Rights group challenges official line on jail warden's death

Ahram Online, Tuesday 18 Oct 2011

Warden at Fayyoum’s El-Katta Prison was killed by security forces - not inmates - following 28 January police withdrawal, new report finds

A banner in Tahrir square bearing General Batran
A banner in Tahrir square bearing General Batran's picture saying that he was killed by his own colleagues' weapons (Photo: Al-Ahram)

General Mohamed El-Batran, a chief prison warden killed at the height of Egypt’s January revolution, was shot by security forces and not prisoners, according to a newly-released report by a fact-finding committee drawn up by the Cairo-based Egyptian Organisation for Human Rights (EOHR).

On Monday, the EOHR held a press conference devoted to answering two questions: Who exactly opened Egypt’s prisons on the 28 January “Friday of Anger”? And who was responsible for El-Batran’s death during the ensuing chaos? The conference was convened to present the findings of a report released by the fact finding committee, which was mandated to examine and document the circumstances of El-Batran’s murder.

El-Batran, chief prison warden for the Ministry of Interior at Fayyoum’s El-Katta Prison, was killed on 29 January. Local media has reported that El-Batran was killed by inmates during the pandemonium that erupted following the nationwide withdrawal of police forces one day earlier.  

The EOHR has since sent fact-finding committees to prisons across Egypt in an effort to determine exactly happened in the security vacuum that followed the police withdrawal. One such committee examined relevant documents produced by El-Batran’s family along with video footage of inmates fleeing prisons across Egypt, especially from El-Katta Prison and Cairo’s Abu Zaabal prison.

According to the committee’s report, police forces withdrew from Egypt’s streets on 28 January, which led to wild reports – most of which turned out to be fabricated or exaggerated by state media – of crime and random violence. Meanwhile, several prisons were opened or stormed, leading to the escape of at least 20,000 inmates and a general feeling of panic among the public.

A number of jails, including Cairo’s infamous Tora Prison, saw acts of violence committed by prisoners after police and wardens had abandoned their posts. This lack of security, according to the EOHR report, ended in the death of several prisoners. A number of prisons were also ransacked by inmates who in several cases made off with stolen weapons.

The EOHR report also points to a number of documented cases in which prisons were attacked by armed groups who exploited the chaotic situation to free certain inmates, in some cases following fire-fights with security personnel.

Members of El-Batran’s family, however, insist he was not killed by escaped prisoners as had been reported, but rather by elements of the former regime, who intentionally tried to sow chaos and confusion. They quickly requested an official investigation into the circumstances of his death. Nine months later, however, this investigation still hasn’t come to any conclusions.

When the EOHR committee visited El-Katta Prison, it found copious evidence of live and rubber bullets inside the cells and ward, raising questions as to why prisoners were shot at inside the premises. The committee also found evidence of live and rubber ammunition on the walls and floor of the prison hospital.

A number of prisoners, meanwhile, had suffered injuries from live rounds, the committee also found.

According to the committee’s findings, on the night El-Batran was killed, a fight erupted inside the prison between guards and prisoners, with the latter demanding their immediate release. El-Batran was called in to find a solution to the crisis.

When he went to Section A of the prison, inmates told him that they had heard reports of prisoners in other jails being were released. They began chanting the well-know revolutionary slogan, “The people want the fall of the regime.”

When El-Batran tried to leave the premises, some 1,500 prisoners managed to escape. A colonel at the prison then ordered officers to shoot everyone – including El-Batran. The report concluded by blaming the general’s death on security personnel at El-Katta Prison.

“They’re the ones who gave the order to shoot El-Batran and the prisoners who were trying to escape,” the report states. “But they’re trying to deny this by saying that it was the prisoners who opened fire.”

The report adds in conclusion: “General El-Batran died at the hands of prison security personnel – not prisoners.”

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