Egypt’s Interior Minister removes prison official

CAIRO (AP) — Egypt’s Interior Minister removed the head of the country’s prison authority Wednesday amid reports he facilitated meetings between detained Islamists, an official said.

The decision was part of a limited reshuffle in the ministry in charge of security, which also saw security and investigative chiefs removed in the southern governorate of Minya, where unrest is rife and mobs have attacked government buildings and churches.

A security official said Minister Mohammed Ibrahim removed Mostafa Baz after reports emerged he had overlooked meetings in jail between Muslim Brotherhood leaders and other Islamists and allowed them to communicate outside the prisons.

The official spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to brief the media. Baz had been in the post since June 10.

Explaining his decision, Ibrahim told Egypt’s state news agency the reshuffle was necessary to restore state security. A day earlier, Egypt’s interim President Adly Mansour said security was his government’s top priority.

Asked about Baz, Ibrahim said: “Prisons are one of the most important police sectors and require strong leadership. The removal was to correct the path and appoint a more qualified leadership.”

Authorities accuse the Brotherhood of organizing a campaign to destabilize Egypt, and have intensified their crackdown on the group since the July 3 military coup that toppled Islamist President Mohammed Morsi.

Security officials estimate some 2,000 Brotherhood members have been detained since the crackdown intensified after authorities broke up two pro-Morsi encampments in Cairo on Aug. 14, leaving hundreds killed.

In an interview with a private television station this week, Baz denied he facilitated meetings between the Brotherhood leadership. He said the media reports had referred to a communal prayer time involving several leaders of the group and other Islamists.

Baz said police officers outnumbered the Islamists at the prayers to make it clear they were being watched.

“There were no meetings. They each dispersed and went to their cells,” he told ONTV. He said the prayers brought together the Brotherhood’s supreme leader, Mohammed Badie, and other senior figures held in the same prison in southern Cairo.

Baz said he strictly followed prison regulations, dismissing reports that the leaders were allowed contact with the outside world, allegedly through mobile phones smuggled to the prison.

A report Monday in the Al-Masry Al-Youm newspaper quoted prison officials as saying regulations had been relaxed and a Brotherhood member allowed to lead prayers, instead of a designated preacher from the prison authority. The report also said that the Brotherhood detainees had been given extra free time together that could undermine the authorities’ investigations.

Ibrahim, the interior minister, told the paper he’s looking in to the incidents.

The Brotherhood leaders that prayed together are being held in high security prisons. Families of some of the detainees say they have been only allowed limited access to them. Others have complained of “inhumane conditions.”

Aside from the Brotherhood detentions, at least 2,400 other people have been taken into custody since the bloody breakup of the sit-ins, a group of lawyers and activists said Wednesday.

The Front to Defend Egypt’s Protesters, which tracks detentions, said those in custody are held in nearly a dozen facilities. They face accusations ranging from membership in an armed group, attacking security, and possession of weapons.

The new head of prison authorities, Mohammed Rateb, previously lead the ministry’s internal investigation unit.

Meanwhile Wednesday, Egypt’s state-run MENA news agency reported that a police officer was killed and three conscripts wounded when gunmen opened fire at a checkpoint in a village in the southern Aswan governorate.

Also Wednesday, a security official said two policemen were kidnapped from outside their home in Toukh, a town the Delta governorate of Qalubiya, by masked gunmen who drove off with them in a pick-up truck. The official said authorities are investigating the case.

In other violence, security and medical officials said one policeman was killed when gunmen in a sedan opened fire on a bus transporting riot police in the northern Sinai’s capital el-Arish. Six other policemen were injured, the officials said, adding that the gunmen escaped.

An investigative judge also ordered a travel ban of former prosecutor general Talaat Abdullah and two of his deputies over allegations they installed surveillance devices in their former offices. Morsi appointed Abdullah at the height of the political tension over his Nov. 22 presidential decrees that put him above the courts. The judiciary protested the move to choose the chief prosecutor, normally an appointment made under its authority.

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