Egypt’s crackdown on Islamists has jailed 16,000 people over the past eight months in the country’s biggest round-up in nearly two decades, according to previously unreleased figures from security officials.
Rights activists say reports of abuses in prisons are mounting, with prisoners describing systematic beatings and miserable conditions for dozens packed into tiny cells.
The Egyptian government has not released official numbers for those arrested in the sweeps since the military ousted Islamist former Egyptian president Mohammed Morsi in July last year.
However, four senior officials — two from the Egyptian Ministry of the Interior and two from the military — gave the Associated Press a count of 16,000, including about 3,000 top or mid-level members of Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood.
The count, which is consistent with recent estimates by human rights groups, was based on a tally kept by the ministry, to which the military also has access. It includes hundreds of women and minors, though the officials could not give exact figures. The officials gave the figures to The Associated Press on condition of anonymity because the government has not released them.
The flood of arrests has swamped prisons and the legal system. Many are held for months in police station lockups meant as temporary holding areas or in impromptu jails set up in police training camps because prisons are overcrowded. Inmates are kept for months without charge.
“My son looks like a caveman now. His hair and nails are long, he has a beard and he is unclean,” said Nagham Omar, describing the conditions that her 20-year-old son, Salahideen Ayman Mohammed, has endured since his arrest in January while participating in a pro-Morsi protest.
He and 22 others are crammed in a 3m-by-3m cell in a police station in the southern city of Assiut, said Omar, who visits him once a week.
Mohammed has not yet been charged.
“He is my son, but the stench in that place makes me want to leave immediately,” she said.
The government says the police, run by the interior ministry, have changed their ways from the era of autocrat former Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak, when the security forces became notorious for torture and corruption.
Now, officials say, there is no tolerance for abuses.
Egyptian Assistant Interior Minister for Human Rights Major General Abu Bakr Abdel-Karim told the newspaper al-Watan in an interview last month that “it is possible that there is some use of cruelty” and said anyone claiming to be maltreated should file a complaint with either the ministry or the general prosecutors’ office.
However, he said so far there had been no proof presented of maltreatment.
“If we have anyone [in the police] who made a mistake and broke the law, he will be held accountable under the law,” Abdel-Karim said in a separate interview with private broadcaster ONTV.
The new military-backed government is determined to crush the Muslim Brotherhood and its Islamist allies. They present the campaign as a fight against terrorism, accusing the group of cooperating with Islamic militants in a wave of bombings and assassinations since Morsi’s ouster. The violence has killed dozens of police and soldiers.
The Brotherhood denies any link to the militants, and says authorities are using terrorism as an excuse to eliminate the group as a political rival.