Ahmed Maher is living his life in half days. His day starts at 6 am, when the doors of his cell inside the Qattamiya Police Station open. Then everything has to move double quick — he rushes to catch up with whatever he can: work, education, family, friends — because his day ends at 6 pm.
A prominent activist and a co-founder of the April 6 Youth Movement, Maher served three years in prison after being convicted of unlicensed protesting. He was released in January 2017. But his sentence also included three years of probation, and he is forced to turn himself in to the police every evening.
Normal life is a challenge when days are cut in half, and often it proves impossible.
Maher has been trying to pursue a graduate degree in political science, a long-standing aspiration. He considered Cairo University, but they required an undergraduate degree in political science, so he decided on Alexandria University. It was a difficult decision, as traveling to Alexandria is in not easily compatible with his life under probation.
He can’t attend lectures, so listens to audio recordings that his classmates send him. He studies whenever he finds the time during his 12 hours of freedom, as studying inside the police station has proven extremely difficult.
In January, Maher had to go to Alexandria to sit for an exam. At 6 am he immediately went to Ramses Station to board a train. He arrived in Alexandria around noon, took the exam, and rushed to catch a train back to Cairo. Arriving back at Ramses Station at 5:30 pm, he felt panic. He had just 30 minutes to get to the police station on the city’s eastern outskirts in the middle of rush hour. The police do not allow for tardiness. He ordered an Uber scooter, and weaved through the traffic. He arrived just in time, but it was a close call.
Aside from studying and reconnecting with his family, Maher has been trying to resume his professional life. He works as a civil engineer — a time-consuming job with strict deadlines.
One time he failed to submit a construction plan because he had to head to the police station. On another occasion, he was supposed to meet a contractor to hand over a set of paychecks before the Eid break, but had to set off for Qattamiya to avoid being late. It was the last working day before the holidays and workers needed to be paid before returning to their families. So Maher asked the contractor to meet him at the police station. When the contractor showed up, the police officers berated him for having such audacity and turned him away. The workers spent Eid without their paychecks.
Unable to sustain a regular work schedule, Maher has had to change job multiple times since his release.
Just like Maher, many political prisoners have recently been released from the constraint of jail only to enter a heavily constrained probation. Shawkan, a photojournalist who spent five years in prison, was released on March 4 and is now spending nights in the Haram Police Station — a sentence that will continue for five years. Software developer and activist Alaa Abd El Fattah was released in late March after five years behind bars, and he too has an additional five years of probation.
Harsh probation requirements are not solely used on political prisoners. In police stations around the country, thousands of temporary prisoners spend half their time in custody in substandard conditions. According to lawyers and researchers, this type of probation has no legal justification.
For Alaa Abd El Fattah, jail may actually be preferable. Prison has relatively stable conditions; turning oneself into authorities daily, on the other hand, is a constant disruption.
The legal situation
Following the ouster of former President Hosni Mubarak in the January 2011 revolution, the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, which ruled Egypt during the transitional period, issued several laws by decree, including the so-called “thuggery law.” It stipulates a mandatory probation for anyone convicted of violating its provisions. The Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights (EIPR) released a report earlier this month that criticized the law’s wording as vague and ambiguous.
According to the report, there are five types of probation:
- Special probation: The court issues probation as the primary sentence. Under Egyptian law, this does not happen except when the accused is charged with vagrancy.
- Complementary probation: The court issues probation as a complimentary penalty alongside the original sentence. Complimentary probation can either be obligatory (the law stipulates that it is to be issued in the event of intimidation, bullying or thuggery) or optional (in various cases, including the deliberate killing of animals and the destruction of crops or trees, it is up to the judge’s discretion whether to issue probation).
- Follow-up probation: Probation is automatically issued with conviction for certain crimes, including a life imprisonment sentence for first-degree murder. In such cases, the judge is not required to explicitly mention the probation penalty when he/she announces the verdict.
- Alternative probation: Issued when a prisoner is paroled on condition that he/she spends the rest of his/her original sentence under police probation.
- Post-amnesty probation: Issued in cases where the president grants amnesty to someone with a life sentence or commutes a sentence. The prisoner is put under police probation for five years unless the amnesty decree specifies otherwise.
Probation is regulated by Law 99/1945. Its Article 2 stipulates that those put under police probation must be assigned to the police station in the neighborhood of their residence, where they are required to reside throughout the probationary period. According to Article 7, the person under probation must be inside this residence by sunset and cannot leave before sunrise.
Hassan al-Azhari, a lawyer and legal researcher at the Association for Freedom of Thought and Expression, says the idea behind police probation is that imprisonment alone might not deter criminal behavior. Probation is intended to further protect society from certain criminals.
Al-Azhari says that this is evident in some of the stipulations of the 75-year-old law. For example, it gives the interior minister the right to relocate a person under probation to a new place of residence if they are found to pose a security threat in their neighborhood. Furthermore, a farm estate cannot be chosen as the place of residence for a person under probation, because farms are not easily accessible and therefore compromise police control.
In reality, probation is applied in a different manner and in violation of the law. The principal violation is the requirement to spend the night in the police station. EIPR’s report states that the Interior Ministry does not have the right to force people to do that. If the ministry insists on such practice, the report adds, it must provide a clear explanation for why it is impossible or difficult for probation to be observed inside the convict’s place of residence. With no explanation, the ministry is violating the law.
“If anyone under probation lives in the same neighborhood of the assigned police station and can be easily reached, then he/she should not be required to spend the night in the police station under any circumstances,” the EIPR report states. “Doing so violates the probation law and its conditions and stipulations pertaining to restricting an individual’s freedom, as they have been stated in the above-mentioned articles.”
The report says that the Interior Ministry operates as if it has absolute authority to decide how probation is enforced, without complying with the law. Most of the time it chooses a police station as the nighttime residence for those under probation, regardless of whether the person in question has a home. Indeed, people under probation rarely spend the night in their primary residences.
Last Wednesday, the United Group for Law published a position paper that stated a person “should not be held in custody inside the police station during the probation period stipulated by the law, except if the person’s house is not in the same neighborhood as the police station.”
Spending half of each day in prison is not the only horror of police probation. At times people under probation are also subjected to forced labor, although according to Article 12 of the Constitution, there can be “no forced labor, except in accordance with the law and for the purpose of performing a public service for a defined period of time and in return for a fair wage, without prejudice to the basic rights of those assigned to the work.”
Alaa Abd El Fattah tells Mada Masr that it is common for people under probation to be forced to wash dishes and clean the halls and bathrooms of police stations, something he has witnessed firsthand during his daily probation. There is little room to resist, as people are often threatened with being sent back to prison for a year under the pretext of violating probation.
In 2017, Ahmed Maher received that threat after arriving at the police station 20 minutes late due to his mother being unwell. The police officer in Qattamiya filed a report of tardiness. Maher spent two days in prison before getting referred to the Amereya Misdemeanors Court, which acquitted him.
In its report, EIPR gave several recommendations, including ending the practice of forcing people to spend their probationary periods inside police stations, turning probation into an entirely optional punishment for all crimes — giving the court the space to assess its appropriateness in each case, depending on the probability of the accused’s return to criminal behavior — and cutting probationary periods in half for those who exhibit good conduct.