Probe of violence, mass escapes from Egypt prisons

AP News
Posted: Feb 24, 2011 1:01 PM
Probe of violence, mass escapes from Egypt prisons

It remains one of the many murky chapters of Egypt's uprising _ how did one-fourth of the nation's prisoners manage to escape and at least 120 end up dead, most in a single chaotic weekend?

Some allege the mass prison break was engineered by an embattled regime trying to cling to power by creating anarchy, though other testimony suggests there may not have been a single guiding hand.

A few days after the revolt began on Jan. 25, police vanished from the streets and the military took over _ a transition that was followed immediately by an explosion of looting, arson and lawlessness on the streets of the capital, Cairo. During a weekend of chaos, about 23,000 of the nation's 80,000 prisoners fled.

While security forces appear to have released inmates or abandoned posts at some prisons, guards elsewhere used live fire to put down riots or battled armed men trying to free prisoners, including by ramming a gate with a bulldozer. At one lockup, prisoners said they were left for days without food or water after the wardens fled and only armed guards manning watchtowers remained behind.

The military-led government has said it would investigate the "security breakdown"_ the mysterious disappearance of police from the streets on Jan. 28, followed by violence and mass escapes at several prisons in and around Cairo. Habib al-Adly, the former Interior Minister who was in charge of police and prisons at the time, is now in detention.

"There really needs to be a public accounting at the highest level of what went on in Egyptian prisons," said Joe Stork of the New York-based Human Rights Watch.

Around 120 bodies from four prisons have arrived at Cairo's central morgue, a security official said. At one isolated desert lockup, guards used lethal force even after Hosni Mubarak's fall.

Hossam Bahgat, an Egyptian human rights activist following the probe, said that even three weeks later, the events are shrouded in mystery.

Of the 23,000 escaped prisoners, 12,000 remain at large while 11,000 either turned themselves in or were captured, according to the Interior Ministry. The government has run ads urging fugitives to surrender, offering benefits such as a possible reduction of their terms.

While information remains sketchy, testimony by prisoners suggests events differed from prison to prison.

At Abu Zaabal prison on the outskirts of Cairo, security forces fired tear gas and birdshot, then live rounds to put down unrest that began on Jan. 28 and lasted for about two days, said Yasser Mahmoud, an Egyptian journalist who said he interviewed several dozen inmates.

Some of the inmates had cell phones and began calling relatives for help, including Bedouin tribesmen who clashed with the security forces for several hours, he said, citing testimony.

Hassan Wishah, a Palestinian militant who escaped from Abu Zaabal, said that after the initial shooting, prisoners tried to break out of their cells.

"Inside the prison, we pounded on the doors and no one came, no guards, so we figured that they had fled because they were being shot at from outside," Wishah said in a telephone interview from his native Gaza. "We took anything we could find, chairs and fire extinguishers, and broke the doors."

Wishah said prisoners' families fired on prison guards from outside, then helped the prisoners open the main door after the guards fled.

At Al-Qatta prison in the Giza district, a 90-minute drive west of Egypt's capital, prisoners said guards fired birdshot and later live rounds, starting on Jan. 29. Prisoners denied they tried to escape, but the news website Al-Youm Al-Sabea quoted local officials as saying inmates ransacked the prison.

Mahmoud Ali, 58, said he spoke to his son Adil, 38, imprisoned at Al-Qatta, that day by cell phone and was told dozens of inmates had been killed. "I told him to keep away from the gunfire," the father recalled. "He said he would. That night, his friends from there called to offer their condolences."

An area prosecutor counted 23 bodies from Al-Qatta at a nearby morgue during a Feb. 9 visit, according to local media reports.

Magda Boutros, a researcher for the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights, said she believes the death toll is higher because some bodies in the morgue had not been identified at the time of the visit and some families had already retrieved bodies. She said prisoners from Al-Qatta had collected the names of 57 slain fellow inmates.

On Feb. 11, prisoners came under fire again after celebrating Mubarak's ouster earlier that day, and Boutros said two more inmates were killed over two days.

Cell phone footage smuggled out of the prison last week and obtained by The Associated Press showed several injured prisoners in a dark, crowded cell. Facing the camera, they pulled back clothing to display injuries, including bullet wounds, gashes and marks from birdshot. One man displayed a large bullet wound on his upper thigh, pulling back a crude bandage.

Amnesty said the prison authorities are not providing medical treatment, and that inmates receive basic care from fellow prisoners.

Detainees said guards had cut off water and electricity for several days, and fired on prisoners trying to get to a water hose in the courtyard. The prisoners said they were not given food for several days.

At Wadi Natroun prison, also in the greater Cairo area, guards initially fired tear gas into the wards on Jan. 29, said escaped prisoner Mahmoud Ramadan.

He said men then ran through the prison with keys, opening cells. He said they wore traditional robes often worn by Bedouin, though he said he saw khaki prison guard uniforms underneath when they ran.

"I know how the Bedouin speak and these weren't Bedouin," he said in a phone interview. "They were from the Interior Ministry."

Another escaped prisoner told Amnesty that masked gunmen attacked Wadi Natroun and broke down the main gate with a bulldozer.

Hafez Abu Saada of the Egyptian Organization for Human Rights alleged that prisoners were released intentionally in order to create chaos. "The idea was to spread fear and terror inside Egyptian society so that people would ask for help from the police, so that everything would go back to the way it was," he said.


Associated Press writer Dalia Nammari in Ramallah, West Bank, contributed reporting.