by Giovanni Marenda and Clara Leonardi
«I was a political opponent in Egypt, in 2014 I participated in protests against the military coup. That is why I had to leave my country because of the persecution and political sentences issued against me by the illegitimate court of the military junta. I was sentenced to three years in prison, it is all documented. Before I started my journey, the internal police raided my house, terrorising my family. At that time they were arresting anyone who participated in activities against the regime. I hid at my uncle’s house and a lawyer told me that I had to leave Egypt, otherwise I would end up in prison, they would make up charges against me and torture me to death. That is why I left my country, fled to Sudan, before the Sudanese government entered into an agreement with the Egyptian authorities to hand over all Egyptian political opponents who were residing in Sudan at the time ».
This is Ahmed, with the Collective Rotte Balcaniche Alto Vicentino we met him last August in northern Serbia, while he was trying like so many others to cross the Hungarian wall to seek protection in Europe. He certainly did not imagine the welcome that Europe itself would give him. Where he thought he would find refuge, he found the very fascism he was fleeing from. Now Ahmed is in a safe place that we cannot reveal, and he contacted us to echo his story, which is the story of so many others: push-backed several times by Hungary and Romania, he was finally also rejected from German territory, to be detained for weeks in a remote location in the Czech Republic. There, imprisoned for 40 days in an isolated detention centre in the woods, he and other asylum seekers wrote a protest manifesto and started a hunger strike. His story shows how the European war on migrants does not end at the external borders, but creeps from the periphery – the Balkans – to the centre of the continent, all the way to ‘civilised’ Germany. It is a story that sheds light on the black heart of Europe, made up of detention centres, systematic police abuse and denial of the right to asylum. But it is also a story of revolt, of struggle and self-organisation against a system that, everywhere, ‘is called fascism’.
Below is Ahmed’s account in Melting Pot, and the appeal written from Balkova prison last October.
European hell does not end with the Balkan route
After reaching Hungary, Ahmed was push-backed in Serbia, despite having declared his intention to apply for asylum. Similarly, he was rejected by Romania and could not apply for asylum in Slovakia either, knowing how many migrants there are victims of ‘chain push-backs’, first to Hungary and then to Serbia. So he stopped in Prague before leaving by flixbus for Germany.
«As long as I was trying to reach Germany, a few kilometres over the border, the German police stopped me and sent me back to the Czech Republic, even though I told them I was entitled to apply for political asylum. This is actually an agreement between the two countries, anyone caught in Germany is sent back to the Czech Republic.
I was taken to a police station in the Czech Republic, it was a very old building that didn’t even look official, with metal bars and barriers; they put everyone in very dirty rooms and we were subjected to humiliating checks; I heard some Syrians say that 8 or 9 of them were forced to stand naked next to each other to be ‘searched’ by the police. I was also ‘searched’; they called a mediator who kept threatening me that I would be deported to Egypt; I tried to tell my story, but he did not even listen. My Syrian friends told me I should have declared that I was Syrian. In fact, they released two of my Syrian friends and also some Egyptians who lied about their nationality.
They sent me to solitary confinement in a very cold room. I was trying to ask for my rights and to talk to a lawyer; I told them I needed an interpreter and that I had to talk to someone from the police to explain my story, but it never happened. The first night I had a blanket and then they took it away, the second night I was shivering all the time from the cold, knocking on the door to ask for one. A policeman came into the room and pushed me to the wall, just because I was asking for my minimum human rights, just asking for a blanket in a very cold room. I could not distinguish day from night; there was a very thick window, so light did not enter the room. After two days I was told I was going to enter a camp; I thought it would be a camp like the Serbian ones, instead it was a real prison, called Balkova».
The Balkova detention centre
Balkova is one of three detention facilities for migrants located on Czech national soil, the others being in Vyšní Lhoty and Běla pod Bezdězem. The capacity of each facility is between 150 and 200 detainees and they are currently fully occupied. These facilities are located in the middle of the forest, far from the civilian population and any possibility of human contact; this only increases the prisoners’ perception of being completely at the mercy of the police. They can only communicate with the outside world via a few telephones, which can only be used free of charge for a few minutes.
The unchallenged power of the police is most evident in the way detention periods are determined; despite the existence of a formal maximum limit of 180 days, migrants are detained in these facilities even for much longer periods, without facing any kind of due process and without having their story evaluated by a court.
Inside the detention centre, no activities are guaranteed and even the most basic services are lacking, Ahmed recounts that they were forced to wash their clothes by hand with ice-cold water. Moreover, the food is insufficient and of very poor quality.
«The first moment I arrived, the nurse hit me in the face. I was treated very violently, I had handcuffs on my wrists. Once I entered the prison I realised that all prisoners were treated this way, not just me.
I was sentenced to 90 days in prison without any official trial, according to Czech law the police can determine the fate of migrants without consulting any judicial authority or court, this is really like fascism, it is not a democracy, it reminds me of my country. I was sent to prison without being convicted».
After finding out that he could, Ahmed applied for asylum in the Czech Republic and was told by the representative of the refugee office that he would have to stay another 120 days in Balkova. Indeed, in the Czech Republic, asylum seekers live in detention facilities.
The appeal and the hunger strike
«At this point I started a hunger strike, I wrote a text in English to explain my reasons. My goal was just to face a jury and a fair trial, not to get my freedom immediately but just to have a judge, not policemen, determine my fate. If they have a good day you can be free immediately, otherwise you are forced to stay there for 90 days or more. It is completely crazy: if police officers have such power over people’s lives it is a fascist country.
On the sixth day of the hunger strike I lost consciousness, because even before the strike I was not getting enough food, so after only six days I was already too weak. They found out that I had lost a lot of weight, all the values were too low, but they told me that it was my problem, that I should solve it myself».
Ahmed tried to involve other migrants in the protest, also in support of a man who had been served a deportation order. Although everyone was afraid of the possible consequences, they gathered in the courtyard and chanted slogans against deportations.
«I didn’t accept injustice in my country and I wasn’t going to accept it in Balkova; I proposed myself as a protest leader and wrote a document in English for all the migrants in the prison.
We all had a different story on our journey to Europe and different countries of origin, but we shared this situation in Balkova. We demanded justice and rights, not to be under police control but to face trial. After the protest they brought a representative of the Minister of the Interior, who threatened me, saying that I was creating trouble. I replied that I am only a pacifist and a political activist, I am not calling for violence or the army, only for my legal right and peace, my right to protest. They threatened me saying they could sabotage me. They told me they would take away all my freedom because I was trying to help other prisoners by translating other prisoners’ documents so they could meet the refugee representative».
Below the photo and the transcription of the handwritten appeal in Balkova prison, with signatures attached.
In the name of 89 migrants of various nationalities imprisoned in Balkova, we have assembled sketching the following manifesto.
All of us are immigrants who escaped war, persecution and injustice, trying to find a new home in a country who signed on the Refugee Commitment. We have had tough stories back home and in the way to here, different stories but we all share a part of it and that’s why we are writing this paper.
All of us were stopped by the Czech police who treated us in a violent, racist, and double standard way. We got checked up in an inhuman way then the police released some of us depending on where they say they are from, without really making sure of their identity, then we got deceived by the interpreters and if we didn’t accept them the police kept the procedure going with or without approval and signatures. Then after two or three days of detention without enough food and warmth, treated like dangerous criminals, we were sent to a jail ‘a remote closed camp’ without exposing us to any trial.
The jail was built in the middle of a remote forest with a 5-metre high barbed wire fence, specifically for immigrants it was made and here there is two kind of prisoners. First those those who applied for asylum and must stay in the jail for 120 days, second group are those who didn’t have the chance to apply for asylum, as it’s only in the first 7 days of detention when an immigrant can apply for asylum, those immigrants destiny is in the hands of police realising or extending detention period or even issuing a deportation decision without hearing from them. Giving the executive authority a great advantage at the expense of other authorities is called FASCISM so those immigrants are under fascist rules, we all witness double standards every day releasing one guy before his brother who has exactly similar story, we are being treated like dangerous criminals being terrorised by police dogs and the solitary confinement, deprived from our basic needs having to eat very low quality food which does not contain any fresh or raw ingredients.
We protest against double standard political hypocrisy, segregation and the police power here in Balkova demanding justice and we assign Ahmed Metaewa to speak on our behalf.
Release ‘on charge’ and the politics of deportations
At this point Ahmed was told that if he withdrew his asylum claim, he would be released within 15 days, and he was.
Before being released, he had to pay 550 €; according to Czech law, detainees have to pay about 10 € for each day spent in prison.
«So they used my money to feed me the bare minimum and to treat me in a violent and racist way. And after all this they still have my fingerprints recorded, from the moment I applied for asylum, and this will cause me many problems.
Right now, if I went back to the Czech Republic I would be deported to Egypt because I cancelled my asylum application, so if I went there I would have 30 days to leave the country. Actually, a few days ago they deported a guy to Egypt, I know this from a Czech human rights organisation I am still in contact with.
The time in the Czech Republic was one of the most terrible experiences of my life. I spent 40 days in that prison and every night I had nightmares about being deported to Egypt. I witnessed many deportations, boys with handcuffs and hoods on their heads being sent back to their countries without anyone hearing their stories, without anyone being able to hear their voices.
Being deported for me means a direct threat to my life. If I went back to Egypt I would be tortured and probably killed by the police, Egyptian policemen are murderers and there is a lot of evidence of this, even some of my friends were killed in prison. I begged them to send me back to Serbia, I would rather spend months in the forest than risk deportation».
Ahmed is now an asylum seeker in another European country, and is also protected by Amnesty International as a dissident of the Egyptian regime and an activist for freedom of expression and opposition. While Ahmed was released from Balkova and managed to escape, many other migrants are imprisoned in detention and repatriation centres in the Czech Republic, a country that systematically detains asylum seekers. To those who from behind bars and barbed wire continue to fight for their lives, in the forests of central Europe as in al-Sisi’s Egypt, our thoughts and solidarity.