Nageh Borky vividly remembers the day that changed his life forever.
Borky, a fresh graduate, was sitting in front of his house in the city of Esna in Qena Governorate on 24 August, 1992 when a group of State Security officers apprehended him and beat bystanders who tried to intervene, including an elderly neighbor.
Borky, who had no previous criminal record, went with the officers to avoid further assault. The officers reassured him and those around him that he was innocent and would be released soon. He was in jail for 15 years.
Borky was accused – falsely, he says – of planning a terrorist attack. He is now free, and the president who was in power when he was sentenced has been driven from office by a popular uprising. But more than 60 other detainees from Mubarak’s war against militant Islamists in the 1990s still languish in Egypt’s prisons, serving life sentences or suspended death sentences.
In addition to 43 detainees still serving life sentences they received as the result of unfair trials, 13 are suspended between life and death, having been in prison for decades with death sentences hanging over their heads, according to a lawyer working on the case.
The Mubarak regime used random arrests and trials in special courts against Islamic groups and anyone who was unfortunate enough to be affiliated with them, even socially.
Borky was a case in point. He was sentenced to 15 years after being convicted of taking part in a terrorist attack planned by Jama’a al-Islamiya. Though he insists that he was not a part of the group, Borky had friends who were. That alone was enough to bring his name to the attention of State Security, and he became an easy target for them to pin charges on.
Jama’a al-Islamiya signed an initiative with authorities in 1999, by which the group vowed to discontinue violence after leading a series of attacks in the 1990s. In return, authorities pledged that they would not carry out life sentences against members of the group.
“The first fruit of the revolution should be the release of political detainees, because the offence that they are charged with, which is opposing the ruling regime, became a virtue, where once it was a crime,” wrote Yehia Taher, a detainee in Tora Prison who is serving a life sentence he received in 1997 in a State Security court, in a letter published in Al-Masry Al-Youm on Friday. He called for general pardons to be given to all remaining political detainees.
Taher was accused of receiving training in Afghanistan and Sudan, though he has never been to either country.
He was arrested when he was an engineering student, and he did indeed belong to the Jama’a al-Islamiya. But he says he never took part in any acts of violence. He now holds a degree in political science, another in Islamic studies and a third in law, which he earned behind bars.
Taher is now a spokesperson for the political detainees fighting for their freedom.
Military and State Security courts kept the defendants at the whim of the regime. The courts gave the prosecution the right to appeal non-guilty verdicts, while defendants did not receive the right to appeal guilty ones. Acquittals could also be circumvented using the Emergency Law, which allows for indefinite detention.
Borky was tortured to such an extent that he now has chronic eye problems. When the Luxor State Security Prosecution was ordered to release Borky, a detention order was issued against him immediately.
He remained in solitary confinement in Tora Prison until a presidential decision referred his case to a military court. Up to this point, Borky was still convinced that there had simply been a misunderstanding, and that the mistake would soon be corrected.
After 35 days of investigations, in which Borky was questioned only twice, the verdict arrived: 15 years without the possibility of appeal, as dictated by the rules of military trials. Borky served his full sentence, and has been struggling to piece his life back together ever since his release in 2007.
“We did not receive our sentences in the courtroom,” he says. “Our sentences were decided by Mubarak himself.”
Borky even says that his lawyer, knowing how the trial would end, turned to the judge and asked him to issue the verdict prematurely to save the attorneys time and effort.
Taher recalls the details of his mistreatment during investigation, with officers alternating between interrogating him and torturing him, until he was forced to confess to crimes he did not commit.
Taher calls his trial “a mockery”. The judge, known for his tough verdicts on Islamists, would insult the lawyers during sessions and tell them “talk all you want, the verdicts are already decided.”
Following Mubarak’s resignation in February, the military announced that it would release all political prisoners who served half their sentences.
According Montasser al-Zayat, a lawyer who represents Islamist groups, over 400 political detainees were released since Mubarak’s resignation, including 80 leaders from the Jama’a al-Islamiya, the most notorious of whom is Aboud al-Zomor, charged in the murder of late President Anwar Sadat.
“The leaders of the Jama’a al-Islamiya who made the decisions were released while members of the Jama’a remain in prison,” says Taher. “This is not rational.”
Having been excluded from the military council’s decision to release prisoners, many of the prisoners have begun to relive feelings of injustice that they experienced when they were first detained.
“We were treated unjustly before and after the revolution. There is no difference between those who were released and those who remain in prison,” says Taher.
Zayat told Al-Masry Al-Youm that there was no legal rationale for political detainees to remain behind bars.
“Those are Mubarak’s foes. They revolted against him and he devoured them because they were alone, society deserted them and political parties deserted them,” Zayat says. “Their real crime is that they were Mubarak’s enemies. After he fell, they should be released.”
But the detainees and their lawyers suspect that they are still being held for political reasons. Zomor, the Jama’a al-Islamiya assassin, recently caused public outrage when he appeared on television to demand the return of the caliphate.
Another reason for not releasing them is the possibility that they could be violent. But Taher says that most of the people who remain in jail were wrongfully accused and took no part in violent acts. Some, he says, were not even affiliated with any Islamist groups.
He adds that even the small group that was involved in violence before will now refrain from violent acts. Years in prison, he says, have taught them the value of life, and anyway, their enemy is gone.
“Our problem was with the past regime, and now it has fallen,” says Taher.