Eye-witness tells of massacre at Abo Zabul prison was covered up by the Egyptian Government


I met Ahmed*during the demonstrations on the final day of the Egyptian Revolution. He told me that this was the first day he’d come to the protests and he’d come Tahrir Square in the hope of finding someone with whom he could share his story. He had lived with the guilt for many years and he was seeking to unburden himself. He gave me a brief summary of his tale and I took his number and arranged to call him to arrange a meeting.

We met the next day at a coffee shop in Borsa. He showed me photographs of himself in his uniform, from when he worked as special operations police, and his completion of service papers. He was adamant that I would not mention his real name and he would not allow us to take photographs of his documents. He was terrified of the repercussions. His hands shook as he sipped his sweet, black tea and began his story.

It was March or April of 1993. State newspaper, Al Ahram reported one death and three injuries, but Ahmed told me the death toll was 48. Ahmed received a call at 8am and was told to stand by to go to Abo Zabul prison immediately. At 12 noon they took the order to move. When he and his men arrived at the prison, they waited outside and could hear shouting and screaming coming from within. After about 20 minutes they entered the prison through the main door into a wide, open area. There were two groups of police with batons only. Ahmed’s group consisted of six soldiers and one officer. In his group four soldiers had R762 machine guns, one had tear gas and one had a shotgun.  They waited in the yard for around 45 minutes. Behind them were six starving dogs; they had been purposely deprived of food so they would attack.

A fancy civilian car pulled up. The passenger was an assistant to the Minister of Interior Affairs and was in charge of prisons. He went inside and stayed for less than 30 minutes. The shouting and cheering continued as the Minister’s assistant went back to the car and left with two members of the prison staff, who were wearing civilian clothes.

The officers gave orders to get ready to attack. There were five groups from his (central) sector; all consisting of one officer and six soldiers. There were three groups from the airport sector and three groups from El Deweaa.

The groups with batons only were ineffective and were replaced with other groups, including Ahmed’s group. The soldiers came out nursing injuries.

Ahmed and his group went up to the second floor. There were groups of 3 cells, each holding more than 30 prisoners. Each cell was separated by a brick wall, which had been demolished by the prisoners. They had sharpened spoons to use as weapons and were using water pipes as sticks. They were fighting amongst themselves over a prisoner who had been killed during a fight.

The soldiers entered into a narrow corridor, barely 1m wide, which ran along the side of the cells and were under the control of the prisoners. The soldiers used heavy teargas to drive the prisoners out of the cells. Two others groups of soldiers joined them with dogs. The dogs bit the prisoners on the neck and dragged them to the soldiers. The soldiers were shooting at the prisoners, who became angrier and charged at the soldiers. All the soldiers were scared and withdrew from the corridor. One high ranking soldier locked the door to the second floor and shut the soldiers in. The soldiers withdrew to the other side of the second floor and started shooting at the prisoners in panic.

At that time Ahmed had already spent two years with his group and he was a top marksman and second in command to the officer. He was really scared and he was shaking so much that his officer took his weapon from him and started shooting at the prisoners. Ahmed fled towards the locked door in terror. He stumbled, covering his face with his shirt because he was being choked by the tear gas.

After five minutes the door was unlocked and they took out the injured soldiers but there were some still hiding. Most of the prisoners were covered in blood and the soldiers dragged them down the stairs by the feet and into a room outside of the main building. Most of them were already dead.

Ahmed stopped to rest just inside the main door. He joined his friend outside a room and lay with his back to the door. Screams and barks could be heard coming from the room.

“What’s happening inside?” Ahmed asked his friend. His friend told him there were two prisoners and dogs inside the room. Ahmed heard the sound of death and then an eerie silence. He staggered away from the door and started to vomit.

Ahmed went back upstairs as the riot persisted. He and the other soldiers continued to drag the prisoners down the stairs by their feet, banging their heads on the steps as they went. They were dragging them in groups of 10 and out of those ten, usually one was still alive and rolling his eyes. The prisoners that weren’t already dead were killed as their heads hit the stairs on the way down.

Riots continued on the other floors, so the soldiers started shooting at the windows with teargas and shotguns.

The total number of bodies came to 48 and they were laid on top of each other in the room outside the main building.

The prisoners that were still on the second floor were moved to the first floor for about one hour before a vehicle came to take them to another prison.

The operation took around four hours and the electricity and water were shut off. Afterwards the soldiers waited outside and were brought meat sandwiches. They watched the prison officers milling around a barnyard area beside the outside room. They asked the officers what they would do with the bodies and were told they would bury them.

Ahmed and his group went back the next day with two other groups. The outside room had been closed and there were signs of freshly dug graves in the barnyard. The prison felt calm, as if nothing had happened, but there was an unmistakable smell of death that the prison officers had tried to disguise with animal dung.

They asked what had been done with the bodies and were told not to ask and to forget about it. Ahmed and his group returned to the base where they were all given reward of 10EGP.

The names of the officers in charge, that Ahmed can remember: are Captain Ahmed Saleh, Captain Ashraf Taha and 1st Lieutenant Tarek Ezzat.

 Ahmed told me that he had seen one of his friends inside the prison. It was a neighbor of his who had previously been arrested for belonging to an Islamic group. I asked him how he felt when he had looked into the eyes of his friend. He looked at me, his big, brown eyes full of emotion, and told me that he felt nothing, he was in shock and he just turned his head away. As his friend passed him, he whispered to Ahmed to say hello to his family.

A few years ago the story was investigated on a show called “The Truth” hosted by Wael Elnokrashy. The disappearance of all these prisoners was investigated.  A lawsuit was filed but it never came to fruition.

Ahmed told me that he was emotionally affected for around six months, but I could see that he was still affected, nearly 18 years later. He wanted me to know that he and the other soldiers were just doing their job and following the orders of the Minister’s assistant and that if he hadn’t have followed orders he would have been jailed himself.

I am telling Ahmed’s story as he and I both hope that justice can be done. The people responsible must be held accountable.

 *not his real name

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3 responses to this post.

  1. As painfull a story as it is, I hope more of these will come up, everyone who treated our people like they ain’t worth $#!7 has to be brought to justice. Keep it on.

    Reply

  2. Great story. Really sad. I hope you get this published somehow, somewhere. It’s a story that needs to be told.

    Reply

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