WHAT MIGHT HAVE HAPPENED – BASED ON MY OWN TERRIFYING EXPERIENCE.
All prisoners, whatever their politics or alleged crimes, are deserving of dignity and justice but in Egypt it seems they get neither.
At least thirty six prisoners were killed on Sunday afternoon – There is a lot of confusion and conflicting reports regarding how they died but according to an initial Reuters report quoting a legal source – they suffocated in an overcrowded prison van while being transported from Al Fateh mosque to Abu Zaabal prison, 25 km north of the city centre.
Some reports put the number of prisoner deaths as high as fifty exceeding the highest previous world record for the number of prisoners to die in a single van – When 41 prisoners died in Burma in March 1988 from asphyxiation in the heat on a 12 km journey.*
Another account suggested the Egyptian prisoners died from gunfire during an escape (according to the BBC) while later reports suggested they suffocated from tear gas during an attempted escape after they allegedly took a prison guard hostage. Incredibly, according to this account, the prison guard was the only one to survive.
None of the reasons given would justify the deaths of so many unarmed and (presumably) handcuffed prisoners trapped inside a locked prison van – but I fear the escape attempt story might have been fabricated.
The Ministry of Interior accounts of what happened are confused and make little sense.
When prisoners die, the true cause is almost impossible for relatives to establish. Most of the witnesses are likely to be either those responsible for their deaths or fellow prisoners who can be easily intimidated into signing a witness statement which supports the explanation of the prison authorities.
What they won’t want you to know is that prisoners are terrified for their lives every time they are crowded into a prison van. And this one was EXTREMELY overcrowded – at least 36 handcuffed prisoners crammed into one small prison van in the middle of the summer ! If you look at the photograph used as the header for this blog which I took prior to my arrest, you will see a typical Egyptian prison van. However only the locked middle section is for the transport of the prisoners. The guards have their own partitioned section at the rear.
Part of the routine torture for new prisoners arrested in demonstrations is to park a prison van under the sun and deprive them of water. Prisoners who try to take clothing off or who cry out for water will be beaten by the guards or even by other prisoners desperate not to receive a beating themselves. It’s one of the cheapest and most horrifying forms of torture of the disposal of the Ministry of Interior.
I myself experienced this when I was driven with teenagers arrested in a protest on Mohammed Mahmoud Street in February 2012 to an army encampment. The van parked up soon after entering through the main gate and the prison guards sat on the pavement outside.
The vehicle only had tiny wire mesh windows and was desperately overcrowded with at least twenty five of us – I remember there was not enough room to sit down and two of us including myself had to grab a small vent in the ceiling for support despite being handcuffed. Others were crouched down on the floor. It quickly became like an oven inside.
The children started to undo their clothing despite their handcuffs but when the guards noticed this they burst in and beat some of them with their batons. Then half an hour later the children started to beg desperately for water and again they were beaten.
The heat began to become unbearable and one child lost his sanity and kept crying out for water while the others tried to quieten him until finally one of the older children collapsed. Again the van door was opened by the guards and he was dragged out by his feet. I don’t know what happened to him.
It was only sometime after I started to be sure that they were going to let us all die that the guards finally brought us water. And this happened not in a public street but inside the perimeter of an army camp in Cairo. Fortunately it was then winter which meant that the temperatures outside the van might have been around 20 degrees and inside the van they might have risen to around 43 degrees but during summer the temperature in a prison van parked under the sun might reach 63 degrees or higher.
Studies in the United States have shown that a parked vehicle under the sun heats up by 10°C above ambient temperature after just 10 minutes and to 23°C above ambient after 60 minutes ( statistics from the Department of Geosciences, SFSU, reproduced on ggweather.com ). Egyptian prison vans are usually either blue or dark green in colour and so absorb the heat much more quickly than white vans and being so overcrowded with each prisoner acting as an additional heat source the internal temperatures may rise to levels considerably higher than those recorded in the U.S. experiments.
During the summer months the average maximum temperature in Cairo is 35 or 36°C degrees, which means that you could expect the temperature of a parked prison van to reach at least 45°C after ten minutes and at least 58°C after 60 minutes ( that’s 136°F !). However temperatures in Cairo can soar up to 47°C which means the temperature in a prison van could reach 70°C ! At anything above 40 degrees you begin to sweat profusely. A chemist who helped Australian police recreate the internal temperature of an empty locked prison van when the outside temperature was 42 degrees commented that “It was like an oven…. We opened the back doors and could feel the heat coming out.” ( Kalgoorie Miner ) In Cairo temperatures can reach or exceed 42 degrees during seven months of the year ( BBC weather – Cairo monthly maximum records ).
Unfortunately I have no details of prisoner mortality in such transport in Egypt. It is certainly possible such evidence has been covered up. In Australia in 2009 a 46 year old died in a prison van where the air conditioning had ceased working, despite having a 600ml bottle of water with him, after the temperature inside the van reached 50°C. (watoday.com ) No prison vans I saw in Egypt had any sort of air conditioning and whereas the Australian prison van in this tragic case was white, which helps to reflect the sun’s heat, prison vans in Egypt are either blue or dark green.
It is painful to imagine what it might be like in an overcrowded prison van in the summer. The internal organs can only withstand a temperature of up to 42°C at which point the proteins inside the body start to cook. To compensate the body tries to sweat but without water, prisoners would quickly die from heat stroke, especially older prisoners, child prisoners and those with conditions like diabetes. But even when not fatal, the consequences of severe heat stroke are often permanent with a high likelihood of irreparable damage to the brain, kidneys and cardiovascular system (University of Chicago study reported on uchospitals.edu..)
I was reluctant to drink a lot prior to van transportation to a court hearing because as explained in another section, the police often did not allow us access to toilets during hours of waiting in the courts. Also it would have been humiliating to have had to urinate in the van in front of other inmates. Luckily my detention period was during February and March and with external daily temperatures in the mid 20s the temperature in the van probably never exceeded 40 degrees. Even so I felt very ill on one occasion after returning extremely thirsty from a day in court and only recovered my appetite after several days.
A short description of my prison van experience is included on this interview I made with the BBC in 2012 –
The white van in which the Australian prisoner died in 2009. It normally has airconditioning unlike Egyptian prison vans.
A typical blue Egyptian prison van. Notice how small the meshed windows are. Blue will absorb much more heat from sunlight than white.
Prisoners look out of a prison van. Source: Christian Science Monitor – 29 April 2010.
Solar cells are often coloured “Egyptian prison van blue” because it’s so good at absorbing heat.
AND WHAT IF IT WAS TEAR GAS ?
All I can say that during the first hours after my arrest I was anxious about suffocating from tear gas because I was held in a tiny police cage with about twelve other men at Abdeen Police Station. Guarding us were two youths who looked no older than eighteen with tear gas guns pointed at us. They didn’t seem to know one end of the gun from the other and I do remember thinking that if they fired one of them we would surely all die as there would be no possibility of escape.
I don’t think Egypt’s Ministry of Interior has any respect whatsoever for the human rights of prisoners – in fact quite to the contrary they try as hard as possible to make life as hellish as possible, hoping that in so doing they will intimidate others from participating in protests in case they should suffer the same fate.
*See – A. Mohanty and N. Hazary (1990) “The Indian Prison System.”