'Scorpion' Prison Cells Above the Law

Published August 17th, 2021 - 06:14 GMT
COVID-19 Puts the Lid on Egyptian inmates and their families
Egypt  -  prison Borg El Arab , Egypt MOHAMED EL-SHAHEDAFP
COVID-19 Puts the Lid on Egyptian inmates and their families

By Moayad Bilal

On March 9, 2020, the Egyptian Ministry of Interior banned prison visits under the pretext of curbing the spread of COVID-19. Three months into the ban, 69 year-old Amira Tawfiq could no longer stand being unable to communicate with her son in jail. So she travelled from Alexandria where she lives, to Tora prison (known as Scorpion) in Cairo. She waited for hours at the prison gate, but was not allowed to see her son. She lost consciousness while on her way back home, and passed away without hearing from him, neither by letter nor by phone.

The Egyptian authorities prohibit family contact from the moment a person is arrested; On December 23, 2018, Ahmed Abdel Nabi (60 years old) called his grandchildren from inside the plane bound for Cyprus, telling them that it was about to take off and that he was coming to visit them. The call was ended abruptly after one of the crew members asked him to step off the plane. He was arrested and detained in Tora maximum security prison 2, or the Scorpion, which is earmarked for political prisoners and criminal offenders. According to human rights organizations, Ahmed Abdel Nabi remained there until his death on September 2, 2020.

Nasiba, Abdel Nabi’s daughter said: "During Abdel Nabi’s detention, the prison administration banned any contact with him. It denied him visits, correspondences and calls." His family filed a lawsuit in May 2019. However, the prison’s Internal Planning and Research Department told the court that  due to “security reasons”, “inmates in ward (B) were denied visits for three months, including Ahmed Abdel Nabi.”

The Ministry of Interior and the Prison Authority denied hundreds of detainees their constitutional right to contact their families and lawyers by any means (visits, letters, phone calls) based on vague legal texts with no explanation of the reasons thereof. Some court decisions were also ignored with the support of the Public Prosecution office. Some detainees passed away before they could have the chance to meet their families.

The author of this investigation has conducted interviews with relatives and lawyers of 11 inmates, during which they recounted their efforts to reestablish contact with the prisoners inside detention facilities. In addition, a questionnaire was filled containing 11 samples has demonstrated a complete severance of contact during a visit ban imposed by the Ministry of Interior to combat the Corona virus in early March and until August 2020.

Banned from visiting, families of inmates do not receive a written refusal. When they raise their case at the administrative court, the Ministry of Interior cites security reasons (for curtailing inmates contacts with their families), without clarifying what these security reasons are, or the party that issued the ban. The prison administration orally informs families that the National Security Agency is the party entirely responsible for bans and permits. Human Rights Watch (HRW), which monitors violations around the world, confirms the statements made by the families.

   Visits were prohibited in Scorpion and Liman Tora prisons for approximately 18 months. Amnesty International recorded at least 61 cases of inmates at Tora prison in Cairo and Borg al-Arab in Alexandria who were barred from receiving family visits for up to two years, according to the findings of "Amnesty International".

Every three months, the Ministry of Interior would issue a decree banning inmates from receiving visitors, thus extending the period that separates them from their families and lawyers. These measures have been in practice for decades using "terrorist threats" as an excuse, according to a study by the Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy (TIMEP) entitled “Effective Communication between the Lawyer and Defendant and the Right to a Fair Trial.”

Article 42 of the Prison Regulation Law allows for visits to be restricted or completely banned due to health or security reasons. According to a HRW report, Interior Ministry officials rely on this vaguely worded article, unchanged since 1956, to prevent visits at any time without explaining the reasons thereof.

For example, the court overturned the decision to deny Abdel Nabi any visits, as the prison did not provide evidence of any visits paid to him by any of his family members even prior to the decision to deny inmates of ward B the right to receive visitors. The court even ruled that the decision to deny him visit was absolute and undetermined in violation of the laws and constitution.

Seven years ago, the family of the leader of "Al-Wasat" party, Essam Sultan, was surprised by a decision to ban regular visits of inmates in wards (4,3,2) in the Scorpion prison, and the automatic renewal thereof. For this reason, Sultan’s family referred the matter to the Public Prosecutor who granted them permission to see him, provided that he is not detained in the prohibited wards. Thus, the Public Prosecutor approved of the detention and the visit ban, and any permission granted to the family was pointless.

The Public Prosecutor having failed them, Sultan’s family turned to the judiciary, which recognized the unconstitutionality of these decisions, as was stated in the verdict: "A permanent visit ban denies a prisoner his basic right as a social being by nature, which is detrimental to his humanity and morally harmful to his well-being. It is also inconsistent with the constitution.”

Despite the court rulings that did justice to Abdel Nabi and Essam Sultan, the director of prisons and the warden of the Scorpion prison flouted the decisions and continued to ban visits. The families referred the court’s decision to the Ministers of Justice and Interior, but nothing changed. Abdel Nabi died without meeting his family and grandchildren.

Two weeks before his death, he could no longer eat. His eyes would bleed, and blood clots would come out from his mouth. In prison, he developed diabetes, hemiplegia on the left side of his body, and kidney stones. He suffered a stroke, not to mention his long term liver disease ailment, but he was still denied access to adequate medical care in jail. The Forensic Medicine Authority stated in the burial certificate that the cause of death was “under investigation,” according to a statement by the Egyptian Front for Human Rights.  

Sultan's lawyers wanted to file a lawsuit against the Minister of Interior for failure to implement a court ruling, but they didn’t for fear of arrest, according to one lawyer who preferred to remain anonymous. 


Article 100 of the Constitution stipulates the following: “Court decisions shall be issued and implemented in the name of the people. The state guarantees the means of implementing them as regulated by the law.

The Director of the Legislative and Judicial Reform Project at the Egyptian Commission for Rights and Freedoms (ECRF), Mohamed Obeid, says that a blanket visit ban is a double punishment and torture, not only for prisoners, but also for their innocent family members. It is like giving the prisoner a new sentence, not through a court ruling, but rather by virtue of administrative decisions issued by the executive power represented by the Ministry of Interior.

In 1994, a court ruled the visit ban inside the Scorpion prison unconstitutional. However, the Ministry of Interior ignored the court’s order to restore visits and kept the ban in place for nearly a decade despite the issuance of 112 rulings against it, according to HRW.

Ahmed Mufreh, Executive Director of Committee for Justice, said, “From our continuous follow-up, (64/2017 military, 123/2018 military, 148/2017 military), the Prison Authority continues to renew the visit bans for 20 detainees by virtue of decisions by the Public Prosecution. These inmates are divided between Tora High Security Prison (Scorpion), Tora Istiqbal (reception), and Tora investigation.

The Public Prosecution endorses long-term visit bans

Obeid said that this sentence in the letter was referring to a previous decision to deny the prisoners in the wards attached to the aforementioned prisons any visits. The sentence was pre-printed, which means that it is a template used for visit permits. Also, it did not specify whether the decision was issued by the Public Prosecution office, or the Ministry of Interior, both of which have the authority to do so.

Obeid added that printing a template permit with this unified preamble means the approval of the decision or its extension for a long period, which violates the constitution and the law. It may be challenged before the Administrative Court for its illegality. Obeid shared the opinion of the CEO of the Egyptian Front for Human Rights, Karim Taha, who said that the Prosecution approved of the long-term visit bans.


"Many defendants prove before the Prosecution that they were denied communication and contact with their families. However, these violations are not investigated by the Public Prosecution."

Hunger Strike

Dozens of inmates were barred from receiving any visits in certain prisons, like the Scorpion and others, which makes them go on hunger strikes to protest their living conditions.

United Nations Universal Periodic Review of Human Rights in Egypt 2019

In mid-June 2019, 130 detainees went on hunger strike in the Scorpion prison for more than six weeks as a protest to denying them family visits. Many of those on strike were arrested more than two years ago and have not been allowed a single visit from their families or lawyers. Authorities retaliated by beating them. At least 10 hunger-strikers were blindfolded and transferred to special cells where they were locked up all day without any breaks. 

Several detainees had previously gone on hunger strikes in October 2017 and February 2018 and ended their protests on the basis of assurances that they would be allowed family visits, but these promises were never kept, according to Amnesty International.

The Egyptian Coordination committee for Rights and Freedoms documented that in 2019, detainees in several prisons went on hunger strike to express their rage over several violations, including denial of family visits.

Strike Date

Prison Name


March 10, 2019

Tanta Public Prison


July 21, 2019

The Scorpion


July 23

Scorpion 2 (Military Issue 64)


October 22

The Scorpion


November 23

Mansoura Public Prison



Suspension of visits due to Corona … What are the alternatives?

Since the start of the lockdown due to Covid-19, thousands of inmates have been kept in detention without any access to the outside world. Authorities often deny detainees permission to receive letters from their relatives according to "human rights watch".

From March 9 to August 2020, detainees were reportedly infected with coronavirus. 11 people and a lawyer confirmed that they were denied the right to visit inmates during this period, and 9 confirmed that they did not even receive a single written letter from their loved ones inside the prison.

For three consecutive weeks, the administration of Tora maximum security prison 2 (The Scorpion) banned Laila Soueif from receiving any “letters” to assure her of her son’s health inside. Visits were suspended to stem the spread of coronavirus, with no means of communication other than written letters.

On June 21, 2020, Laila began a sit-in at the prison gate. She spread a mat and held a sign entitled “I want a letter.” She was later joined by her two daughters. At dawn, a group of unknown women beat, drag and rob them in full view of prison personnel.

“Sanaa was not the only one,” said Mr Mufreh, Director of the Committee for Justice. He explained that the documentation team had found that security forces had arrested five female relatives of detainees. The Maadi Prosecution office convicted them of several charges including staging an (illegal) gathering. Then they were released on bail of 2000 Egyptian pounds. They were also sentenced in absentia to one month in prison.

The Public Prosecutor and the Ministry of Interior agreed 13 years ago to provide inmates with a telephone service, but that is still unavailable. Karim Taha, Executive Director of the Egyptian Front for Human Rights, said there were at least 3 recommendations from Germany, the Netherlands and Britain insisting on the right of prisoners to communicate with their families, but to no avail.

"Many defendants prove before the Prosecution that they were denied communication and contact with their families. However, these violations are not investigated by the Public Prosecution." Karim Taha, Executive Director of the Egyptian Front for Human Rights.

There were at least 3 recommendations from Germany, the Netherlands and Britain regarding the right of detainees to communicate with their families and lawyers. The government representative responded by saying that written correspondences were allowed and that telephone booths were under installation to solve this problem.

Certainly, when the Public Prosecution continues to turn a deaf ear, this encourages the prison administration to keep depriving prisoners of their rights. Although the Public Prosecution has the authority to judicially supervise detention centers, it hasn’t raised a finger in this regard. It did not and will not take any steps to investigate these complaints. Therefore, the series of violations against detainees will continue until real action is taken by the Prosecution offices.

Ignoring Detainees' Complaints

Article 42 of the Criminal Procedure Code:

“Members of the Department of Public Prosecutions and presidents and vice-presidents of courts of first instance must contact any detainee and hear any complaint that he might wish to submit to them.

Article 27 of the Judicial Authority Act:

“Monitoring and observing what is required by laws and regulations, and taking what they deem necessary regarding violations that occur.”

The Egyptian Front for Human Rights published a sample of the statements of defendants who proved their complaints during their detention renewal hearings before the Public Prosecutor’s Office.

Prisoner Hilal Omar Muhammad: I want to prove that I am on hunger strike because I am being ill-treated. I accuse the prison administration of committing systematic violations against me, and of flouting the decisions of the Public Prosecutor’s Office regarding visit permits.

Ahmed Bashar informed the Public Prosecutor of the following: "I want to see and speak with my family as visits are prohibited. I have not communicated with them since the day I was detained."

190 defendants distributed across seven prisons, charged in seven cases, filed a complaint during their detention renewal hearings before the Public Prosecution office against:
The prison administration for banning them from seeing their families, and for refusing to carry out the orders of the Public Prosecution office regarding permits of visits and contact.
- Several defendants informed the Prosecution office that the prison administration was tearing up the Prosecution office's permits.
The complaints of the defendants found no response, even when repeated, which provoked 33 defendants to go on hunger strike.


Case number: 

Detention prisons  


123 of 2018 East Cairo Military Offences

Tora Maximum Security 2
(Scorpion 2) 


137 of 2018
North Cairo Military Offences

Tora Maximum Security (Scorpion) - Tora Reception 


148 of 2017 North Cairo Military Offences 

Tora Reception - Scorpion - Punitive Institution


64 of 2017 North Cairo Military Offences 

Scorpion 2 


247 of 2016 East Cairo Military Offences

Tora Reception - Scorpion


301 of 2016 Student Felonies 

Tora Reception - Tora Investigation – Al-Qanater men - kilo 10 and a half - the penal institution


506 of 2014 East Cairo University 

Tora Reception - Scorpion



7 prisons 

(Source: Egyptian Front for Human Rights)

Until this moment, prisoners are held in a prison like the Scorpion, in cells for which visit bans are predetermined, deprived of any human right to communicate with the world, without any consideration for court decisions.

This investigation was carried out with the support of Arab Reporters for Investigative Journalism (ARIJ).

The views expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect those of Al Bawaba News.


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