In A Viral Video, A Misleading Taste Of What It's Like In Egyptian Prison A government report — and a video leaked with it — gave a rosy impression of conditions inside a notorious prison, even as accounts of torture stream from Egypt's swelling prison population.
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In A Viral Video, A Misleading Taste Of What It's Like In Egyptian Prison

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In A Viral Video, A Misleading Taste Of What It's Like In Egyptian Prison

In A Viral Video, A Misleading Taste Of What It's Like In Egyptian Prison

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LINDA WERTHEIMER, HOST:

Prisons in Egypt are filling up with inmates who critics say are being held because of their political views. Conditions are reported to be horrendous and there are accounts of torture. Recently, a human rights panel, appointed by the government, looked into one of the maximum security prisons in Cairo. NPR's Leila Fadel reports on the outcry sparked by that investigation.

LEILA FADEL, BYLINE: When the government-appointed National Human Rights Council visited one of Egypt's most notorious prisons, known as Scorpion, a video was leaked. One of the members is shown nodding happily as he tastes the prison food from a huge pot. It went viral, with memes splicing the original footage with a similar scene from a classic Egyptian movie called "The Innocent."

In that film, the prison has been prepared for outside inspectors after the death of an inmate to show how wonderful conditions were. The goal - to get the visitors to write a nice report to clear up, quote, "rumors of bad treatment." The report from the real prison visit by the Human Rights Council drew considerable criticism here, including from members of the council itself.

One member, Mohamed Abdel Kouddous, posted a statement on Facebook condemning the council's glowing description of conditions inside the prison. He said the facility had clearly been scrubbed and beautified. The food, he says, was extraordinarily luxurious. He said what the inspectors were shown didn't match the complaints he had heard of medical neglect, of canceled family visits, of personal belongings being confiscated, and the list goes on.

Another member of the council, Ragia Omran, was also critical. A prominent human rights lawyer, she has defended prisoners many of whom, she says, were wrongfully accused or tried under draconian new laws. Omran says she still hasn't decided whether or not to quit the council. She says she joined when it was formed two years ago because she thought she could change things from within.

RAGIA OMRAN: I think there was an effort to kind of have the facade that, you know, this is a Democratic government and...

FADEL: But that, she says, has changed. She says President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi has issued hundreds of laws without consulting the council. Thousands of people continue to be arrested and human rights abuses are common.

OMRAN: The regional disturbances that are taking place, you know - ISIS, Daesh, what's happening in Syria, what happened last summer in Gaza - all of these things have boosted the current regime.

FADEL: Omran says Egypt's government tells those who are interested in human rights that with all the instability in the region, national security is paramount and that there are no prisoners conscious here, only criminals and those who threaten national security. She says almost five years after the uprising in Egypt one change is telling.

OMRAN: Actually I've heard in the news that there's been new prisons that have been opened up, which is quite disturbing after this revolution and calls for freedom and social justice that new prisons are being opened up. That should not be the case.

FADEL: And it's not just how many prisons there are but the conditions inside them. According to the Nadeem Center for Rehabilitation of Victims of Violence, in June, 14 people died in detention. In July, it spiked to 36 and in August to 56. And authorities continue to arrest activists. In a middle-class neighborhood of suburban Cairo, children play on the street outside Thana'a Shahin's home.

THANA'A SHAHIN: (Speaking foreign language).

FADEL: Her son, a 25-year-old named Amr Rabie, disappeared from here a year ago. For 67 days, she had no idea where he was. And then he appeared in a Cairo court, accused of running the media wing of an armed militant group.

SHAHIN: (Foreign language spoken).

FADEL: She says he was tortured at an infamous state security detention center in Cairo's Lazoghly Square.

SHAHIN: (Foreign language spoken).

AHMED: Like electrical torture, hitting, beating him, boiled water, hanging him from both hands and arms for days.

FADEL: Shahin says her son was close to death when he was transferred to another detention facility. Later, after a court appearance, he was moved again. This time to Scorpion prison, scene of the controversial visit by the Human Rights Council.

SHAHIN: (Foreign language spoken).

FADEL: She says the council report described conditions there as fine, listing lavish expenditures on prisoners and proper family visits. All that, she says, was a lie.

SHAHIN: (Foreign language spoken).

FADEL: She says relatives of the prisoners wait hours outside Scorpion under a blazing sun only to be denied visits. When they are allowed inside to see their loved ones, it's only for a few minutes. Her son has lost much weight, she says, because the prison canteen has been closed and authorities only allow families to bring one small meal into the prison every two weeks.

SHAHIN: (Foreign language spoken).

FADEL: And after that council visit that went viral, well, she says, after the delegates left, her son told her some of the prisoners were beaten. Leila Fadel, NPR News, Cairo.

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