A letter from a former Islamist detainee

I received today from my friend Alia Mossallam an English translation of a letter sent to Magdi Mahanna–the prominent columnist at Al-Masri Al-Youm, my favorite daily liberal tabloid–from a former Islamist detainee who spent 13 years in prison without trial. It sheds some light on the 1990s Egyptian “war on terror,” which the regime brags (or at least used to brag before the Sinai bombings) it was a “successful model for fighting terror.” Please read the letter…..

Magdi Mahanna, Al-Masri Al-Youm

“I received the following letter from a former political detainee: 
Mr. …,
I read your article dated 10/5/2006, and was overcome with a hysterical wave of laughter, as you tugged my ears with your sweet innocent speech. This was the time you wrote of the rights of a political prisoner. Allow me then, to tug your ears, send shockwaves to the folds of your heart, inflame the folds in your wings, so they may spread and inflame the rest of your wounds.

I am a former political detainee, and have been out for only few months now, after 13 years of incarceration since 1993. I have not been accused with anything, and have not been referred to any court or prosecutor’s office, and have yet to commit any act of violence, nor have I verbally or actively agitated for one. I have all the court orders that call for my release; now over 28 orders. I live in Upper Egypt, and was a media student. And so what do you know of this regime’s techniques, that descend to a low swamp of sinful cheap lies… I will share a little account with you. An account that could age the young, send shivers down the spine and shock the very core of one’s being. For I have seen and tasted the torture unimagined by human beings. By God, this I have.

We were five prisoners; ‘M’, a first year university student in the faculty of Medicine, ‘A’, a second year student in Dar el-3oloum (faculty of Arabic and theology studies), ‘A’ an engineer, ‘S’ a high school teacher, and myself, the fifth, in a cell 2 metres wide, and 2.5 metres long. Its walls were soaked in kerosene, for the purposes of  contaminating proper breathing air, and the slow termination and destruction of the chest and lungs. Its floor was concrete, and there was not a window or any opening for ventilation, save for a small hole in the roof, with a diameter of approximately ten centimetres, created for monitoring purposes. And I would laugh heartily if you ask me about light, or electricity or the sun; for those are items of luxury, and I would not exaggerate if I told you that even the air we breathe is a luxury, and all this pales before the horrible daily torture we endured.

Ever heard of passing an electric current through the urinary tract and under the tongue, for long intermittent periods, with hundreds of other torture techniques?

Ever heard in the history of mankind, or even the history of animal kind, of the denial of a living thing from its need to urinate or defecate. By God, they were extra-ordinarily creative at it.

Although there were five of us; we were given an empty one-litre bottle (originally for fizzy drinks), filled with water, which was to be our portion for four whole days, despite the water taps that lay six metres away, through which we heard the water run frequently. We would fast for a day to cut down on our consumption of water, and thereby also decrease our urination. However, where were we to urinate, when we were kept behind close doors for four days in a row? We used to split the area in the water bottle (after we had drunk its contents) so that each of us could urinate in it; we would urinate a portion of our need, and save the rest of it (of course it wasn’t a strategic saving scheme, but more of a forced, self-induced, mental disciplining). And so every now and then we would urinate a portion and dispense the other, for we could not urinate on the cement flooring, since we pray and sleep on it—and in order to keep the place ‘clean’, especially that we eat off the floor as they (jailers) empty the linseed, Foul (fava beans) and rice on the concrete ground. You’ll probably be compelled to ask: ‘Without containers?’

Have I not told you that such things are mere luxuries to us? Of course there are no containers save for the water bottle that we drink from and urinate in, only to fill up with water once again, without even washing out. For the time granted is 30 seconds for all five of us, just enough time to go into the bathroom and wash your face.

We barely had time to wash our heads and faces, and then fill our bottle with water, directly after emptying it from the urine. And this happens once every four days, and we do not even get a chance to use the toilets. Notice that we wanted to preserve the water for as long as possible, so we had to refrain from urinating; thus if we really needed to urinate, we then had to finish off the water in the bottle first.

It’s a really tough equation, if you want to urinate, then you need to stop drinking and if you want to drink, then you need to refrain from urinating! We used to defecate in bags graciously given to us by a sympathetic prison watch-guard, who used to monitor us from the hole in the ceiling. We would then hide it, and produce it every four days.

And now sir, I am afflicted with infections in bladder, urinary tract, and lungs. And I have all the medical records and the documents I had been able to smuggle out of the prison hospital with the help of sympathetic doctors.

I am prepared to present all the documents and reports that prove the torture I have undergone over and above the court orders (I mentioned previously). However, when I even made mention of the names of the officers that did this, I was threatened with re-detention by the security services. I am prepared to send you the names of these prison officers, and the reports on the torture, as documented later by the prosecutor’s office. For the record, the court has ordered a compensation for me, that the interior ministry has refrained from executing.

What I have written is merely an aspect of the horrible physical and pshycological torture we endured. You might ask yourself, “Why would a bearded young man send me such a letter? Why me, and not anyone else?”

It’s because I found in you a live conscience, and a daring pen, regardless of our ideological differences. And I can only wish to be in constant touch with a man like you.
To be honest, I know not with what to reply, nor comment. Not even to who I should direct such a letter. I have satisfied my conscience by publishing it, and can only ask God to avenge us all, and He is blessedly dependable.”

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