Egypt's detained minors: A hardship untold

Reem Gehad , Thursday 23 Oct 2014

Egyptian minors detained in politically-related events face lengthy legal procedures and harsh conditions

Sohaib Emad
Sohaib Emad, 15, from Mansoura, has been detained for nine months. (Photo courtesy of his sister Samar Emad)

Every day Samar posts photos on Facebook of her brother Sohaib Emad – in school uniform, carrying his bag, looking at the camera with a disarming smile, his hair down to his ears.

There's another photo of Emad with his friend, their arms around each other, mouths wide open, acting tough and laughing.

But then we see a post of the 15-year-old Emad, shaven and not smiling, handcuffed in a wheelchair, his legs plastered from surgery, waiting for a decision from a prosecutor.

Emad was arrested from his house in the Nile Delta city of Mansoura, Daqahliya governorate, on 11 February 2014. He was accused of "forming a gang, resisting police with weapons and targeting police officers and university professors".

His sister Samar told Ahram Online that someone had filed a report against him with the police, prompting the arrest. She said her family is not part of any political group.

Young, rebellious, in fear for future

Like many Egyptians, for whom politics became a dominant issue following the January 2011 uprising, Emad picked up an interest in politics and started protesting on the streets. He also wrote Facebook posts criticising Egypt's current political situation.

Before his arrest, he took part in demonstrations on the 2014 anniversary of the January uprising with his "tough" friend from the earlier photograph – whom he saw die in clashes that day.

Emad was detained at a Mansoura police station 45 days before being transferred to a minor's facility at Dikirnis Prison, where he served another 90-day detention period detention.

In September, he underwent surgery for a knee that became dislocated while in detention, and is currently back in jail awaiting a court decision on his case.

Away from the media spotlight, there are 120 minors in Egypt (all boys under 18) who have been detained over politically-related incidents.

These boys aren't trending on Twitter, and journalists aren't queuing outside of courts to report on their fates, as they are with more well-known detained activists.

But these minors face harsh conditions in jail, as well as renewable preventative jail periods that keep them away from their schools and families – mostly on charges of illegal protesting, attacking police and joining terrorist groups.

They are often linked by the authorities to protests by or groups sympathetic to the outlawed Muslim Brotherhood.

Some, like Abdallah Assem, now fear for their future.

The 17-year-old Assem, a native of Aswan in Upper Egypt, travelled to Los Angeles in May for an international science and engineering fair, and chose not to return to Egypt out of fears of being re-arrested.

The young inventor was first arrested in April in Cairo's Bab Al-Louk district on charges of illegal protesting and participating in the burning of a police vehicle. He was later released on bail pending trial.

Egypt passed a controversial protest law in November 2013 that activists deem restrictive because it bans unauthorised demonstrations and that has seen thousands arrested under its provisions, from Brotherhood members and other political groups.

Since then, many minors were arrested at some of those unauthorised protests but others were picked up by the police from their homes – or even during football matches.

The Front to Defend Alexandria Protesters – a popular initiative – told Ahram Online that 21 young men, including 11 minors, were arrested in February 2014 when police stormed a football pitch in Al-Montazah district in Alexandria.

They were accused by the police of joining an "Ultras" youth group - a football fan club - that was allegedly "an offshoot of the outlawed Brotherhood" and also staging an illegal protest and chanting profanities against the government.

They were released two days later and the case was closed in July.

Minors are minors?

Many youngsters like Emad face hefty accusations, while families complain that arrests are sometimes inconsistent with the official prosecution's narrative.

Mohamed Hafez, lawyer at the Arabic Network for Human Rights Information (ANHRI), said that through his work with minors' cases, he has come to see that the prosecution relies almost solely upon investigations from the national security apparatus of the interior ministry.

He cites legislation set by Egypt's Court of Cassation stipulating that such investigations should "confirm evidence that a person committed a crime" – but should not stand on their own.

Meanwhile, Emad and many others have spent long months detained awaiting court decisions on their cases, raising lawyers' criticism over their continual detention, which they say is increasingly appearing as "a form of punishment".

"Sometimes the actual sentence the minor receives is less or equal to the period he spent detained pending investigations," said lawyer Mohamed El-Maghraby, of the Egyptian Foundation for the Advancement of Childhood (EFAC).

"A minor should be treated as a minor, even if he committed an offence. The law says that procedures should be speedy for them," he said.

Similarly, Hafez from the ANHRI calls on the country's legislative authorities to set a maximum period of preventative detention for minors, which he recommends to be three months.

Most minors caught in political-related events face accusations that are looked into by the Children's Misdemeanour Court. The law does not include "political crimes" per say. Hafez says criminal procedure codes restrict preventative detention to six months for everyone facing misdemeanours.

Indeed, dozens of activists and detainees went on hunger strike in September to protest their prolonged detention pending investigations and to also call for amending the controversial protest law.

A place for children?

Almost 40 minors are currently under investigation for lawsuit 502, which centres on an incident in June, when they refused to leave a juvenile care home in Alexandria's Kom Al-Dekka district and go to the Penal Institution for Juveniles – known as Al-Ekabeya (Arabic for punitive) – in the northeast Cairo district of Al-Marg, more than 200 kilometres away from home.

The minors were accused of resisting authorities.

Al-Ekabeya, infamous for its dire conditions, rings a dreaded bell for many minors detained pending investigations in Alexandria, who are sometimes temporarily transferred to the penal institute due to a "lack of space" in Kom Al-Dekka, which is a home for juveniles in general and not necessarily for criminal offenders. 

Khaled Abdel-Rahman, 15, was detained at Kom Al-Dekka in January 2014 for "illegal protesting and disrupting public order", though he said he was not present at a protest and was randomly arrested on the street.

He was released in April pending investigations, but he got a taste of Al-Ekabeya when he was transferred there temporarily.

Abdel-Rahman told Ahram Online that political cases' detainees were mixed with criminal ones in Al-Ekabeya, saying the latter "humiliated" the others daily.

"They cursed us, they hit us, sometimes with a stick or with their hands," he recounted. "They forbid us from talking or laughing."

"We had to go to the toilet with the door open," he added.

He lists the chores he and his colleagues had to do: unclogging sewage drains, cleaning toilets and collecting garbage from nearby streets, among others.

If they were not tasked with anything during the morning queues for exercise, he said they just sat in their dormitories, while the social workers mainly stayed in their offices.

Article 96 of Egypt's children's law lists situations – punished by the same law – in which a child is at risk of danger. These include if the child "practices collecting cigarette butts or other waste and trash."

A child is also in danger if "he is mixed with delinquents or suspects or those known for ill-reputation … [or if] the circumstances of his upbringing in the family, school or care institutions or elsewhere ... expose him to negligence or abuse or violence or exploitation".

Those found responsible are punished under the law with a prison sentence of at least six months and a fine of at least LE2,000.

Some detained boys got scabies at Al-Ekabeya due to a lack of hygiene in the clothes and beds, said Abdel-Rahman and lawyers. El-Maghraby, from EFAC, added that some cases of mumps were reported.

El-Maghraby also said that some minors complained to him of sexual harassment from older criminal inmates. Abdel-Rahman has heard of the issue but said he has neither seen it nor experienced it himself.

George Ishaq, of Egypt's National Centre for Human Rights (NCHR), which visited Al-Ekabeya in April, said the centre called for separating criminal and political detainees and releasing students who are pending investigations so they can attend school.

"However, not much has been accomplished yet," he told Ahram Online.

The NCHR made a previous visit to Al-Ekabeya in February 2013, after which it released a statement criticising the medical and social conditions at the institution, attributing them to "either a lack of resources or wrong procedures."

However, it also noted that even though the institution's administration is officially the responsibility of the ministry for social solidarity, while the interior ministry should only play a security role, there was still a high police presence – namely "17 officers and 98 personnel" – giving them dominance over the social workers.

Indeed, families report that they are usually in contact with police personnel rather than social workers at the detention institutions.

Meanwhile, Ghada Wali, Egypt's minister for social solidarity, announced in a press conference on 28 September that her ministry had signed a protocol with the United Nations to develop Al-Ekabeya. She said the aim was to "improve the level of services and health care for the children, in addition to forming workshops to train them with several skills."

Wali added that the point of detaining the minors is not "punishment but caring for and training them, and working on reintegrating them into society".

Officials at Al-Ekabeya were not available for comment for this feature, despite attempts from Ahram Online to reach them.

Families say that conditions at Kom Al-Dekka are relatively better than Al-Ekabeya. However, some complain that visits are less frequent and children face more difficulties inside.

In the city of Damanhour, Beheira governorate, Mohamed Abdel-Latif, 14, went on hunger strike for three weeks to protest his detainment, but had to stop as he fainted several times.

He has been detained for over 60 days on accusations of illegal protest and joining the Brotherhood.

"A prison is a prison. The child is humiliated in it," said a mother of a 17-year-old boy who has been detained for 10 months in Alexandria.

"I can tell you that they are all tired. They all entered jail well, but now they're exhausted – physically, mentally, everything," she said.

Short link: