Activist's art offers rare glimpse inside Egypt's prisons

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Activist's art offers rare glimpse inside Egypt's prisons

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World Activist's art offers rare glimpse inside Egypt's prisons FILE - In this Oct. 13, 2016, file photo, supporters of a Pakistani religious group shout slogans demanding hanging of a Christian woman, Aasia Bibi in Lahore, Pakistan. Pakistan's Supreme Court is set to hear the final appeal of the Christian on death row since 2010 accused of insulting Islam's prophet, a crime that incites mobs to kill and carries an automatic death penalty. (AP Photo/K.M. Chaudary, File)
Last appeal of Christian on Pakistan death row for b lasphemy

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In this Thursday, Oct. 4, 2018 photo, Yassin Mohammed sits with a cat in an apartment he shares, in Cairo, Egypt. Mohammed, who walked free last month after serving a two-year sentence for joining a protest, secretly chronicled life in his cell block with his artwork, giving a rare and intimate picture of what it's like for thousands jailed in the largest crackdown on dissent in Egypt's modern history. (AP Photo/Nariman El-Mofty) In this Thursday, Oct. 4, 2018 photo, Yassin Mohammed sits with a cat in an apartment he shares, in Cairo, Egypt. Mohammed, who walked free last month after serving a two-year sentence for joining a protest, secretly chronicled life in his cell block with his artwork, giving a rare and intimate picture of what it's like for thousands jailed in the largest crackdown on dissent in Egypt's modern history. (AP Photo/Nariman El-Mofty), The Associated Press This Sept. 30, 2018 photo, shows a self portrait that was created in prison by Egyptian activist and artist Yassin Mohammed, in Cairo, Egypt. Mohammed found refuge in art, painting daily at a spot of his cell where guards could not see him if they looked thro   ugh the door's small window. This sketch shows Mohammed's time in solitary, he sits in the corner of a gray and black cell, his body slumped in resignation, with a ray of sun coming through a barred window. (AP Photo/Nariman El-Mofty) This Oct. 3, 2018 photo, shows a comic strip that was created in prison by Egyptian activist and artist Yassin Mohammed, i   n Cairo, Egypt. Mohammed, who walked free last month after serving a two-year sentence for taking part in a protest, chronicled daily life in his cellblock in dozens of sketches and paintings, offering a rare and intimate look inside Egypt’s sprawling prison network. (AP Photo/Nariman El-Mofty) This Oct. 3, 2018 photo, shows a drawing that was created in prison with Arabic that reads on both signs, "Please, leave the bathroom as you would l   ike to see it!" by Egyptian activist and artist Yassin Mohammed, in Cairo, Egypt. Mohammed, who walked free last month after serving a two-year sentence for taking part in a protest, chronicled daily life in his cellblock. Many of Mohammed's works, however, show a hint of beauty or a small semblance of normalcy side by side with the grimness of prison. (AP Photo/Nariman El-Mofty) This Oct. 3, 2018 photo, shows a drawing that was created in prison with Arabic that reads, "investigation" by Egyptian activist and artist Yassin Mohammed, in Cairo, Egypt. Mohammed, who walked free last month after serving a two-year sentence for taking part in a protest, chronicled daily life in his cellblock. Mohammed’s sketches and paintings capture the claustrophobic reality of Egypt’s prisons, where tens of thousands have been locked away, often for months or years without charge, in the heaviest crackdown on dissent in the country’s modern history. (AP Photo/Nariman El-Mofty) This Sept. 30, 2018 photo, shows a drawing that was created in prison, with Arabic that reads, "this time shall pass," by Egyptian activist and artist Yassin Mohammed, in Cairo, Egypt. Mohammed, who walked free last month after serving a two-year sentence for taking part in a protest, chronicled daily life in his cellblock. Many of Mohammed's works, however, show a hint of beauty or a small semblance of normalcy side by side with the grimness of prison. (AP Photo/Nariman El-Mofty) This Sept. 30, 2018 photo, shows a drawing that was created in prison with Arabic from a verse of the holy Quran that reads, "You know not; perhaps God will bring about after that a different matter," by Egyptian activist and artist Yassin Mohammed, in Cairo, Egypt. Mohammed found refuge in art, painting daily at a spot of his cell where guards could not see him if they looked through the door's small window. (AP Photo/Nariman El-Mofty)   This Sept. 30, 2018 photo, shows a drawing that was created in prison by Egyptian activist and artist Yassin Mohammed, in Cairo, Egypt. Mohammed, who walked free last month after serving a two-year sentence for taking part in a protest, chronicled daily life in his cellblock. Mohammed’s sketches and paintings capture the claustrophobic reality of Egypt’s prisons, where tens of thousands have been locked awa   y, often for months or years without charge, in the heaviest crackdown on dissent in the country’s modern history. (AP Photo/Nariman El-Mofty) This Sept. 30, 2018 photo, shows a drawing that was created in prison by Egyptian activist and artist Yassin Mohammed, in Cairo, Egypt. Mohammed, who walked free last    month after serving a two-year sentence for taking part in a protest, chronicled daily life in his cellblock. Mohammed’s sketches and paintings capture the claustrophobic reality of Egypt’s prisons, where tens of thousands have been locked away, often for months or years without charge, in the heaviest crackdown on dissent in the country’s modern history. (AP Photo/Nariman El-Mofty)

CAIR O (AP) — In Yassin Mohammed's sketches and paintings, he and other Egyptian prisoners are crammed into tiny cells, feet in each other's faces and their few belongings hanging from the walls.

The cramped scenes, defined by bars and closed cell doors, capture the claustrophobic reality of Egypt's prisons, where tens of thousands have been locked away, often for months or years without charge, in the heaviest crackdown on dissent in the country's modern history.

"One day, all this pain will go away," one watercolor proclaims.

Mohammed, who walked free last month after serving a two-year sentence for taking part in a protest, chronicled daily life in his cellblock in dozens of sketches and paintings, offering a rare and intimate look inside Egypt's sprawling prison network.

He has been in and out of prison since 2013, when the military overthrew a freely elected but divisive Islamist president. Since then, thousands of Islamists have been jailed, as well as a number of secular, pro-democracy activists, some of whom played a key role in the 2011 uprising that toppled longtime autocrat Hosni Mubarak.

Under President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi, who as defense minister led the 2013 military takeover, authorities view even mild dissent as a threat. Protests have been outlawed, hundreds of websites have been blocked, and vague laws criminalize the spreading of "false news."

For most of the two years he was in prison, Mohammed shared a 6- by 15-meter (yard) cell with nearly 30 other inmates — Islamists, jihadis, liberal leftists and, he said, people who were simply at the wrong place at the wrong time.

Rights groups say abuse of political detainees is widespread in Egypt, but Mohammed says he wasn't physically abused, other than occasionally being pushed or slapped by guards. He says the real torment came from the unending boredom and the total lack of p rivacy.

His only escape was through art.

He managed to paint in a corner of his cell where the guards could not see him. Fearing that the guards would destroy the art if they found it, he smuggled the paintings out.

One piece that landed him in trouble was an unflattering caricature of el-Sissi, which guards seized in a surprise raid on his cell. Prison authorities chose not to press charges, instead sending him to solitary confinement, a light punishment for a man who says he yearned for privacy so much he spent time in the toilet just to avoid the other inmates.

A self-portrait inspired by that experience shows him sitting in the corner of a gray and black cell, slumped in resignation as a solitary ray of sunlight shines through the barred window.

Others show rare signs of normality or even beauty. A depiction of a prison bathroom — including garbage pails used by the inmates to store water because of frequent outages — has signs on t he wall reading: "Please, leave the bathroom as you would like to see it!"

A bouquet of brightly colored flowers hangs above the bathroom — a wedding anniversary gift from the wife of one of the inmates.

In another painting, cardboard boxes turned into flower planters hang from the iron bars above a corridor. Mohammed says the prisoners save the cardboard boxes that their families use to deliver food and gather soil from sacks of potatoes they get from the prison's kitchen.

"Plants and flowers there are like life in the midst of death," said Mohammed.

Mohammed periodically had possession of a cellular phone while in prison, enabling him to communicate with a close circle of friends on social media. In the posts — which he asked his friends not to share for fear of repercussions — he described his daily routine and chores, and the claustrophobia he depicted in the paintings.

"God, I pray to you every day wh en the call for the dawn prayers rings out so you will free all those that are unjustly jailed or to soften their plight, and to let me meet Tom Hanks," one post said, reflecting his near-obsessive admiration for the Oscar-winning film star.

Since his release on Sept. 20, just a day short of his 24th birthday, he has been traveling across Cairo collecting the works he smuggled out. He would like to put on an exhibition of some 50 pieces, but Egypt's few remaining art galleries are unlikely to display his work for fear of angering authorities.

Instead, he plans to display them in his apartment in downtown Cairo.

"I don't want to go back to prison. It does not take much these days to be sent to prison," he said. "So, I will silently listen, watch and observe, and when I feel like I want to express a political opinion, I will talk to myself while alone in the privacy of my room."

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