In some ways I admire Alistair Burt, the British Minister for North Africa and the Middle East. He has one of the toughest of all ministerial responsibilities and he’s been very proactive in touring the region and there’s no doubt he’s done a lot to promote British commercial interests, but I was disappointed by a recent letter from him.
He failed to suggest any specific action that the British Government might take with regards to the appalling conditions inside Egyptian prisons, where many foreign inmates have to beg for food and some cells are so overcrowded that inmates have to walk on top of their sleeping neighbours in order to reach the toilet. Also torture and beatings remain a routine occurrence and most prisoners remain locked in their cells without any possibility of exercise.
On 31 July Alistair Burt wrote to me via my MP, Julian Brazier, outlining the FCO’s (Foreign and Commonwealth Office’s) position on this situation. He asserted
“It is important to note that the Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners are recognised as recommendations or guidelines rather than legal requirements, and Rule Two of the Standard Minimum Rules states that ‘not all of the rules are capable of application in all places and at all times.’…..Rule two limits the extent to which we can use these rules as the basis for approaching the Egyptian authorities.”
In my reply posted today to my MP I wrote
“I am very disappointed….that the FCO does not appear to give a clear commitment to take any specific action with regards to overcrowding, the withholding of water, the lack of any food in police custody (except for the little which was brought in by prisoners’ relatives), the almost non existent “medical care” and many other conditions so bad they directly endanger the lives of inmates. Many of these prisoners haven’t even had the opportunity of having a verdict on their case after many years locked up in such appalling circumstances. Also such prison conditions fail to come anywhere near the basic minimum prison conditions as set out under Egyptian law.
It is worrying that with regards to the sort of overcrowding which would be considered inhumane if inflicted on animals, that the FCO should raise the fact that “it is very common throughout North and West Africa” giving the impression that the commonality of such inhumanity makes it in some way more acceptable or at least less deserving of protest. If the FCO think I have been unfair to draw such inferences I hope they will correct me.
It would be a great shame if the FCO was to focus on the legal loopholes of an old international agreement on prison conditions and overlook the fact that such treatment must also violate the most basic human rights of these prisoners as well as their rights under Egyptian law.
Below I’ve posted a copy of the letter from Alistair Burt as well as my response
And here is my response