According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, more than half of the 20 detained journalists in Egypt are in poor health. Multiple reports document the systematic interference with access to health care inside Egyptian detention facilities. In June 2014, the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights published a report titled “Health in Egyptian Prisons: a field study on the determinants of health behind bars” in which it concluded that “living and health conditions in prisons are not in line with the minimum components of the right to health, both on the level of access and quality of health services, and the competence of the healthcare staff.” In a 2016 report titled, “We are in tombs”: Abuses in Egypt’s Scorpion Prison, Human Rights Watch found that at least six detainees in Al-Aqrab prison, also known as Scorpion, died in 2015 during a period in which all visitations were banned. Interference with detainees’ right to health care continues unabated.
Prison authorities have interfered with access to treatment for at least eight of the currently detained journalists.
Photographer Mahmoud Abu Zeid, also known as Shawkan, contracted hepatitis C shortly after his detention in 2013. He is held in Tora prison. In December 2016, demands to release Shawkan on medical grounds were denied. On 19 October 2017, the journalist told his father during a family visit that he is experiencing blurry vision, insomnia, shivers and loss of appetite. His father later urged a prison officer to conduct a blood test to determine Shawkan’s condition. This would allow his family to provide him with the medication he needs. In late October 2017, the prison hospital transferred Shawkan to nearby Qasr El Eyni Hospital for a blood test. The facility did not have the machinery necessary to conduct the test and Shawkan was returned to Tora prison hospital. The prison administration then recommended that a blood sample be collected from Shawkan and sent to a private laboratory for testing. However, no blood sample has been collected and sent for testing at the time of writing.
Samhi Mustafa, co-founder of the news website Rassd, needs surgery for a jaw fracture and treatment for complications resulting from a broken nose. His wife said that Mustafa suffered these injuries after being assaulted by prison guards in early 2016. Mustafa is currently held in Tora prison. In April 2015, he was sentenced to life imprisonment, which was later reduced to five years on appeal.
Freelance journalist Ismail Alexandrani developed respiratory issues while in detention caused by poor ventilation conditions in his cell, according to his wife. On 29 November 2015, the authorities arrested Ismail and have kept him in Tora prison without trial since.
El Badil journalist Sabry Anwar is being denied treatment for kidney stones. Anwar was arrested at his home on 21 February 2016. According to his wife, Anwar has been tortured into confessing to crimes he did not commit on four different occasions. In September 2017, his lawyers demanded his transfer to a hospital for treatment. However, the calls fell on deaf ears.
Photojournalist Hamdy Mokhtar, diagnosed with diabetes, was arrested in September 2016 while conducting passerby interviews. In February 2017, he was not taken to the hospital for treatment after suffering from complications resulting from a wound in his foot. His cellmates cleaned his wound using shaving tools and tissue paper to relieve his pain. Five months later, he developed back pain and a slipped disk due to sleeping on the prison floor with no mattress. The request to transfer him to the prison hospital was denied.
Hisham Jaafar, the director of the Mada Foundation for Media Development, suffers from an enlarged prostate and a damaged nerve in his left eye. According to his wife, Jaafar received minimal treatment while in Tora prison, where he is detained. Jaafar was arrested in 2015. Requests to release him on medical grounds have been denied.
Photojournalist Osama al-Bishbishi suffers from an eye infection, which is weakening his vision. Al-Bishbishi was arrested on 26 September 2016 while filming in Cairo. According to his wife, it is unknown if he was examined by a doctor. Online reports, however, indicate that he started a hunger strike to protest maltreatment in detention.
Al Jazeera’s Mahmoud Hussein Gomaa is being denied treatment for a fracture in his left wrist that requires surgery. He only received a simple cast to relieve his pain. Gomaa was arrested on 23 December 2016.
Conclusion and Analysis
Egypt’s treatment of journalists violates domestic law, as well as multiple provisions of international agreements to which the country is party, such as the right to security of a person as recorded in Article 12.2.d of the International Covenant for Economic Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR). Egypt ratified the ICESCR on 14 January 1982, obliging it to provide for the highest possible level of health care. The government’s actions also violate Article 9 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR). The interference and denying of detained journalists’ access to healthcare additionally violates Rule 27 of the UN Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners, also known as Mandela Rules, whereby “Prisoners who require specialized treatment or surgery shall be transferred to specialized institutions or to civil hospitals” as well as Rule 24, which states that “Prisoners should enjoy the same standards of health care that are available in the community […].” Interfering with detainee’s access to health care contravenes the noninterference principle of medical impartiality.
Denying access to health should not be a tool authorities use to further subject detainees to physical and psychological torture. Egypt has an obligation under local and international law to provide all detainees, including journalists, with the adequate treatment and services they need. Egyptian authorities must release all detainees being held for charges linked solely to free expression and free press.