Scorpion Prison: Egypt’s Darkest Corner
By Yvonne Ridley
Welcome to Tora Land, declares the headline on a magazine rack which caught my eye as I was swept along in the rush hour inside Cairo’s chaotic train station.
The bold declaration on the glossy front page confirms two things. The first is that Egyptians have a great sense of humour and the second is that the Peoples’ Revolution continues to have a seismic impact on the country’s political landscape.
Tora is the name for a notorious prison complex on the outskirts of Cairo and since most of the former government – including Hosni Mubarak’s two sons – are now resident there you can begin to understand the tongue-in-cheek headline.
Everyday there are new arrests, new charges among the corrupt elite and it seems no one is immune from the Egyptian prosecutors.
This has, for many, turned in to a revolving door revolution as those once in prison for daring to stand up to Mubarak and his iron rule are now on the outside while their tormentors are replacing them behind bars.
It is indeed poetic justice … but sadly not for all; it seems there are some buried so deep inside the brutal prison system that they’ve been all but forgotten.
As the Egyptian Revolution hurtles breathlessly towards its 100th day there is still a group of prisoners who appear to have been abandoned in all of the excitement heralded by the arrival of the Arab Spring.
The forgotten few number just over 100 residents of Al'aqrab that, an Arab word which means the Scorpion.
It’s an apt name for a prison buried away in the desert sands that once concealed the treasures of Tutankhamun. Now those grains hide even more secrets that mask the real depth of wickedness and depravity plumbed by Egypt’s Last Pharaoh Hosni Mubarak.
The Scorpion Prison is a hellish institution that former prisoners told me became the blueprint for Guantanamo, the world’s most notorious jail.
In fact this is Egypt’s own version of Guantanamo.
The high security super max is two kilometres from the main entrance to the official Tora cluster of prisons where former government ministers now reside in comparative comfort.
Some of the monsters who served Mubarak will even have signed off on the torture endured by the Scorpion inmates whose day-to-day existence is quite different to those which house the Mubarak sons.
Many of the detainees have been held for years without trial or charge for simply expressing an opinion vocally or in written articles critical of Mubarak’s regime. Other were convicted of trying to overthrow Mubarak … the irony is that they did far less than those who rallied bravely in Tahrir Square just a few weeks back.
But while the revolutionaries are rewarded for heroic deeds and derring do with hard won freedoms and liberties, the 100 or so languishing behind the high walls of The Scorpion fear the have been completely forgotten.
Their voices remain unheard in the forboding complex hidden behind an imposing seven metre high wall that is protected by heavily fortified, armour-plated gates.
According to the Ikhwan website Al'aqrab was the brainchild of a group of officers who spent five years training in the US under the FBI.
On their return the Scorpion and its H blocks were built and opened by May 30 in 1993.
Prison staff have the power to cut off water, light and electricity and close individual windows at the flick of a switch as punishment. Twenty other cells are used purely for solitary confinement.
It seems the ‘American idea’ worked so well that the Scorpion model was replicated in the spring of 2002 at the US military base Guantanamo Bay in Occupied Cuba.
As I relayed the description of its interior to Moazzam Begg, Director of the London-based NGO Cageprisoners, he winced in recognition. The layout was, indeed, familiar to the former ex-Guantanamo detainee who spent three years in the American version of The Scorpion.
Mubarak’s Ministry of Interior moved detainees from Liman, Istekbal Tora and Abu Zaabal to the new supermax jail and it is thought at one point around 20,000 so-called enemies of the state were being held without trial or charge.
But there could be other political prisoners held elsewhere in the prison system in Egypt – at this stage, we simply don't know.
But rumours abound of what has gone on behind the high walls of The Scorpion even today and include harrowing tales of torture, abuse and years of solitary confinement without sunlight.
While all of the Muslim Brotherhood’s political prisoners have now been released from across Egypt the agony continues for the inmates of The Scorpion Prison that is so well hidden from the nearby Cairo-Alexandria desert highway and is about 20 kilometres south of the Egyptian capital.
Most of the men belong to the now defunct group Talae al-Fatah, Jihad, al-Gama'h Al Islamia and other Islamic groups and although the majority signed so-called “adoption of repentance papers” years ago they are still held with little or no prospect of a trial.
Some have gone years without family visits, whipping, flogging and electric shock treatments as well as collective punishment has defined the “Scorpion Experience”. Of the 20,000 or so who have passed through its gates around 15 per cent are believed to have died.
The secretive and sinister Ministry of Interior has succeeded in hiding these men from the outside world in all that time but even today it seems justice is as elusive as ever. Let’s hope they will soon be able to join in and enjoy the Arab Spring and celebrate the 100th day of the Egyptian Peoples’ Revolution – if justice is going to be one of the cornerstones then the sooner these men are set free or put on trial the better.