Beirut — Egyptian authorities should be investigated for the mistreatment of former President Mohamed Morsy, who died on June 17, 2019, after years of insufficient access to medical care, Human Rights Watch said today.
The United Nations Human Rights Council, whose next session begins on June 24, should establish an investigation into ongoing gross violations of human rights in Egypt, including widespread ill-treatment in prisons and Morsy's death.
"Former President Morsy's death followed years of government mistreatment, prolonged solitary confinement, inadequate medical care, and deprivation of family visits and access to lawyers," said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East and North Africa director at Human Rights Watch. "At the very least, the Egyptian government committed grave abuses against Morsy by denying him prisoners' rights that met minimum standards."
Egypt's national television station announced that Morsy, 68, died after falling into a coma while in a cage in a courtroom during one of his trials. Late in the evening, Egypt's Prosecutor General's Office released a statement saying that the judge allowed Morsy to talk for five minutes in the courtroom before he lost consciousness. The statement said that a team of investigators including the director of the Forensic Medical Authority will examine the camera recordings from the courtroom and Morsy's health file. The statement did not specify the direct reason for his death.
The Egyptian government failed for six years to provide Morsy his basic rights as a detainee, including sufficient medical care and family visits, despite his apparently deteriorating physical condition and his repeated requests to the judiciary for access to medical treatment. This treatment violates the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and contravenes the UN Standard Minimum Rules on the Treatment of Prisoners. His ill-treatment might amount to torture under the United Nations Convention against Torture.
Morsy was elected president in Egypt's first and only fair and free presidential election following the 2011 uprising. Morsy remained in office for one year. Then, following mass protests demanding early elections, military forces headed by General Abd al-Fattah al-Sisi, Morsy's former defense minister, overthrew Morsy, with support from Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.
Al-Sisi became president shortly afterward. His forces arrested Morsy in July 2013. Morsy's family told Human Rights Watch that they were able to see him in prison only three times in the ensuing six years.
During their last visit, in September 2018, three members of security agencies accompanied the family during the entire visit, and one of them took notes of the conversation between Morsy and his wife and children, family members said. Morsy told his family he had no bed in his cell in Cairo's al-Molhaq Prison, part of Tora Prison Complex, and that he developed back and neck pains from sleeping on the bare floor. He also told them he developed a condition in his left eye for which the prison doctor said he might need an operation, but that there was no medical follow-up for these health concerns. His requests to be examined by independent health professionals were repeatedly ignored.
Morsy was diabetic and had stated to judges on previous occasions that he suffered diabetic comas in detention because of the lack of proper medical attention regarding his insulin dosage and diet. He also said that he avoided prison meals for periods because he was afraid for his life and relied only on canned food. Judges hearing the various cases against him never ordered an investigation of his detention conditions. Even when they ordered prison officials to allow him visits, the security officials would ignore the judges' orders, a family member said.
A family member told Human Rights Watch that even during court sessions, security forces kept the former president inside glass barriers that isolated him from other prisoners and his lawyers. The media had largely been banned from covering his trials.
The family member described Morsy's situation as "complete isolation." The family member said that even during exercise hours in prison, Morsy was not allowed to see any other prisoners. The relative also said that prison authorities did not allow Morsy to watch television or read newspapers and that he was unaware of major news events over the past two years, such as when the government floated the Egyptian pound in 2016, substantially reducing its value.
The family member said that Morsy's isolation significantly worsened after the assassination of the prosecutor general Hisham Barakat in June 2015. At the time, al-Sisi appeared to be ordering tougher security measures against prisoners.
Egyptian courts had convicted Morsy of charges including alleged espionage and instigating violence. He had exhausted his appeals in at least three of the cases, and had been sentenced to 48 years in prison, but was in the midst of a retrial on charges in another espionage case. Human Rights Watch concluded that the proceedings against Morsy failed to meet basic measures of due process and appeared to be politically motivated.
Under al-Sisi's government, security forces arrested tens of thousands of dissidents, many of them arbitrarily. Human Rights Watch and other organizations have long documented the systematic ill-treatment in Egypt's prisons, lack of sufficient medical care as well as systematic, widespread torture in unofficial detention facilities by the police and National Security Agency officers.
"The Egyptian government deliberately singled out former President Mohamed Morsy for especially harsh treatment and isolation," Whitson said. "Whatever one's views of Morsy's politics, his treatment was horrific, and those responsible should be investigated and appropriately prosecuted."