Human rights organisations report widespread abuses in prisons across the region, including torture, extended solitary confinement and a lack of medical care, not to mention the use of the death penalty for minors in Saudi Arabia.

The death of former Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi has intensified the spotlight on the dire conditions faced by political prisoners in Egypt under the government of army chief-turned-president Abdel Fattah el Sisi, not to mention in neighbouring states such as Saudi Arabia.

Morsi was Egypt's first democratically elected president and died after collapsing in a soundproof cage during his trial, where he was left unattended for at least 20 minutes.

The ageing deposed president had developed a history of health issues during his imprisonment, including diabetes, liver and kidney disease, and the loss of sight in one eye, without receiving medical treatment. His medical conditions made no changes to the conditions of his incarceration, where he was kept in solitary confinement for at least 23 hours a day.

Morsi had been imprisoned in a maximum security prison for nearly six years after a military coup ousted him from power in July 2013.

"Former president Morsi's death followed years of government mistreatment, prolonged solitary confinement, inadequate medical care, and deprivation of family visits and access to lawyers," says Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East and North Africa Director of Human Rights Watch (HRW).

But former president Morsi was only one of tens of thousands of prisoners currently suffering under similar conditions.

He was not the first prisoner to succumb to harsh prison conditions in Egypt.

In the first 100 days of Sisi’s administration alone, HRW reportedat least 35 people died in custody.

Of those 35, 15 cases identified a cause of death: 13 were due to overcrowding or failure to provide medical care, and two involved physical abuse.

The numbers could be much higher, with human rights agencies criticising their lack of access to observe prisoner conditions.

As international pressure mounts for a transparent investigation into Morsi’s death, equal pressure is placed on the whole Middle East, including Saudi Arabia, to discontinue human rights violations and prison conditions.

In 2018, only weeks before Saudi authorities lifted the ban on women driving on June 24, authorities arrested scores of prominent women’s rights activists, accusing several of crimes such as treason that appeared related to their activism.

At least nine women remain detained without charge, with some anticipated charges carrying prison terms of up to 20 years. Human rights watch reportedthat Saudi interrogators tortured at least four of the women, through electric shocks, whipping women on their thighs, and forcible hugging and kissing.

Due to the absence of a penal code, judges arbitrarily sentence defendants to floggings of hundreds of lashes. Children can legally be tried for capital crimes and executed as adults if they show physical signs of puberty.

In 2018 alone, Saudi Arabia’s online prisoner database revealedthat authorities had imprisoned 2,305 individuals under investigation for over six months without appearing in front of a judge, including 251 for over three years.

Prisons Tombs

Under Sisi's rule, Egyptian authorities have engaged in a widespread campaign of intimidation and arrests of political opposition figures and civil society activists, with nearly 60,000 people believed to have been imprisoned on political grounds.

Lawyers and former prisoners speaking to HRW report that prisoners are beaten, humiliated and confined for weeks in cramped "discipline" cells.

The rights group also declared that security forces "interfered with their medical care in ways that may have contributed to some of their deaths".

Deaths due to medical neglect in Egypt is nothing new. According to reports by the Human Rights Monitor, over 300 detainees have died in prison in Egypt since the military coup in 2013. The cause of death? "Medical neglect and torture".

Death penalty for minors in Saudi Arabia

In neighbouring Saudi Arabia, the death penalty is still permitted for minors.

In a case that evoked international condemnation, Murtaja Qureiris, who was arrested for protests he took part in as a child of 10 years old, was sentenced to death.

Caving to international pressure, Saudi authorities announced that Qureiris, now 18, will instead serve a 12-year prison term, including the five years he has already spent in jail.

Qureiris was arrested in 2014 at the age of 13. During his years in prison, much of which he spent in solitary confinement, Qureiris was a victim of repeated torture and forced to give confessions under such conditions.

Politicized clergy

Other figures imprisoned for political views include key religious scholars Sheikh Salman al Awdah, Awad al Qarni, and Ali al Omari. Saudi Arabia announced earlier this month that they would recieve the death penalty.

The three scholars are charged with terrorism and await trial at the Saudi Arabian Criminal Special Court.

Their arrest in September 2017 triggered a wave of condemnations from the United Nations and a number of human rights organisations including Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International.

Salman al Awdah was hospitalised due to solitary confinement, according to a report by Amnesty International. Awad al Qarni’s health has also declined significantly, according to activists, while Ali al Omari has reportedlysported burns and injuries throughout his body due to electric torture recieved during solitary confinement for over a year.

The three scholars’ detention took place two months before the Ritz Carlton purge in which Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman ordered the widespread arrest of a number of wealthy and prominent Saudi royals, merchants, and billionaires during a widely publicised “anti-corruption drive” that did much to cement his authority and standing in the kingdom.

In reality however, the three scholars have been linked to the Muslim Brotherhood, and became victims of the crown prince’s fears over the rise of activism spreading into Saudi Arabia; which has lead to a campaign of repression engulfing Egypt, Yemen, Sudan and Saudi Arabia itself.

Many see the crown prince’s crackdown as stemming from a fear of losing Islamic legitimacy and further responding to an existential threat to the Saudi monarchy’s very survival.

Awdah was arrested for tweetinghis hopes for a resolution to the Qatar crisis following a conversation between Crown Prince Mohammed and the emir of Qatar on September 8, 2017. The scholar had already spent half a decade behind bars after calling for political change in the kingdom.

Qarni also made the mistake of pushing for better ties between Saudi Arabia and Qatar.

Omari, a renowned broadcaster was widely popular among younger Saudis, and has earned a reputation for being progressive on gender matters and condemning terrorism.

‘The killing of a scholar is like the killing of the world’

In late May 2019, Turkish newspaper Yeni Safak published an open letter to King Salman written by Yasin Aktay, advisor to Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

In it he warned the Saudi monarch against executing the three scholars.

“That which will bring disaster to you is executing Islamic scholars, which was recently announced. Scholars are the inheritors of prophets, and each scholar is a world on their own. The death of a scholar is like the death of the world. The killing of a scholar is like the killing of the world,” he wrote.

But even if his warnings are heeded, those in positions similar to Morsi and the three scholars are unlikelyto see better conditions of imprisonment or freedom. Even if conditions do change for the better, it may be too late for many.

Source: TRT World