscience in Egypt - journalists in particular. We would write statements of condemnation sometimes, and perhaps welcoming statements if necessary. Our work is published in the open, and lawyers have a role in defending the detained prisoners of conscience. But he didn’t seem to like my words. This is a summary of the investigations that took place with this officer during about seven or eight days, and I remember that he told me that “your chance is over, the chance to speak, and the chance to live, there is no more room for more talk, comrade Ahmed!”

I was (forcefully) disappeared man number 106. After eight days, they changed my number to 102, which means that four were released or transferred to the prosecution. After 15 days, we had become 172 in total.

I was waiting for another investigation, and an officer came up to me, began acting friendly, and lifted the blindfold from my eyes. That’s when I saw them torturing a fully naked person, electrocuting him in sensitive places and inserting something up his rear that made him scream very loudly. After this scene - which hasn’t been and and will never be wiped from my memory - the officer began another investigation with me. He started it with, “I gave you your chance to speak, and you are the one who kept telling me about journalists and freedom of thought and expression. Unfortunately, what’s coming is an even more difficult stage. Hisham, hurry up because Ziadeh here wants to try the electricity.” I was under unprecedented pressure and threat - what’s to stop them from doing what they did to this person to me?! But the sound of the operating camera made me insist on saying the same, and not make up false stories or confess to things that didn’t happen for the sake of survival. The investigation went by without me being electrocuted. The funny part is that he asked me my opinion on forced disappearance!

During the last interrogation, they told me that what happened to me was merely an “ear twist” (a warning to keep me in check), and threatened that if I wrote what happened here, I would be brought back again. They had been talking to me and treating me in a very friendly manner recently. They told me “We didn’t hurt you, and we won’t! We will refer you to the regular prosecution instead of the State Security Prosecution, because you didn’t do anything.” They also said that my interests lie with them, and not with any other party.

They ordered me to say before the prosecution that I was arrested in front of my house on February 13, 2019, and to forget that I ever was in the National Security headquarters, or that they had arrested me from Cairo airport. They also commanded that I first say before the prosecution that I have opposing political views but I love my country, and to never talk about my journalistic or human rights work!

Getting Out of Hell

After the final interrogation was over, the senior officer ordered the informants to untie me so I could shower well, and to replace all my clothes with clean ones. I didn’t sleep until morning.

They called my number in the morning to tell me that I have to be brought before the prosecution. One of the captives asked me, “Can you give me the dirty clothes you have? I haven’t changed my clothes in three months.” I did.

I am finally getting out. I am the happiest person on earth. I will go to prison with all its cruelty, but I will get out of hell. When I came out of the building to be collected by a car from the El Omraneya Police Department, I felt that I was rising from the bottom, and I was smiling because I could smell fresh air, and all I needed was to remove the blindfolds and the handcuffs, and stay in a normal prison forever!

I was put in a car by myself, and the officer told me on the way that I could take my blindfold off and put my glasses on. This officer’s face was the first face I had seen in 15 days; he looked kind and poor. I had 20 Egyptian pounds in my pocket that I was planning on giving them to the man carrying our luggage at the airport, and they had been returned to me along with my glasses. I gave them to the soldier to uncuff my hands, and I asked him for a phone call, and he swore that they take his phone from him when he goes on state security missions.

I was looking out the window of the car, shocked that life was still carrying on normally, that the sun was the same, that the national security had not changed it, and that I was still able to breathe.

I was looking out the window of the car, shocked that life was still carrying on normally, that the sun was the same, that the national security had not changed it, and that I was still able to breathe.

In the Giza courthouse, the officer was uneasy. He wanted to tell my folks that I’m here, but he was scared, sympathetic, nervous, and wanted money. He let me give my wife’s number to a lawyer in the court to tell her where I was. The lawyer wanted to help me for free, but she got angry when she learned that I came from State Security, “Why didn’t you say so before I called?” The officer wanted to put the cuffs in the hands of another prisoner, but I refused. I had come from hell, and I didn’t care about the reactions of anyone here. Nothing worse can happen to me. The man in charge of the transport that took me from the National Security Agency to the court told the officer, “It’s alright, leave him be.” Then he asked me how many days I spent there?! A question that also seemed full of pity!

I sat on the ground and buried my head between my knees. The first person I saw in court after about an hour was the lawyer Mohamed El-Baqer - who is now detained because of his human rights work. He was my manager at the Adalah Center for Rights and Freedoms, where I worked with him as a researcher in criminal justice. Then human rights lawyers and the Press Syndicate lawyer also came in an official capacity. When I told El-Baqer that they wanted me to say that I had not been subjected to enforced disappearance, he said, “Only say exactly what happened.”

Before the investigation, the prosecutor talked to me and tried to convince me that the National Security Agency had actually “done their duty with me”, that I should do as they told me for my own good, and that I was accused of spreading false news. He then looked up my name on Facebook to see what I usually write on my account, then said that my account is closed, and asked me why. My only reply was that I was in the National Security Agency for 15 days, and I do not know why! He saw a report in the Mada Masr newspaper regarding my appearance, and asked me about it as well. This was the strangest question. I told him, can you really ask me about a piece of news regarding my appearance before the prosecution, while I am still in your custody? And they wrote a story about the appearance of a journalist after he had disappeared, so what’s wrong with that?

The investigations lasted for many long hours. In it, he accused me of spreading false news, and tried to search for any violation as much as possible through the use of dilatory tactics. He showed me some pictures of my articles, and I said that I do not deny writing them, but I do deny that they contain false news. I refused the statements of the report stating that I was arrested in front of my house, and I tried to accuse the officer who wrote the report of forgery, but the prosecutor refused. It was the first time ever I’ve heard of a prosecutor refusing to record the statements of a defendant! My detention was renewed for four more days pending investigation.

The ‘Ten and a Half Kilometer Prison’

I arrived at the ‘Ten and a Half Kilometer Prison’, a former central security camp that was converted into a prison to relieve pressure on police stations in the Giza Governorate. Even though private visits were conducted through an iron wire, exercising was forbidden, and the cell was very small, I saw this prison as a paradise compared to my previous situation within the National Security Agency. I couldn’t believe myself when I entered the bathroom to take a shower with both soap and water. I never wanted to leave. And because I was only thinking of myself, I didn’t think of the “criminals” on the second floor. The room, which can only accommodate 20, had been accommodating about 50 or more. I found out that some of them had spent years in this prison without any exercise or visits except through the iron wire, which you can barely see through due to the accumulation of the layers of iron on top of each other. At the end of the visit, which may reach up to a quarter of an hour, you can meet your family for a few seconds in order to take what they brought you - ofcourse, nothing like “newspapers, radios, watches, pens, papers, books, canned food, or shaving tools” because they are prohibited. To be completely honest, we were allowed to buy hot water or tea from a criminal inmate in the evenings.

Qanater Prison

While I was quietly living with the restriction of my freedom, there was a sudden relocation of a number of prisoners to different prisons. I was among those who were transferred to the Qanater Men’s Prison, and there, I found an old colleague of mine, journalist and editor-in-chief of Masr Al-Arabia website Adel Sabri. I had worked with him on the website as the director of the video journalism department. On the same site, I had also written several articles, and he never asked me to replace a single word. This man, who was arrested in April 2018, missed his mother’s funeral, as well as his younger sister’s funeral. He received a release order in a case accusing him of spreading false news, but was then included in another case, even though he was arrested over reports published on his website. He was greatly pained to learn that I had been imprisoned again, and sent me a written letter full of sorrow from his cell, telling me to hold it together. He also sent some food, and every day would send to me asking if I needed something. I needed some clothes, and he sent some of his own.

When they received us in Qanater prison, they destroyed everything we had except the food. For example, I had no idea why our shoes were cut up. I tried to tell the officer that it would just be better if he wore my new shoes, but he was afraid of the senior officer. They burned our clothes, and the bags were not allowed in, but I managed to get my worn out bag and two packs of cigarettes in. It is not easy to offer a bribe to an informant in any prison to have him refuse it, no matter how low its value. They then shaved our heads and put us in a primary holding cell (isolates new prisoners from old ones).

Prisons have changed from what they used to be during the years of 2013, 2014, and 2015 - the years I had previously been in prison. The National Security now controls everything in plain sight. It even collects information about your case and you personally, because it has divided the cells into different categories, such as “the cell of ISIS members, the brotherhood members’ cell, the smokers’ cell” and so on... After you get out of the primary holding cell, you’re given an idea about the cells here, and you must pick one to stay in. Your choice goes to the National Security, and you’ll be asked about it if you get released, and might even be taken into custody again over it.

We all ate and drank with our hands tied, and blindfolds covering our eyes. The purpose of this is for us to eat like “rabid” dogs, as one of them described.

The water smelled like it was mixed with sewage water, but we had no choice but to drink from it. We’re banned from visits until further notice, and we have no money to buy water from the canteen. In a random search I made after I got out on the water in Qanater prison, I found a statement by Representative Ahmed Farouk saying, “The problems in the area of the Qanater facilities are great and need decisive intervention, especially because people there are drinking from worm-infested water.” This means that we really were drinking sewage water.

The primary holding cell was getting worse day by day. Here is a group of ISIS members who openly practice their extremism after every prayer, and there are a group of criminals who decided to wash their underwear in a box we used to get our food in, while another group believes that every problem a person suffers from is due to the presence of demons inside him, and that they must regularly treat each other with the Qur’an and beatings. One man there sees himself as innocent, saying he had only been thinking of traveling for jihad in Syria but didn’t, whereas another was a part of the April 6 Youth Movement, and with the movement slowly dying, everyone forgot that he was even here. Meanwhile a leftist young man from a completely leftist family is still in high school, but this is the second time he has been imprisoned, and of course there’s a Brotherhood group whose leader decided to be the leader of the entire holding cell. His bad luck caught up to him when he declared, “Brothers, we’ll sort the cell for everyone’s comfort.” He then asked ‘who wants to get a reward from God and begin,’ but no one answered him, and because I was sitting up front, he decided to start with me. I told him if you see yourself as the leader, then you must do one of two things; either start with yourself and clean the cell, because you are the one who initiated this and are more deserving of the reward from God, or make one of your own men begin, since they have priority over the reward after you. As for me, I’ll only care for the place I sleep, and I won’t wipe anyone’s behind, and I won’t eat with you.

My detention was renewed twice. The first time for four days, and the second time 15. In the second they only asked me, “Did you spread any false news?” I said no, so he said “15 days”!

On the third time, the same thing happened, but in truth, the situation was different, since the council of the Press Syndicate had unanimously accepted my application into the association. During the investigation, the Press Syndicate was officially present along with its lawyer, of course Mahmoud Kamel - who wouldn’t miss the opportunity to advocate for a colleague - Khaled al-Balshi, even though he was not a member of the syndicate’s council, and some colleagues who showed up in solidarity with my cause. Al-Baqer told the judge that the Syndicate accepted my application while I was in prison, which means that it agrees with everything I publish. A colleague was also able to retrieve a paper from the former head of the Press Syndicate, Abdel Mohsen Salama, calling for my release under the guarantee of the syndicate.

I was released on bail of ten thousand pounds. I went back to prison, and was able to sneak into Adel Sabri’s cell to see him and tell him that I got released. The man wept with joy, kissed my head, and hugged me like a father hugs his son. This man had done nothing other than practice his work as a journalist. Perhaps someone decided to take revenge on him, since his website did not have any red lines or limits. Its noteworthy to mention that now, in his absence, the existence of the site is useless. It has not been able to offer 1% of what it used to under his leadership, due to the security pressures it’s subjected to, not to mention the closure of the site’s headquarters itself.

Reaching the ‘takhshibah’ was good news, as it was a pre-release procedure, but the underground cells had no air. I almost suffocated only breathing in cigarette smoke, whenever I remembered being at the National Security Agency, I would gain some strength to hold on


The first time I was imprisoned, the police department took me to court whenever I had hearings or was to be presented to the prosecution. Things have changed. During each renewal session, the prison transfers the prisoners to the ‘Takshiba al-Giza’, or to the al-Khalifa in Cairo. From there, they are taken by transports from police stations in order to distribute them to the courts. After the session is over, they return to the ‘takhshiba’ once again, to be taken by the prison transport. This is why some call it the “death loop”, because this day begins at six in the morning and ends at approximately one in the morning of the next day. It is a daily routine meant to torture prisoners without flogging or electrocution.

‘Takshiba al-Giza’ has underground cells, no place to sleep, and being able to sit would be your most ambitious wish. I tried to stay in a cell on the first floor, but it seems that for financial reasons, the “shawishiya” and the informers deliberately put you in the worst cells. You are in a prison that is basically a mobile bank for the policemen, and for every transfer to another prison cell, you must pay an amount of money to everyone on the shift. For every visit from your acquaintances, you also need to pay.

Me reaching the ‘takhshiba’ was good news to everyone I knew outside, as it was a pre-release procedure, but the underground cells had no air, and you only breathe in cheap cigarette smoke. I almost suffocated, but whenever I remembered being at the National Security Agency, I would gain some strength and patience to hold on. I could not stand it for more than three hours. It seemed like three years, and through bribes, I was able to move into a nearby empty cell, along with someone I did not know but had been with me in Qanater Prison. Not long after, the empty cell became overcrowded with people on top of each other. At night I was able to go up to a cell on the first floor, and it was pure bliss. I will just have to face some bullying from the prisoners who wanted more space for themselves, which is fine with me. When it comes to air, or lack thereof, that’s when there’s no room for solutions.

Every day in my sleep, I still hear the sounds of men being tortured in the National Security headquarters. I dream of every assault or insult I was subjected to. It gives me shortness of breath, and every step I take is no longer important to me

Police Department

After a few days, I was transferred to the Talbiya Police Station, one of the worst police stations in the Giza governorate, merely because its officers deliberately insult the visitors and the prisoners in front of their families. An officer tried to make me look at the wall, but I refused, so he began to beat me in an attempt to make me obey his orders, but another officer pulled him by the hand and said to him in a low voice, “This political guy is a working journalist.” After that, the officer only directed insults and curses at me.

Visitation in the police station took place every two days. It was like a scene from a drama. One or two of your family members would sit in front of the station for hours, then the cell is opened after a soldier puts a large table in front of the door and calls out the name of the prisoner. The prisoner then stands at the edge of the door, and pokes his head and one hand out of the doorway to see who had come and take food from them. Each cell with all its inhabitants was only allowed no more than a total of seven minutes, and we were about 80 prisoners in the cell! By the way, I was in a cell dubbed the “Presidential Palace”, because the prisoners in it are embezzlers, and most of them do not want to go to prison, so they pay a lot of money in order to stay in here. This happens on a daily basis. Someone calls out a prisoner’s name to tell him that his name had come in for transfer to another prison. The prisoner asks to stay at any price. The price is usually high, and he stays.

While I was in the police station, my wife, brother, and friends would wait outside everyday hoping for my release. But then a sudden transfer to the National Security headquarters in the Haram section came in late one night. I thought that I was going to be readmitted, after they put a blindfold on my eyes and cuffs on my hands again. But later on I learned that it is routine, and that every person that lives in the area must pass through the National Security in the Haram police department so that they could collect some information about him, as if they’re an independent party from the ones that investigated me in the beginning. The one who investigated me didn’t know my discharged status and even asked me for photos next time I came! He didn’t even know anything about the case that I had been imprisoned for! What made me laugh was that he asked me about my opinion of Mohamed ElBaradei, describing him as a fugitive and a member of the Brotherhood!

After several more days in the police station, one morning, an officer called my name - all this while I was waiting to be readmitted into another case - and asked me:

“Do you want to go back to prison?” I answered in the negative, of course, so he gave me a paper and said that I should go to the agency - the “National Security Service” - next Wednesday, and ask for some Pasha.

I walked out of the police station onto the street, and went back home, but my soul never did. There are many things that broke inside of me, and things that are stuck in my memory, taking up a lot of space. Everyday in my sleep, I still hear the sounds of men being tortured in the National Security headquarters. I dream of every assault or insult I was subjected to happening once again. It gives me shortness of breath, and every step I take is no longer important to me. I went on Wednesday, and they put a blindfold on my eyes, and tried to convince me that they had done me a favor, and that they wanted me with them, but I told them: “I only want you to leave me be.” They left me be, but the traces of their crime never did.

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