A police officer at the entrance of Tora Prison in Cairo, Egypt as pictured on February 11, 2020. Family members of journalists held there say they fear for their loved ones after reporter Mohamed Monir's death of COVID-19. (AFP/Khaled Desouki)

Mohamed Monir’s death of COVID-19 is a warning sign for journalists held in Egypt’s prisons

“I am very sick! I need oxygen therapy. Someone help me! Someone please help me get admitted to the Moneera hospital! I am very sick! Please do something before I completely run out of breath!”

The Egyptian journalist Mohamed Monir panted, short of breath, as he made a plea from his home over Facebook Live on July 7. He called on the Egyptian Journalists Syndicateof which he was a member, to help him find an empty bed in one of Cairo’s quarantine hospitals. 

The journalists syndicate came to Monir’s aid, and he was moved to a hospital in Giza the next day, said a person close to Monir who asked not to be named for fear of reprisal. But less than a week later, on July 13, Monir died from complications due to COVID-19. The journalist contracted the disease while he was held in pretrial detention, according to a Facebook post by Monir’s daughter and reports in Al-Jazeera and the independent Egyptian news website Mada Masr.

Monir was a “martyr of the freedom of the press in Egypt,” said one of his colleagues, Abu Al-Maati Al-Sindoubi, in an interview with Al-Jazeera. Over a decades-long career, he covered everything from the 1979 Israel-Egypt peace treaty to the 2011 revolution, Al-Jazeera noted, to his country’s response to coronavirus

Mohamed Monir was a veteran reporter and political commentator in Egypt. (Credit withheld)

The death of the veteran journalist has shed a light on the dangers facing imprisoned Egyptian reporters during the pandemic, especially those who have not even been tried for a crime. The gravity of the situation is compounded by Egyptian authorities’ approach, which is to prevent family visits ostensibly to curb the virus while simultaneously appearing to do little or nothing to combat the genuine risks. 

According to CPJ’s most recent annual prison census, as of late 2019 there were 26 journalists in custody in Egypt. Several journalists have been arrested since March over their reporting on coronavirus, CPJ documented. Globally, CPJ found 248 journalists jailed for their work at the end of last year, and through its #FreeThePress campaign has been urging authorities around the world to release all of them on humanitarian grounds. Another journalist, David Romero in Honduras, died of COVID-19 in custody on July 18, while Kyrgyz journalist Azimjon Askarov’s death in prison on July 25 may have been from the virus, according to his wife.

In Egypt, many journalists in custody are held pending trial, waiting to appear before a judge. Egyptian human rights groups have documented a striking rise in the use of such pretrial detentions as a method to crack down on dissent, a trend exacerbated by coronavirus as court activity has slowed, according to reports. Now, Monir’s death has deepened fears that other imprisoned journalists will meet the same fate, said friends and family members of Alaa AbdelfattahHisham FouadHossam Moanis, and Moataz Wadnan, all held pending trial in the Tora Prison Complex, where Monir was also held.  

Monir’s troubles began when armed security forces raided his home in Giza on June 13 when he was not there. Two days later, security forces returned to the apartment and arrested him on charges of spreading false news, misusing social media, and joining a terrorist organization, as CPJ documented. Monir, who suffered from diabetes, high blood pressure, and heart problems, was released unconditionally from Tora Prison on July 2 after he fell ill, as CPJ documented.

The person close to Monir believes the charges stemmed from an Al-Jazeera interview Monir gave in which he said the state-owned magazine Rose al-Yusuf was trying to foment sectarian conflict with a controversial cover that depicted a Cairo bishop next to an imprisoned Muslim Brotherhood leader (the group is banned in Egypt). 

The day before his arrest, Monir also published an opinion article in Al-Jazeera sharply criticizing the government over its handling of the pandemic. Coronavirus, he wrote, “exposed how the fragile cliff that Egypt has been standing on all of these past years collapsed within the first crisis.” 

COVID-19 is a real threat in Egypt’s notoriously overcrowded prisons, where prisoners take shifts sleeping and even sitting for lack of space, according to news reports. Independent reporting on coronavirus is scarce in Egypt, as the government has outlawed news outlets from publishing unofficial sources on the pandemic. Geneva-based rights group Committee for Justice has tried to document the scope of the pandemic in prisons by reviewing letters smuggled through guards to friends and family members. 

According to the committee’s research, as of July 15, there were 149 COVID-19 cases in prisons in 12 different Egyptian governorates. (Researcher Mohamed Abdel Kader told CPJ that 76 of the cases were diagnosed; the rest are suspected cases due to the prisoners’ symptoms.) In the Tora Prison Complex, the group counted 65 suspected and confirmed cases and four deaths. 

On March 10, Egypt banned visitors from entering prisons as a precautionary measure against the spread of COVID-19, according to news reports. Friends and family members of imprisoned journalists told CPJ that since then, they have been worried that if their loved ones fell ill, they might not even find out.  

The worry consumes Mona Seif, sister of Abdelfattah, a journalist who was rearrested in September 2019 after serving a five-year prison sentence on charges of assaulting a police officer and organizing an illegal demonstration. Abdelfattah is now back in Tora Prison, said his sister, accused of supporting a banned group and spreading false news. 

Before the government prohibited visits, Seif brought her brother sanitizer to keep his hands clean, though she said that prison guards refused to deliver it to him. Now she’s unable to bring him anything. Trying to receive word from Abdelfattah by going to the prison has become increasingly risky. 

In June, Seif, her sister, and her aunt were assaulted by multiple women whom the family claimed were guards as they waited for a letter from Abdelfattah outside the prison, according to news reports. A month earlier Egyptian authorities arrested Abdelfattah’s colleague, Lina Attalah, outside of the prison as she reported on Abdelfattah’s hunger strike against prison conditions. 

“Authorities are deliberately keeping Alaa and other prisoners away from us so we stay in the dark about what goes on inside the prison,” said Seif. 

What families and friends do know about prison conditions has them concerned. Ekram Yousef is the mother of imprisoned lawyer and activist Zyad el-Eleaimy. She said that her son shares a cell with Fouad and Moanis; all three were arrested in 2019 on charges of belonging to a terrorist group and spreading false news, as CPJ documented. 

According to Yousef, the defendants’ prison cell is about the size of a closet — two meters by 2.5 meters (6.5 feet by eight feet). “The cell has a single small window that isn’t big enough to allow ventilation or sunlight to filter through it,” she said. “They sleep on wooden boards on the floor without any mattresses, pillows, or covers.” 

Nada Shams el-Deen is the sister of journalist Wadnan, held in Tora Prison since February 2018 on charges of joining a banned group and spreading false news, as CPJ documented. She told CPJ that her brother is in solitary confinement, but even that won’t protect him from coronavirus. 

“The prison guards who deliver Moataz’s food are in contact with the outside world and other prisoners.” 

The Ministry of Interior, which oversees the state prisons, did not return CPJ’s emailed request for comment.

Two days after Monir’s death, on July 15, Egypt further relaxed its coronavirus lockdown, allowing gyms and health clubs to operate again, according to news reports, along with coffee shops and houses of worship. But it’s unclear when — or if — the prison visitor ban will lift, said Seif. 

“It is ironic,” she said, “that authorities isolate prisoners from their families as a precautionary measure against the spread of the virus, when actual isolation and social distancing are not close to being imposed in prisons.”