When Egyptian authorities arrested 51-year-old government employee Mahmoud Abd al-Rahman a year ago and accused him of supporting the outlawed Muslim Brotherhood group, he was supposed to be detained for 15 days. But his detention order was renewed again and again — until he died 10 months later in an overcrowded Suez jail cell, after what Human Rights Watch (HRW) reported Wednesday were "apparent heart attacks."
A spike in the number of detainee deaths in Egyptian prisons — at least 35 between June and September of 2014, according to an Egyptian NGO — has global rights groups sounding alarms and calling on Egyptian authorities to investigate the deaths and prosecute officials responsible for alleged prisoner abuse.
HRW said it has independently verified nine cases of prisoner deaths since mid-2013, and some Egyptian NGOs say they have found that overcrowding in holding cells is rampant at police stations and larger prisons.
"I'm hard-pressed to think of a case where we've seen some accountability action" in countries such as Egypt, said Joe Stork, deputy director of HRW's Middle East and North Africa division, when asked if calls to action like HRW’s have yielded results.
Stork cited an Abu Zaabal prison incident — 37 detainees were killed outside the prison in August of 2013 — in which the sentences of police officers involved were ultimately overturned.
He linked the mass arrests to a lack of accountability among authorities, dismissing other factors such as more people being held in solitary confinement causing a scarcity in cells, or violence between detainees.
"We didn't uncover any evidence of that," said Stork.
In violation of the Egyptian constitution as well as the 1956 Prisons Act, prisoners are being denied medical treatment for serious ailments including heart disease and cancer, kept in overcrowded cells and, in some cases, are being beaten and tortured to death, say Egyptian rights groups.
Egypt’s Al Watan newspaper reported in December that at least 90 prisoners held in the Giza and Cairo governorates had died in detention between January and October of 2014.
Speaking to Al Watan, Hisham Abd al-Hamid, a Justice Ministry spokesman, attributed most of the deaths to overcrowding. He said that in some cases detainees are serving sentences ranging from a month to a year in extremely cramped spaces.
In a letter written from Cairo's Tora prison in January 2014, Peter Greste — one of three Al Jazeera English jouranlists detained there since December 2013 — said his colleagues Baher Mohamed and Mohamed Fahmy were locked up "24 hours a day in their mosquito-infested cells, sleeping on the floor" in the "draconian 'Scorpion prison' built for convicted terrorists."
Interior Ministry spokesman Gen. Abd al-Fattah Othman dismissed reports of overcrowding and abuse, comparing Egyptian prisons to hotels.
Footage smuggled out of an Egyptian prison and obtained by Al Jazeera in March 2014 shows prisoners subjected to cramped cells, unhygienic conditions and insect-infested food.
Since the Muslim Brotherhood-back President Mohamed Morsi was forced to step down in July 2013, the government that succeeded him has carried out a number of mass arrests, and over 1,000 people have been sentenced to death. The majority of those targeted are accused of having ties to the Muslim Brotherhood. So far, there have been no reports of executions being carried out.
HRW has not been allowed to operate in Egypt since issuing a damning report in August 2014 on the violent clearing of the pro-Morsi sit-ins in Cairo in 2013. In addition to doing its own verifications, the rights group has also been collecting information from Egyptian rights groups and media.
"It's closing the country to us and certainly makes it more difficult for us to do our jobs,” said Stork. “They're not interested in having these kinds of investigations, these kinds of exposes, this kind of criticism."