The detention conditions of former Egyptian president Mohamed Morsi may have directly led to his death in a courtroom on 17 June, UN independent experts said on Friday.
A panel of UN experts – including Agnes Callamard, special rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions – and the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention concluded that Morsi, Egypt’s first democratically elected president, was held under “brutal” conditions.
“Dr. Morsi was held in conditions that can only be described as brutal, particularly during his five-year detention in the Tora prison complex,” the experts wrote. “Dr. Morsi’s death after enduring those conditions could amount to a state-sanctioned arbitrary killing.”
Amr Darrag, Egypt’s former minister of planning and international cooperation, called the report “a significant step forward in holding such regimes accountable for their actions”.
“The international community has badly failed pro-democracy activists in Egypt and allowed autocratic regimes to violate international law without accountability,” Darrag said in a joint statement on Friday.
“Democratic movements in Egypt and the Middle East must know that they will be supported by the international community when autocratic regimes violate their rights and use criminal acts to try and suppress them,” Darrag added.
Senior members of Morsi’s former government welcomed the investigation and called on the UN to extend its probe to include the ‘suspicious circumstances’ surrounding the death of Morsi’s son Abdullah in September.
Before he died, Abdullah Morsi, 25, had been in touch with the UN to formally complain about his father’s death. He reportedly died of a heart attack on 4 September, and was buried next to his father in Cairo.
“Abdullah died shortly after he privately gave crucial evidence about his father’s death to the United Nations,” Yehia Hamed, a former minister under Morsi, said in the joint statement. “I was in close contact with Abdullah Morsi and I am convinced that it was his very brave work with the United Nations that led to his death.”
The UN experts also warned that thousands more prisoners in Egypt were enduring similar conditions, and their ‘health and lives’ may also be at severe risk.
“We have received credible evidence from various sources that thousands more detainees across Egypt may be suffering gross violations of their human rights, many of whom may be at high risk of death,” the statement said. “This appears to be a consistent, intentional practice by the current Government of President Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi to silence dissenters.”
Morsi had been in detention since a military coup removed him from office in 2013. Rights groups and British legislators had raised concerns about the conditions of his imprisonment.
Former members of Morsi’s government then asked the UN office of human rights to investigate his death.
The UN experts called on the Egyptian government on Friday to put an end to state-sponsored practices that violate “the right to life, the right not to be subjected to arbitrary detention, the right not to be subjected to torture or ill-treatment, the right to due process and a fair trial, and adequate medical care”.
In an official letter to the Egyptian government, the experts outlined the circumstances that might have led to Morsi’s death, including solitary confinement and the lack of crucial medical care.
“Dr. Morsi was held in solitary confinement for 23 hours a day,” the experts wrote. “He was not allowed to see other prisoners, even during the one hour a day when he was permitted to exercise. He was forced to sleep on a concrete floor with only one or two blankets for protection. He was not allowed access to books, journals, writing materials or a radio.”
“Dr. Morsi was denied life-saving and ongoing care for his diabetes and high blood pressure. He progressively lost the vision in his left eye, had recurrent diabetic comas and fainted repeatedly. From this, he suffered significant tooth decay and gum infections,” they added.
“The authorities were warned repeatedly that Dr. Morsi’s prison conditions would gradually undermine his health to the point of killing him. There is no evidence they acted to address these concerns, even though the consequences were foreseeable,” the experts said.
The panel warned that Morsi’s former foreign affairs adviser, Essam El-Haddad, and his son Gehad El-Haddad, who was chief spokesman for the Muslim Brotherhood at the time of his arrest, were also being held in life-threatening circumstances.
“These two men are effectively being killed by the conditions under which they are held and the denial of medical treatment. It appears that this is intentional or at the very least allowed to happen through the reckless disregard for their life and fate,” the experts said.
The UN sources called for an impartial investigation into the death of Morsi and all other prisoners who have died in Egyptian custody since 2012.
Morsi, a member of the Muslim Brotherhood, was elected in Egypt’s first-ever free presidential election in 2012, after a popular uprising overthrew longtime leader Hosni Mubarak.
Still, the army subsequently removed him from office and jailed him on espionage charges, which rights groups dismissed as trumped-up and politicised.
Since then, Sisi, who led the coup against Morsi, has gone on to become president, embarking on a massive campaign to crack down on dissent and free speech. He has also banned Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood, blacklisting it as a terrorist group.