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

Shortly after the Egyptian government-sponsored National Council for Human Rights visited one of the country's most notorious prisons, known as "Scorpion," a video leaked.

In the video, one of the members nods happily as he tastes prison food served to him from large bowls.

The video 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 "rumors" of bad treatment.

The real visit to the Cairo prison — and the Council for Human Rights' glowing report about conditions there — drew considerable criticism in Egypt, including from members of the council itself.

Concerns From Within The Council

One member, Mohamed Abdel Kouddous, posted a statement on Facebook condemning the council's praise 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 cancelled family visits, of personal belongings being confiscated — and the list goes on.

Another member of the council, Ragia Omran, also came out with criticism. 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.

That new prisons are being opened up, this should not be the case.

"I think there was an effort to kind of have the façade that this is a democratic government," Omran says.

But she says that's changed. She says Gen. Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi, Egypt's president, has issued hundreds of laws without consulting the council. Thousands of people continue to be arrested, and human rights abuses are common.

"The regional disturbances that are taking place, ISIS ... what's happening in Syria, what happened last summer in Gaza," she says. "All of these things have boosted the current regime."

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 of conscience in Egypt, only criminals and those who threaten national security.

She says almost five years after the uprising in Egypt, one change is telling.

"We've heard on the news that there have 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, this should not be the case."

And it's not just how many prisons there are, but also 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.

When The Camera Is Off

Thana'a Shahin, who lives in a middle-class neighborhood in suburban Cairo, says her 25-year-old son, Amr Rabie, disappeared over 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. She says he was tortured at an infamous state security detention center in Cairo's Lazoghly Square — "like electrical torture, hitting him, beating him, boiled water, hanging him from both arms and legs for days."

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, the scene of that controversial visit by the Human Rights Council.

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.

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.

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.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.