Feature: Torture ties the Egyptian government to a brutal past

News
February 11, 2013

Feature: Torture ties the Egyptian government to a brutal past

11 February 2011 remains ingrained in the world’s consciousness as the day when ordinary Egyptians armed with courage, determination and hope for a better future brought down a repressive police state.

Two years later, frustrations are growing at the slow pace of reform and ongoing abuses committed by police and other security forces who continue to act with impunity.

Police brutality was one of the main triggers of the “25 January Revolution”.

In 2010, police beat Khaled Said to death causing a public outcry, which led to the creation of the  “We are all Khaled Said” Facebook group, instrumental in rallying support for protests on the 25 January 2011.

The current Egyptian administration has evidently learned little from the downfall of its predecessor. Despite overwhelming evidence, the Egyptian government turns a blind eye to persistent torture allegations insisting they are “isolated acts”.

The shocking images of Hamada Saber, stripped of his clothes and brutally beaten by riot police in the streets of Cairo on 1 February served as proof of the continuing brutality of the Egyptian security forces.  Hamada Saber changed  his testimony numerous times, initially blaming protesters raising the question whether he was subject to pressure from the Ministry of interior. This incident echoes the old tactics of brutality, denial and attempts to cover-up by the government.

Hamada Saber is not the only victim. Amnesty International has gathered testimony of protesters and passers-by arbitrarily arrested, detained and beaten by security forces in recent weeks.

A 17 year-old protestor and political activist told Amnesty International that at about 4:30pm on 30 January he was stopped on Talaat Harb Street, in the vicinity of protests, by two men in civilian clothes who handed him over to the riot police.

He said: “I found myself encircled by some 30 members of the riot police beating me with batons all over my face and body, including my back, shoulder and arms. They threw me on the ground and continued stepping on me with their boots and dragging me on the ground, all the while kicking me and hitting me with batons…My left eye was swollen and my back was all bloody when they finished.” 

He was later transferred with nine other detainees to the Central Security Forces (CSF) , Tora camp, where they suffered more humiliation and beatings.

He recounted to Amnesty International that detainees were forced to strip down to their underwear and stand in the cold for over 45 minutes, while members of the riot police continued beating them targeting their blows on existing wounds sustained in the initial arrests.

Five days later, he was presented to the prosecution – a delay that violates Egyptian law and international standards. Throughout his incarceration, he was denied contact with his relatives, access to lawyers and necessary medical treatment. “I had hoped that things will change with our new elected President, but everything is the same. We wanted freedom and dignity; instead I was beaten and humiliated by the Interior [ expression used for members of the Ministry of Interior including police and riot police] just like before the Revolution,”  he said.

During the recent unrest, protesters and others suspected of rioting and violent acts have been arrested in large numbers. On 29 January, the Public Prosecutor called on security forces and the public to arrest members of the Black Bloc - an  organization he defined as an "organized group that participates in terrorist acts and (commits) crimes that affect national security." Wearing black with their faces covered, this group appeared on the protest scene several weeks ago, allegedly favouring violent tactics in response to state violence.

Following this calls, anyone wearing black in the vicinity of the protests seemed to be in danger of pursuit and arrest by “concerned citizens” and the security forces.

Those arrested were frequently held in unofficial placed of detention including camps of the riot police. Detainees were denied contact with the outside world, beaten and presented to the public prosecution after delays.

Many of those arrested were minors, subjected to the same ill-treatment as adults.

Some were released without charge, while others continue to be detained or have been released on bail on charges of rioting, damaging public property and attacking officials on duty. 

Sixteen year-old Mohamed caught by members of the riot police at 8:30pm on 28 January in the vicinity of Tahrir Square described to Amnesty International what happened: “About three members of the riot police started beating me with batons all over my body. They took off my belt and beat me with it as well.

“I fell on the ground as they continued beating me, and stepping on my back with their boots. Then, they put me in an armoured vehicle. I was the first one there, but periodically they would bring another person…Every new person they brought looked like he was beaten. One guy had a swollen eye; another couldn’t move or stand-up and was in really poor shape…

“Eventually, we were about 25 including children….About seven riot policemen came inside and started beating us at random with their batons, and belts…We stayed in the vehicle for the entire night, and at some point; they [ riot police] sprayed teargas inside. Someone lost consciousness, and they wouldn’t even give us any water...The next morning, we were taken to the Salam camp of the riot police... I first saw the prosecutor on Saturday night [5 days after the arrest].”

Mohamed’s mother described her desperate search for her son in hospitals, morgues, police stations and offices of the public prosecution, “They are not only torturing our children; they are also torturing us. If Mohamed did something wrong, punish him by the law. But why hide him from us, not let him call us, make us worry about their fate and.I did not know if he was alive or dead.”

Mohamed al-Gendy, a member of the Popular Current Party – the left-leaning coalition formed by former presidential candidate Hamdeen Sabahi -  also went missing during protests. Relatives and and friends desperately searched for Mohamed. They last spoke to him at 11:30pm on 27 January. They found him in a coma in the intensive care unit of the Hilal Ahmar Hospital on 31 January. He was officially pronounced dead on 4 February.

A friend, who saw his body, told Amnesty International that there were signs of torture including contusions on his back and neck. He reported that Mohamed’s fingers and toes were swollen and his nails were loose and that he had sustained a wound to his head several centimetres in depth.

An official document seen by Amnesty International concludes that Mohamed al-Gendy sustained a number of injuries to the head and suffered a brain haemorrhage. 

Mohamed’s sister, Sara reported that the hospital administration had claimed he was admitted to the hospital from the vicinity of Tahrir Square on 28 January after a traffic accident.

Those who knew Mohamed al-Gendy suspect that he died as a result of torture. Their suspicions are based on unofficial information they obtained regarding Mohamed’s alleged detention at the Gabal Ahmar riot police camp on 30 January. That day, four of his friends went to the camp to enquire about his whereabouts. They were shown a registry of 67 people detained there. The list did not include Mohamed. They told Amnesty International that as they were leaving the camp, they showed Mohamed’s picture to a group of released detainees, one of them allegedly recognized Mohamed and confirmed that he was held at Gabal Ahmar, that his glasses were broken and that he suffered a head injury.

Mohamed al-Gendy’s relatives’ suspicions were further triggered by the account of another friend, who went to the Hilal Ahmar Hospital three times between 28 and 30 January enquiring about Mohamed’s whereabouts. He was told in reception that no such patient had been admitted.

Mohamed al-Gendy’s colleagues were able to obtain two official registries from the hospital,  examined by Amnesty International, which listed two different admission dates [ 27 January at 2:30 and 28 January at 3:58] further raising suspicions of a possible cover-up.

An investigation into Mohamed al-Gendy’s death has been opened by the Qasr El Nil prosecution. A witness questioned by the prosecution, also came out publicly claiming to have seen Mohamed al-Gendy at Gabal Ahmar camp.

It is crucial the Egyptian authorities ensure that the investigation into the suspicious death of Mohamed al-Gendy is full, impartial and independent; and includes gathering the testimonies of all those detained at Gabal Ahmar riot police camp between 27 and 31 January.

Official bodies suspected of involvement in Mohamed al-Gendy’s death, namely the Ministry of Interior, should not have access to sensitive information or be involved in evidence gathering. All witnesses to the case must be protected from coercion and intimidation.

Mohamed al-Gendy’s death has provoked angry protests in his hometown of Tanta, a scene of ongoing unrest since the commemoration of the “25 January Revolution”.

Having learned nothing from the past and having not been punished, security forces again responded by excessive use of force and by arresting and beating protesters including minors.

Failure to reform the security sector, remove those suspected of killing and torturing protesters, and bring the perpetrators to justice allows torture and ill-treatment to continue.

Impunity for police brutality was the hallmark of the rule of Mubarak. Two years on, President Mohamed Morsi must take decisive action to ensure that his administration does not have the same record.