Banged up abroad: What it’s really like inside an Egyptian jail

One of the gates outside Cairo’s notorious Tora prison, where British man Alisdare Hickson was held. Fellow Brit Laura Plummer will spend her three year term in Qena prison, about an hour’s drive north of Luxor. Picture: AFP/Gianluigi GuerciaSource:Supplied


STARVING, beaten and terrified for their lives — Egyptian prisoners are treated “worse than animals”, according to a British man who was held captive in the country for nearly two months.

The cramped jail cells have come under the spotlight this week, after British tourist Laura Plummer was sentenced to three years in the notorious hellhole Qena Prisonon Boxing Day.

The 33-year-old was arrested for drug smuggling after being caught taking 290 Tramadol tablets, which are legal in the UK and Australia as prescription drugs, into the country — and her sister Jayne fears she “won’t survive a day” behind bars.

Now Alisdare Hickson, who spent 54 days in Egyptian custody in 2012, has spoken to The Sun Online about his own experiences in Cairo’s Tora Prison, the same jail Australian journalist Peter Greste was held for 400 days.

Mr Hickson, a photography enthusiast, was arrested on suspicion of throwing rocks at a protest during the political unrest in 2012, but claimed he was taking pictures for a book about the uprising.

Alisdare Hickson spent nearly two months behind bars when he was arrested in Egypt in 2012. Picture: Alisdare Hickson
Alisdare Hickson spent nearly two months behind bars when he was arrested in Egypt in 2012. Picture: Alisdare HicksonSource:Supplied

Now living in Woolwich, South East London, he recalls his vivid memories from the time.

“At night you would hear someone calling out desperately that someone was dying from a prison cell, and no one would come,” Mr Hickson said.

“There wasn’t a doctor and if you were ill you knew it would be very difficult to get help.

“We were treated worse than animals. People in England would be horrified if they found 70 dogs crowded into a tiny place where they couldn’t lie down, and weren’t allowed out of that room, and they were freezing and they were beaten and they were terrified.

“It was a very, very scary and intimidating place. The only thing you pinned all your hopes on was some possibility of a release.”

Mr Hickson said his experience was a “complete nightmare”.

“One day everything is normal, you’re having a nice breakfast in the hotel, and the next day you’re in a completely different world,” he said.

“Nothing can prepare you for that. It’s nothing like a film. There are no exercises in the yard, no football games.

Alisdare Hickson in a cell at Cairo’s Tora prison, where Australian journalist Peter Greste was also imprisoned. Picture: Alisdare Hickson
Alisdare Hickson in a cell at Cairo’s Tora prison, where Australian journalist Peter Greste was also imprisoned. Picture: Alisdare HicksonSource:Supplied

“You meet other prisoners who have been on remand without conviction for years, and you start to wonder how long you might be in prison for. You lose any faith in the judicial system.

“You’re locked in your cell, and in Tora Prison there were 70 or 80 people in the cell.”

But the conditions in prison, he said, were much better than the underground police holding cell where he was originally kept for 10 days.

There, Mr Hickson was viciously slashed in the neck by another prisoner, in a row over food.

“Everyone was literally crushed between each other,” he said. “When we lay on the floor we had to lift our legs up because there was no space to sleep.

“There were about 30 of us there and we slept on the floor and there was an open sewer which was just covered with a cloth.

“That area would sometimes flood as well. There were no beds or chairs.”

Mr Hickson also revealed drugs were easily dealt and food was scarce.

“The police knew that drugs were being dealt from the cell, I think even on occasion people from outside would come and buy drugs,” he said.

“The police didn’t provide any food whatsoever. Some prisoners had been there for months, including a Syrian prisoner, an old man, who had been there for three months.

British tourist Laura Plummer has been sentenced to three years in jail after being caught with painkillers that are illegal in Egypt. Picture: AP
British tourist Laura Plummer has been sentenced to three years in jail after being caught with painkillers that are illegal in Egypt. Picture: APSource:AP

“One person had a delivery of food from a relative, so I was offered a falafel sandwich.

“I said, ‘No, give it to the elderly man first’. He said, ‘No, you take it’ and I said again, ‘No, give it to him first’.

“And he thrust it into my hand and I just felt this slight pat on the neck and another prisoner said ‘your neck’s bleeding’.

“He’d obviously just cut me with the razor because I was disrespecting his instructions.”

Mr Hickson was taken back to the same police cell for four days before being released from prison.

“There was a mentally disabled man who couldn’t relate to any of the other prisoners,” he recalled.

“He was beaten badly by the other prisoners just because he annoyed the ‘cell boss’.

“That was quite shocking, and no one dared to say anything. There was that trait of violence all the time.”

Of his six-week stint in Tora Prison, Mr Hickson added: “The conditions are appalling. You’re really dependant on outside help for food. It’s terribly cold in the winter.

“In Cairo in January it can get down to 3C. In the cell I was in, the windows were wide open with just bars so you feel that it’s bitterly cold.

“Infection sweeps through the cells because it’s so overcrowded. So for anyone to survive in those circumstances for a long period of time is a challenge, even someone very fit and strong.”

Mr Hickson said there was only one British prisoner in an adjacent cell he met a couple of times when he was allowed out to the landing. He said the man’s name was Osman.

“He was 24, really enthusiastic about sports, a fit young man and he’d been charged with a drugs offence — and was later found guilty,” he said.

“He died only a year after I left, and only a few months into his sentence, of TB.

“I was told by his family that when his aunt went to visit him she said she would pay for hospital treatment, because he had to be carried into the visiting room, but they didn’t agree.”

The scariest place to be, Mr Hickson said, was the packed vans used to ferry people to and from court hearings.

He vividly remembered being packed into a prison van with 20 others, some of whom were just children, while it was parked in a military base under the blazing sun.

“They deliberately deprived us of water for a long period of time. It was really terrifying,” Mr Hickson said.

“Some men tried to take some of their clothing off because it was getting so hot inside.

“The guards came in and just beat the prisoners and people were panicking and one boy collapsed on the floor and was dragged out by his feet.

“Outside the guards were just drinking tea by the side of the pavement. We thought they were going to let us die in there.”

When they were eventually let out of the van, everyone was handcuffed to another prisoner — except for Mr Hickson.

“Then they brought someone else out and handcuffed him to me,” he said of the experience. “He immediately started saying to the officer ‘please don’t beat me, please don’t beat me’.

“You could see on every part of his body there were marks everywhere.

“He was mental wreck — the whole thing was quite traumatic and you wondered how you would get through from day to day. It was difficult to think about the future.

“Some of the other prisoners were tortured. There was one prisoner who I met in a van who couldn’t walk, his leg was damaged from being electrocuted and beaten.”

Mr Hickson was released from prison in 2012. He returned to the UK, and was granted amnesty in the wake of the revolution.

But, after the military government took over, the amnesties were suspended — and Mr Hickson’s case remains open.

Speaking of Ms Plummer, who now faces three years in an Egyptian jail, Mr Hickson said: “It will be an awful shock for her, it’s a totally different world.

“It must be appalling for her. I just pray that the British government can have some influence.”

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