Cairo, Asharq Al-Awsat – Sheikh Nabil Mohamed al-Maghrabi, the oldest political prisoner in Egypt, called upon the Egyptian authorities to release all political prisoners imprisoned by the former regime, allow them to engage in political activity, and financially compensate them for their suffering. In an interview with Asharq Al-Awsat, the 70-year old newly released political prisoner spoke of his 30-year prison sentence and the harsh conditions he experienced in some of Egypt’s toughest prisons.
Al-Maghrabi was imprisoned for the first time during the famous September detention campaigns in 1981. One month later, following the assassination of Egyptian President Anwar al-Sadat, his name was added to the infamous case no. 462, the trial of the Sadat assassins. He was sentenced to 25 years imprisonment. He was also sentenced to a further 3 years imprisonment for leaking confidential information to enemies of the state, in addition to being sentenced to a second 25 years jail term for allegedly being a member of the “Vanguards of Conquest” group, an off-shoot of the Egyptian Islamic Jihad group.
Al-Maghrabi, whose legs and body still bear the signs of torture, said that Egypt’s political prisoners are the revolution’s first generation, stressing that the Mubarak regime severely punished them. He stressed to Asharq Al-Awsat that he was not a member of any Islamist group, and that he had not committed the crimes of which he was accused.
Al-Maghrabi was released from prison on 6 June 2011 on compassionate grounds, namely his ill heath, and he appeared in public – for the first time since his detention – during the national commission which was held to investigate incidents of torture that occurred during the Mubarak era.
Al-Maghrabi, who now lives in a small apartment in the Ain Shams district (eastern Cairo), talked about the situation in Egypt five months after the ouster of the Mubarak regime, stressing that Egypt needs a president whose approach is in line with the Quran.
The following is the full text of the interview:
[Asharq Al-Awsat] You said that you immediately went to work at an important governmental authority [following graduation], how did this come about?
[Al-Maghrabi] I joined a sovereign authority immediately after I graduated from the Cairo University’s Faculty of Languages in 1973. Having been nominated as the university’s student of the year in 1972, my name was put forward for the intelligence apparatus, affiliated to the presidency, which tended to accept only the most prestigious cadres. At the time I had yet to complete my [compulsory] military service, and so I was enrolled in a security apparatus at the Ministry of Defense, as a reserve officer.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] How long did you spend as a reserve officer in the army?
[Al-Maghrabi] I spent 4 years [as a reserve officer] until 1977. I was among the first batch of recruits who were allowed to be discharged from the army, as following the Yemen war recruits were not allowed to be discharged from the army. After I finished my military service, I worked in the field of my university degree; translation. I once again grew my beard which I had previously grown before I joined the army whilst I was an undergraduate at the Faculty of Languages, although I had no religious affiliation.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] How were you imprisoned?
[Al-Maghrabi] I was imprisoned in the context of the famous “precautionary” detention campaign in 1981, just one month before President Sadat was assassinated. The Egyptian State Security Apparatus (dissolved after the 25 January 2011 revolution) attempted to include my name amongst the 24 suspects being tried for President Sadat’s assassination. In fact, I was arrested for questioning, but when they encountered difficulties implicating me in Sadat’s assassination, they accused me within the wider framework of the huge 1981 [anti-terrorist] trial, which was the largest trial ever seen in Egypt, including 302 defendants.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] What is your opinion of the accusation being leveled by Ruqaya Sadat [the former Egyptian president’s daughter] against Hosni Mubarak, that he was involved in Sadat’s assassination?
[Al-Maghrabi] The accusation that Mubarak was involved in Sadat’s assassination is untrue; the real assassins were with me in jail. There were 24 of them, and they offered a detailed account of all the facts and admitted that they had indeed killed Sadat, stressing that Mubarak had no connection with his assassination, and that he had taken cover under a chair when Sadat was shot and killed in 1981.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] What were the charges brought against you?
[Al-Maghrabi] I was accused in State Security trial no. 462 in 1981 – which was known in the media as the “[Egyptian] Islamic Jihad” case – in which I was convicted and sentenced to 25 years imprisonment. I was also sentenced to 3 years in prison on a separate charge for leaking confidential information to enemies of the state, in addition to being sentenced to a further 25 years imprisonment for allegedly being a member of the Vanguards of Conquest” group [off-shoot of the Egyptian Islamic Jihad group].
[Asharq Al-Awsat] What about the media reports that you were previously detained in 1979?
[Al-Maghrabi] The media outlets reported false details about my arrest…I was detained within the context of the 1981 “precautionary” detention campaign without having committed any crime, and without any charges being leveled against me. What the media outlets said about my detention in 1979 was completely false, and was only reported to give credence to the security services later accusing me of being involved with the Sadat assassination.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] How many years did you serve in jail?
[Al-Maghrabi] I have spent the past 30 years in prison, and I was only released on compassionate grounds last month due to my ill-heath. I contracted several age-related illnesses such as diabetes, rheumatism, and arthritis, and I could be considered the oldest political prisoner in Egypt.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] In which prison did you serve your sentence?
[Al-Maghrabi] I served time at the infamous Tora prison in the suburb of Maadi (south of Cairo). I was the only Egyptian prisoner to spend nine months in al-Qala’a prison (situated in the Saladin Citadel in Cairo), as all other inmates would only last days or weeks there. I was later transferred to the al-Istiqbal prison where I experienced many years of suffering and torture. I was later sent back to al-Qala prison and then later transferred to the Wadi Natrun (located on the desert road between Cairo and Alexandria).
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Why were you transferred from one prison to another in this manner?
[Al-Maghrabi] I was transferred from one prison to another so that I could be tortured again and again. At the beginning, this torture was intended to extract confessions for crimes that I had not committed, yet later this torture almost became a daily routine.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] What about your time at Egypt’s infamous Abu-Aqrab and Abu-Za’bal prisons? Can you tell us of your memories there?
[Al-Maghrabi] I was detained at Abu-Aqrab prison for three years beginning in 1996, in a cell resembling a toilet without a window. The daily torture lasted 10 hours, during which I had only four fava beans per day for nutrition. In winter, there were no clothes or blankets, and we were not allowed to close the window. In addition to this, I could not even see the sun from my cell, and so I was always in constant darkness. I was unable to sleep, and throughout the winter it was so cold that it was impossible to sleep because I would be shivering too much.
As for the conditions at Abu-Zaba’l, the cell was 150 cm x 120 cm in area, and contained 5 prisoners. In order to sleep, the prisoners had to lie on the floor with their legs elevated in the air [in order to make enough room]. Due to the inhumane living conditions at Abu-Za’bal prison 9 prisoners died from hunger and 14 became crippled [during my time there]. In 1994, there were a total of 57 political prisoners being held in 19 cells.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Did you meet any Islamist militants whilst in prison?
[Al-Maghrabi] Whilst I was imprisoned, I met all political prisoners and spent 12 continuous years with them, before we were allocated to different prisons. The relationship between all prisoners was very strong.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Were you affected by the ideologies of any of these currents?
[Al-Maghrabi] Prison is a place for survival, and there is no room for intellectual or ideological influence. There was very little recreational time, and there was no room for talking. Moreover, I spent over 22 years in solitary confinement and was denied visitors.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] What about your family? Were they also subject to harsh treatment at the hands of the Egyptian security apparatus?
[Al-Maghrabi] The most brutal forms of torture were inflicted on my family, and my wife and son were detained for a year in 2001 on charges that they were plotting to overthrow the government and planning to help me escape from Tora prison.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] What are your plans for the future now that you have been released?
[Al-Maghrabi] I will not do anything in the future except pray to God for Egypt and its people!
[Asharq Al-Awsat] How did you follow the news of the 25 January Revolution from prison? What is your advice to the younger generation?
[Al-Maghrabi] I followed the revolutionary events on Radio Monte Carlo and BBC radio, whilst I was in Tora prison hospital. As soon as the revolution broke out, I had a strong feeling that victory was imminent, and when I heard the news that Mubarak had been overthrown, I knelt to thank God.
As for my advice to the youth generation, I believe that the revolutionary youths who were responsible for overthrowing the former regime are unaware of the correct route to take. Therefore, I would urge them to read the Holy Quran, for this has the complete approach to help them regain their dignity, solidarity, and help Egypt regain its national patriotism. Political prisoners are the original revolutionary experts, and the revolution’s first generation. They rejected the attempt to kill Egypt, and rejected the treason and tyranny of the former regime.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] What are the differences between your prisoners’ generation and that of the current young revolutionaries?
[Al-Maghrabi] The difference is that the 25 January generation was protected by the entire nation during their confrontation with the Mubarak regime. The former regime could not harm them or torture them, whereas the prisoners’ generation had no Facebook, popular cohesion, or protection from the people. Therefore, the regime managed to punish these prisoners severely, imposing harsh sentences against them, and prolonging their imprisonment.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] How do you view the political scene in Egypt today?
[Al-Maghrabi] I would advise officials to endeavor to regain the funds stolen and smuggled abroad, and stop “protecting” the officials of the former regime during the trial process. The change we seek should not be in name only, but there should be a genuine change.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Do you have a message that you would like to address to the Egyptian authorities?
[Al-Maghrabi] I call upon the armed forces to free all political prisoners and call upon the national security apparatus [which replaced the former State Security apparatus] to release all documents to confirm that the [political] prisoners were the revolution’s first generation. I also demand that the released political prisoners are granted their political rights, and that the government compensates them financially and morally for their suffering. They must also be given extensive opportunities in the media to respond to all the accusations that have been leveled against them over the past years. This is because the Egyptian media, until now, has yet to reach the level of Tahrir Square. The Al-Azhar Grand mosque should also hold a large ceremony to allow the political prisoners to convey their expertise to the new generations. As for Mubarak, he should be transferred to Tora prison hospital, and the stolen funds should be redistributed amongst the Egyptian people.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Do you intend to join any religious trend or party?
[Al-Maghrabi] I respect all religious trends in Egypt, yet I will not be joining any.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] What is your opinion of the presidential candidates?
[Al-Maghrabi] Egypt needs a president whose approach is in line with the Holy Quran, regardless of his political affiliation; a president who sides with dignity.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] What is your opinion of religious groups entering the political arena?
[Al-Maghrabi] This is better for Egyptian society, but they should do so through organized entities and institutions such as the Muslim Brotherhood.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] What is your opinion of the issue of a Christian or a woman being potentially appointed as president, or the question as to whether or not the new constitution should be drafted before the election?
[Al-Maghrabi] These all are marginal issues; they are intentionally being raised during this period in order to cause disagreement and division and eliminate the revolution’s goals. For example, where is this Christian candidate or female candidate? Who in particular are they talking about? These all are attempts to undermine the dignified people of Egypt. Once the symbols of the former regime are brought to trial, and Egypt regains the funds they stole, everything will be simple and easy to handle.