Map showing the Galaa military camp in Ismalila and the location of the Azouli military prison within it. The S1 block, which detainees describe as an interrogation block, is a few minutes drive from the jail
Egypt’s secret prison: ‘disappeared’ face torture in Azouli military jail
Guardian interviews with former detainees reveal up to 400 Egyptians being held without judicial oversight amid wider crackdown on human rights
Patrick Kingsley in Ismailia
Hundreds of “disappeared” Egyptians are being tortured and held outside of judicial oversight in a secret military prison, according to Guardian interviews with former inmates, lawyers, rights activists and families of missing persons.
Since at least the end of July 2013, detainees have been taken there blindfolded and forcibly disappeared. Up to 400 are still being tortured and held outside of judicial oversight in the clearest example of a wide-scale crackdown that Amnesty and Human Rights Watch have jointly called “repression on a scale unprecedented in Egypt’s modern history”.
Prisoners at Azouli are routinely electrocuted, beaten and hanged naked by their tied wrists for hours until they either give up specific information, memorise confessions or until – in the case of a small group of released former inmates – are deemed of no further use to their interrogators.
They are among at least 16,000 political prisoners arrested since last summer’s regime change. But what sets Azouli’s prisoners apart is the way they are held outside of Egypt’s legal system, in circumstances that allow their jailers to act without fear of even hypothetical consequences.
“Officially, you aren’t there,” said Ayman, a middle-aged man who was brought to Azouli towards the end of 2013, and one of only a few to later be released.
“It isn’t like normal prisons. There is no documentation that says you are there. If you die at Azouli, no one would know.”
Azouli prison cannot be seen by civilians. It lies inside a vast military camp – the sprawling headquarters of Egypt’s second field army at Ismailia, a city 62 miles north-east of Cairo – but hundreds are nevertheless all too aware of its third and highest floor, where the detainees are held in cramped cells.
According to three former inmates, each interviewed separately, the majority of Azouli detainees are Salafis – ultraconservative Muslims – suspected of involvement or knowledge of a wave of militant attacks that began after the violent dispersal of a pro-Mohamed Morsi protest camp in August 2013. Many are from the northern Sinai peninsular, the centre of a jihadist insurgency, but there are prisoners from all over Egypt.
A few are suspected members of the banned Muslim Brotherhood, others were involved in student protests and a significant minority are people with no connection to religious movements who interviewees felt had been arrested at random. All three said at least one prisoner was a child and two said another was a journalist.
The interviewees characterised their detentions as metaphorical fishing expeditions in which they were arrested on little evidence and then tortured to force them to give up any information that would justify their incarceration.
“The issue is that many of those at Azouli are arrested randomly or with very little evidence, and then the intelligence services use torture to find out whether they are actually involved in violence,” said Mohamed Elmessiry, Egypt researcher for Amnesty International, who has led an extensive investigation into Azouli.
Khaled, a young activist, the torture began before he arrived. Arrested as he went about his daily business several months ago, he alleges that he was beaten and electrocuted by soldiers and military policemen in an enclosed outdoor space for several hours before being driven to Azouli.
“They used up two electric-shock machines,” said Khaled. “They brought a towel and put water on it and put it on my face to stop me breathing. The military policemen kept beating me.
“After four hours my clothes were ripped apart. My face was swollen. My eyes were closed. I got a wound in my jaw deep enough for a soldier to put his finger inside it.”
The daily routine
Inmates are woken between 3am and 6am. All 23 of one cell’s inmates are collectively given five minutes to use the bathroom, which contains four toilets and four basins. It leaves no more than a minute for each prisoner to wash and use the toilet – and if someone takes too long, they are beaten. As a result, some people avoid eating to save time in the toilet every morning.
Breakfast is at about 7am: bread or biscuits served with jam and sometimes cockroaches. Lunch comes at 2pm. “The lunch is rice,” said Khaled. “In most cases, it’s not enough, so they’d bring raw rice and mix it with the cooked rice. Then there was what they called vegetables. Mostly boiled cauliflower – either with a lot of salt, or no salt at all. Three days a week, there was a chicken that wasn’t fit for human consumption, but we had to eat it to keep up our strength.” Dinner is usually beans or lentils.
Inside the cells, Ayman said, there was a bucket for urine and a few blankets for the 20-plus inmates to share. But they did not need to keep warm, even in the winter months. “There was very little ventilation,” said Ayman. “So though this was during the winter, people still wore [just] their underwear and it was very hot.”
“When we arrived at the prison, they covered our eyes,” said Ayman, the middle-aged former prisoner.“ They took everyone’s valuables and their belts and anything that resembled a rope. Medicines, too. And after that they started the beating. They lined us up against the wall and hit us with sticks, water pipes and fists. This lasted for 10 minutes.
In the military vehicle on the way to Azouli, Khaled says he was trapped underneath a car seat with his arms locked behind him – a position of prolonged and excruciating pain he says was worse than any he would experience in the coming months.
At Azouli, he says he was immediately placed in a cell on the third floor, where the vast majority of the disappeared prisoners are held.
Two other survivors said they were beaten on arrival by a “welcoming committee” of soldiers, an experience that prisoners in civilian prisons also
“Then they lined us up and as we walked to the third floor, they beat us as we walked. In the corridor on the third floor, they uncovered our eyes again and started beating us. The warden on the third floor – he was called Gad – kept threatening us: ‘If anyone looks out of the window, if anyone makes any noise, we will beat you.’ And then they beat us for a while, with their fists to our faces. After the beating, they put us in the cell.”
The bottom two floors of the prison have long been used to detain soldiers subject to courts martial. But since July 2013, political detainees have been kept on the third floor, the majority of them in about a dozen cells that each contain between 23 and 28 prisoners.
PART 2/2 will follow...
PART 2/2 will follow...
Criinal Junta, innocent prisoners