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In jail over a t-shirt

Farid Farid, CairoSeptember 30, 2015

Mahmoud Hussein has spent 600 days in jail because of a T-shirt. He was arrested last year on the third anniversary of the Egyptian revolution and has still not been officially charged. Farid Farid reports from Cairo.

Ägypten 600 Tage Gefängnis wegen eines T-Shirts
Image: Amnesty International

On the front of the black T-shirt emblazoned with white text were the words "A Nation without torture." On the back was a picture of a police officer torturing a citizen. Mahmoud, 17 at the time, had worn the T-shirt and a scarf commemorating the January 25 revolution on his way to a protest in Cairo, unaware that it would land him in jail hours later.

"When I visit him, I tell him if you hadn't worn my T-shirt you would have been home right now, and he would just laugh," Tarek Hussein, Mahmoud's brother, told DW. "It's so sad that a T-shirt could land him in jail with multiple accusations levelled against him."

The two brothers had decided to go to the protests, Mahmoud in Cairo's downtown with his friends, while Tarek headed off to Maadi, an upmarket southern Cairo suburb. Tarek, affectionately known as Tito by activists, was also detained on the same day on charges of belonging to the Muslim Brotherhood, which was deemed a terrorist group by the Egyptian government in late 2013.

"I was accused in March 2013 that I attacked the Muslim Brotherhood headquarters and in January 2014 I was held on charges of being part of the Muslim Brotherhood. How do you want to convince me as Tarek that I am both at the same time? The mind boggles!"

Ongoing crackdown

Under President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi, who was defence minister in former President Mohammed Morsi's government, Egypt has seen a large-scale crackdown on Islamist and secular activists with estimates of 41,000 political detainees in jail, laws that criminalize protests and dwindling freedoms for journalists.

Fast-talking Tito Tarek recounted the squalid conditions he endured in jail and how - since being released in April this year - he has just one mission: getting Mahmoud out.

"Mahmoud is the youngest in our family. I don't think he fully grasps why he's imprisoned because he's so young," he said. "I am proud of him because he's young, yet still so strong in his resolve to comfort other prisoners."

man posing with victory sign copyright: Ahmed Al Masry,
Tarek says he won't give up until his brother is releasedImage: Ahmed Al Masry

Hussein has partnered with Amnesty International to pressure the Egyptian authorities to release his brother. In their report Generation Jail published earlier this year, the human rights organization noted "the authorities have made it clear that they see anyone who deviates from their political narrative as a threat, whether they be an internationally known political activist or just a student who is wearing the wrong T-shirt."

'Everything that is wrong with Egypt'

Nicholas Piachaud, Egypt researcher at Amnesty International, told DW "this case sums up everything that is wrong and criminal with Egypt. It shows the lengths security forces are willing to go to crush dissent. The crackdown has gone much further beyond the famous names - the thousands of ordinary Egyptians languishing behind bars including Hussein."

DW has repeatedly sought comment from the Attorney General's office regarding Hussein's case but to no avail.

Last week, Tarek posted a picture on his active social media accounts showing his brother with signs of torture and handcuffed to other detainees. In front of them molotov cocktails, a Guy Fawkes mask that has become a popular accessory for protesters worldwide, and Hussein's scarf have been hastily arranged as evidence of the detainees' supposed terrorist affiliation. Tarek found the photo on a popular Facebook page for police officers who claimed that Hussein was part of a Muslim Brotherhood terrorist cell.

The photo confirms both Amnesty International and Tarek's assertions that Hussein has been tortured. Piachaud sees torture as endemic to Egypt's system, where citizens are routinely beaten in police stations, transferred to secret locations and forced to confess to crimes they did not commit.

man standing in street copyright: Tarek Hussein
Mahmoud's case has triggered international condemnationImage: Amnesty International

Clear pattern

Prisoners such as Mahmoud can spend up to two years in pre-trial detention without any official charges and in some cases it can be extended. Photojournalist Mahmoud 'Shawkan' Abu Zeid, who has spent over two years in prison, only had a trial date set last week for early December.

"There's a clear pattern of revenge from the judiciary against all those involved in the January 25 revolution. We are seeing that all of Mubarak's men are free and those who participated in the revolution are now in jail," Tarek noted.

He is frustrated that Mahmoud has faced over 20 delays in a trial date being set, with judges renewing his detention period by 45 days each time. Yet Tarek is resolute that his brother will be freed.

"Mahmoud will be free no matter what, after several years he will be free but his best days will have been spent in jail. Who will be held accountable for all these years and wasted time?" he asked.