Behind bars, 9 March prisoners continue protesting
In Tora prison, they are known as the 9 March group – more than 100 protesters who, after being arrested in Tahrir Square, faced military trials and were given prison sentences ranging from one to seven years.
But despite what they call harsh treatment and questionable trials, the 9 March prisoners continue to demonstrate from inside the notorious prison, organizing protests, cultural events and political meetings.
On Sunday, they staged a peaceful protest to demand their freedom, denouncing military trials of civilians and showing solidarity with victims of Saturday's sectarian clashes in Imbaba.
“This was a release of pent-up energy,” says Mohamed Ahmed, one of the prisoners who has been leading the protests. “We were all taken from Tahrir Square and then we transformed this ward into another Tahrir Square.” Ahmed’s name has been changed to protect his identity.
The prisoners, who were arrested on 9 March when the military emptied Tahrir Square, say they were tortured inside the Egyptian Museum before being transferred to military trials that took less than five minutes and lacked all the elements of a fair trial.
They were then transferred to military prison without having been informed of their sentences, they say. Once at the prison, they say they endured the worst week of their incarceration, allegedly being beaten and tortured.
In public statements, the military repeatedly denied the allegations of torture and said it had only arrested thugs.
But even some prison officials disagree with that assessment.
"I have developed a sense from my work that enables me to assess people, and when I saw this group, I felt that they were here by mistake," said a prison guard who wished to remain anonymous to protect his job.
The prisoners were then transferred to Tora prison, where they were kept with other inmates.
“We were imprisoned with the people that we avoid on the streets,” said Mohamed Abdallah, who was working toward his masters degree in social sciences at Al-Azhar University before receiving a three-year sentence on charges of thuggery.
Members of former President Hosni Mubarak's regime, including the former president’s two sons, are being held on corruption charges in the prison. The protesters say they have not seen the regime officials in the prison.
At some point during their incarceration, most of the 9 March group was transferred to a separate ward at their request.
In addition to staging protests, the inmates make use of their days by discussing politics and current events. They say this has enriched their awareness and politicized some who were not politically active prior to their arrest.
“I don’t want anyone to come out of here without having learned something,” says Ahmed. “We consider this ward our small Egypt, and if we fail to make a change here, we will fail outside.”
The inmates had their first political seminar on Sunday.
Ali Ibrahim, an electrician who says he was arrested while passing through the square, says that his conversations with the other inmates have raised his awareness and willingness to participate in politics.
Some cells have been transformed into art workshops. Amr Eissa, an artist who is serving a three-year sentence, continues to produce drawings inside his cell, some of which have been shown in galleries around Cairo.
“We are political prisoners," says Mostafa Mohsen, an employee in a marketing company who’s serving three years. "This is our identity inside and outside prison. We went out to demand freedom for all, and the result is that ours was taken away from us.”
While most inmates try to keep their spirits up by practicing their talents and engaging in political conversations, some have reached a state of desperation.
The inmates are allowed out of their cells from 9 am to 5 pm. They spend the other 16 hours inside their cells.
Five prisoners reside in each cell. The cells are 2 meters long and 2 meters wide, including the bathroom. There are no beds.
Mohamed Shebl, one of the inmates, attempted suicide by taking an overdose of his medication, according to eyewitnesses. Shebl was left in a critical condition with no medical attention until his colleagues protested heavily and he was taken to the clinic, other inmates say.
The lack of medical attention is the main grievance of the group. Some inmates have chronic conditions, and injuries are left untreated.
Moataz Abdallah, who has a liver disease, says he endures long periods of pain and that the clinic offers him pain killers instead of the medicine he needs. Another prisoner, Abdel Aziz Abu Bakr, says he suffers from a double fracture in his arm that requires an operation.
But perhaps the most hurtful, the inmates say, is being referred to as thugs.
“Every revolution has its victims, and we don’t mind being this revolution’s victims as long as we are known as such and not as thugs,” says Hany Maher, one of the 9 March detainees.
Efforts by civil society groups to free the detainees or provide them with new trials have failed.
Activists have staged protests denouncing military trials of civilians and a popular campaign against military trials is under way. But legal action to appeal the rulings is hindered by the fact that the sentences have not yet been ratified.
Six weeks ago, the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces released statements announcing the retrial of some inmates and said it would reconsider the cases of all people who received military sentences, but so far, the inmates have not seen action on the military’s promises.
Regardless, the protesters assert that their imprisonment will not deter them from political activity, says Ahmed, who organized the protest inside the prison.
“We will not live on the margins after our release, we will come out of here to continue our struggle," he says.
*Photo by AFP