Egypt’s public prosecutor has said a young film-maker who died in prison had mistakenly drunk hand sanitiser in his cell, thinking it was water.
Shady Habash died inside Cairo’s Tora prison complex on 2 May. He had been held for more than two years without trial, accused of membership of a terrorist group and “spreading false news” after he produced a music video critical of Egypt’s president Abdel Fatah al-Sisi.
The 24-year-old was the latest in a number of high-profile people to die in custody in Egypt, particularly inside Tora prison. For months observers have been sounding the alarm about the denial of medical treatment to prisoners of conscience, including the deaths in custody of the US citizen Mustafa Kassem and the former president Mohammed Morsi.
The Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies said Habash’s death was the third in 10 months among prisoners of conscience in Tora prison’s cell block number four. “For over several hours, Shady’s cellmates desperately tried to summon medical help but were ignored by prison officials,” it said. “Such wanton cruelty is hardly exceptional – prisoners of conscience are often left to die in prison without trial or due process, in appalling conditions that include the deliberate withholding of healthcare.”
The public prosecutor said in a statement that Habash visited medical facilities several times for treatment and was returned to his cell, before he was transferred to the prison clinic “unconscious and in a delirious state”. The statement added that Habash “informed the prison physician that he mistakenly drank a bottle of alcohol a day earlier and claimed he mistook it for a bottle of water”. His cellmates found empty 100ml bottles of hand sanitiser intended to protect them against Covid-19 among Habash’s belongings, it said.
Since Sisi came to power in 2013 thousands of Egyptians have been detained in an unprecedented crackdown on dissent. TV programs and newspapers have taken the government position and steered clear of criticism, or else disappeared. Many privately owned Egyptian news outlets have been quietly acquired by companies affiliated with the country’s intelligence service.
Habash’s detention and death represent a stark reminder of the growing number of young people at risk inside Egypt’s sprawling prison system, including many detained for their work as artists, making dissenting statements against Sisi’s rule or for no charge at all.
There are fears that the Covid-19 could easily spread inside the country’s mammoth prison complexes, proving deadly when combined with the routine medical neglect of inmates.
Egyptian authorities suspended family visits to inmates due to the Covid-19 outbreak in early March, cutting prisoners’ sole means of communication with the outside world as well as their ability to receive clean clothes and additional food. The pre-detention of several high-profile activists was renewed earlier this week, including the award-winning human rights lawyer Mahienour El-Massry, the politician and journalist Khaled Daoud and Alaa Abdel-Fattah, the activist and blogger, who recently began a hunger strike in protest at prison conditions.
“What happened to Shady was clear medical negligence,” said the singer Ramy Essam. Habash added his name to the credits of Essam’s song Balaha, which lambasted Sisi, after he worked on post-production of the raw video footage. The song’s release led to the arrest of eight people, including one man who played the track in his car in Kuwait and was deported back to Egypt.
“Shady decided to put his name on it with the belief that making art would never cause harm,” said Essam. “He deserves to be remembered as extremely talented.”