CAIRO (AP) -- Authorities at a maximum-security prison in the Egyptian capital routinely abuse political prisoners by cramming them into packed cells, cutting off access to families and lawyers, and blocking medical treatment, Human Rights Watch said Wednesday.
In a detailed report on Cairo's infamous "Scorpion" Prison that focused on several high-profile Islamists, the U.S.-based watchdog described dire conditions in bare cells without beds or even soap for the prisoners, who are being held behind a "wall of secrecy" kept in place by the Interior Ministry under almost no oversight.
The unit, a wing of the Tora prison complex, holds about 1,000 prisoners, including most of the Muslim Brotherhood's top leadership, alleged members of the Islamic State group and other extremist organizations, and various critics of the government of President Abdel-Fatah el-Sissi, including some journalists and doctors, it said.
The prison "sits at the end of the state's repressive pipeline, ensuring that political opponents are left with no voice and no hope," said Joe Stork, the group's deputy Middle East and North Africa director. "Its purpose seems to be little more than a place to throw government critics and forget them," he added.
The report documents "cruel and inhuman" treatment via interviews with 20 relatives of inmates held in the prison. It asserts the ill-treatment "probably amounts to torture in some cases and violates basic international norms for the treatment of prisoners."
Among those mentioned were Khairat el-Shater, the former deputy head of the Muslim Brotherhood, an Islamist group now banned in Egypt, as well as onetime Brotherhood lawmaker Mohammed el-Beltagy, former members of parliament and aides to Mohammed Morsi, the Islamist President overthrown by the army in 2013.
Authorities launched a wide-ranging crackdown on dissent after el-Sissi led Morsi's ouster, jailing thousands of people, mainly his Islamist supporters but also a number of well-known secular activists.
International and domestic rights groups in Egypt routinely document cases of torture and abuse in prisons and by police, who are almost never prosecuted. Britain-based Amnesty International says abductions, torture and other brutal tactics such as enforced disappearances are used as a tool to stifle dissent, charges denied by authorities who accuse them of deliberately seeking to harm Egypt's image.
Activists say that police under el-Sissi are acting with near total impunity, torturing suspects, abusing detainees and making random arrests. Authorities are also targeting groups that raise the matter with criminal charges, closure and arrests.
The Nadeem Center, an NGO that provides counseling for the victims of torture, documented some 600 cases of police torture in 2015. It said 500 people were killed by security forces that year, including 100 who died in official custody. It too has been targeted by authorities.
The matter drew international interest earlier in the year when Italian doctoral student Giulio Regeni, who vanished on Jan. 25, was found tortured to death near Cairo, prompting accusations that security agencies were involved. Egypt has denied the charges but the case has soured Egyptian-Italian relations.
In its report, Human Rights Watch cited families as saying that conditions in the prison deteriorated drastically after el-Sissi appointed Magdy Abd al-Ghaffar as interior minister in March last year, with at least six inmates dying in custody between May and December 2015 for untreated illnesses.
"While detainees at other prisons in Egypt have alleged serious abuses, Scorpion has emerged, not for the first time in its history, as the central site for those deemed the most dangerous enemies of the state," Human Rights Watch said.