Reports of alleged arbitrary arrests and torture have been on the rise in Egypt in recent months but the Ministry of Interior says police in the post-Mubarak era has been reformed.
Since a new protest law was issued in November, the security forces have cracked down hard on dissent and arrested numerous activists on charges of organising illegal demonstrations.
The most recent wave of mass arrests were made against hundreds of protesters on the third anniversary of the January 25 revolution.
Sixteen human rights organisations released a statement on Wednesday demanding swift investigations into what they described as “increasing and shocking allegations of torture and sexual assaults against those detained at police stations since 25 January.”
The groups demanded that all 25 January detainees, estimated at over a thousand, be examined by doctors. They also demanded that a delegation from the rights organisations be allowed to visit prisons, without prior conditions, and talk to the prisoners.
Detailed testimonies made public
Khaled El-Sayed, a prominent leftist activist and former member of the now-dissolved Revolutionary Youth Coalition, released a testimony from prison where he has been held since 25 January.
“They stripped us and splashed us with cold water and left us like that for hours. Mornings in Abu-Zaabal prison mean an inspection unit ties [our] hands behind our backs and beats us. Everyone is beaten every day,” El-Sayed wrote.
After his arrest, El-Sayed said he was kept in a police station for hours with dozens of others.
“Every now and then they take a group of us and we hear their screams of pain. After a while they took me blindfolded into a room where people were being tortured. From their screams I could tell they were being electrocuted.”
“Those returning from the detention room told us they were stripped, beaten and electrocuted on several parts of their bodies, including their genitals.”
Rights activist Amr Medhat said he and a friend were briefly detained on 25 January for having posters against the new constitution and papers related to his work with the Nadeem Centre for the Rehabilitation of Torture Victims.
“I was put in cell number 2. It was too small for 20 people but held 60 with no place to sit or sleep. The only free space was the toilet,” he said.
The transportation vehicle “should not have held 30 people but contained 60 handcuffed prisoners.”
Islamists rounded up since the ouster of former president Mohamed Morsi on 3 July have also complained of torture and ill treatment.
Detained Islamist Wasat Party leader Essam Sultan said he was recently deprived of food and clean water for 16 days, Al-Ahram’s Arabic news website reported on Sunday.
Sultan, one of hundreds of Islamist opposition figures rounded up following the ouster of Mohamed Morsi last July, added that despite the cold weather he was only allowed to wear a light undergarment, and he was only given a jacket just before entering the court for a session in his trial.
In August, 36 pro-Morsi detainees died while being transported in an overcrowded police vehicle to Abu-Zaabal prison. Survivors said a policeman threw a gas canister inside the vehicle, causing dozens to die of suffocation. A trial in this case is underway.
Government says police have changed
The interior ministry released a statement on Tuesday denying all recent accusations of torture.
“In light of complaints in the media by pre-trial detainees about ill treatment and torture, the Ministry of Interior assures that none of these claims are true and the ministry is ready to receive any complaint for inspection.”
“[The ministry] will take all necessary measures against anyone proved to have carried out violations in light of [the ministry’s] change of orientation and our insistence that the human rights and dignity of detainees be respected by policemen,” the statement read.
The statement added that several rights organisations and institutions had visited prisons and checked on detainees. Moreover, the interior ministry said it has moved several detainees to prisons inside Cairo so they can be nearer to their families.
“The ministry assures again that it welcomes any request made by rights organisations, whether official or non-governmental, to visit Egyptian prisons and examine detainees.”
Rights activists claim more violations
Aida Seif El-Dawla of the Nadeem centre told Ahram Online that the number of arbitrary arrests and torture cases cannot be confirmed because most people are too scared to testify.
“When people ask for information about their detained relatives at police stations, they are often arrested as well…even lawyers are harassed and sometimes assaulted by police.”
There are many testimonies from torture victims, including by children.
“A fifteen-year-old girl’s testimony to the Nadeem centre shows she was arrested on the anniversary of the Mohamed Mahmoud clashes [19 November, 2013] near the Mohamed Naguib metro station [in downtown Cairo] then taken to a place of detention nearby,” Seif El-Dawla said.
“She saw several young men being beaten and when she objected she was forced to sit on an iron bench together with the boys and the police electrocuted the bench.”
The arrested minor, according to El-Dawla, had gas masks and medical aid on her when she was arrested, a sign she had been involved in the protests.
Meanwhile, Journalists Against Torture confirm that media personnel have also been a recent target of police violence.
According to their report, 96 assaults against journalists were recorded in January, 2014. Thirty of whom were beaten and had their equipment confiscated, while three were shot.
Islam El-Kalhey, who was arrested with Khaled El-Sayed, said: “The policeman punched me in the face for saying ‘I’m a journalist’…so I later avoided the word as much as possible.”
Pre-trial detention as ‘punitive punishment’
In addition to accusations of torture, rights activists complain that pre-trial detentions are being used as a form of punishment.
The family of prominent activist Alaa Abdel-Fattah, who is serving a three-year sentence for breaking the Protest Law, complain that although his case had been referred to a criminal court, he has been languishing in detention for two months because the court has taken a long time to set the date for his filed appeal.
According to his sister Mona Seif, Abdel-Fattah is being kept alone in a cell for 23 hours a day and communicates with other prisoners by shouting through the cell walls.
In the same prison, April 6 Youth Movement leaders Ahmed Maher and Mohamed Adel, and Popular Alliance activist Ahmed Douma, also handed three-year sentences for breaking the Protest Law, wait in prison cells as their appeal hearing has been postponed twice.
All four activists, who were arrested on charges of calling for an unauthorised protest, among other accusations including assaulting members of the security forces, denied all charges.
“The court keeps postponing the setting of [Abdel-Fattah’s] trial date even though we have made several requests. They always claim the courts are too busy. But there is no doubt this is intentional,” rights lawyer Mahmoud Belal told Ahram Online.
There is no legal limit to how long these delays can go on in criminal cases, Belal noted.
For those who have not been referred to court, such as El-Sayed, the prosecution keeps them in pre-trial detention, Belal said. The prosecution “selects accusations” that will require them to remain in detention until the trial, he added.
Egypt’s top prosecutor Hisham Barakat denied any foul play.
In remarks made on Wednesday, Barakat, who was appointed by the interim-government after Morsi’s ouster, assured that all detentions in recent months were ordered in accordance with the country’s criminal law and were not subject to any exceptional legislation.
Lack of accountability
Rights reports published during the Mubarak era and throughout the post-revolution period claim that torture is systematic in prisons and police stations. There are also documented accusations of torture by soldiers, military policemen and Muslim Brotherhood members.
Rights activists complain the lack of accountability means the problem will continue.
“Most legal complaints against police are rejected by the prosecutor-general and he is not required to justify this decision,” Seif El-Dawla said.
Prosecutors denied El-Sayed’s request for a forensics team to examine him after he’d been “tortured,” she added.
During the Morsi era, Prosecutor-General Talaat Abdullah ignored torture complaints made against the police and Muslim Brotherhood members, after Brotherhood members were accused of torturing opposition activists outside the presidential palace in November 2012.
Several Brotherhood members are now being tried for torture, but no police.
Since the January 25 revolution, very few cases of police torture were referred to court and none have been convicted except for two policemen sentenced to two months prison and the setence was suspended on a LE5,000 bail.
The infamous case of Khaled Said, who’s killing by police was a catalyst for the January 2011 uprising, is yet to be settled.
The policemen sentenced to seven years in jail for his killing have been released pending a retrial. Said’s supporters were already outraged at what they say was the officers’ light sentences.
Talking to TV anchor Yosri Fouda on his ONTV show on Tuesday, Abdel-Ghafar Shokr, a member of the governmental National Council for Human Rights, said council members had visited Abdel-Fattah, Maher, Douma and Adel in prison, but not the Abu-Zaabal prison where detainees including El-Sayed claimed to have been tortured.
“It is necessary for police to acknowledge violations for the country to move beyond its current crisis,” Shokr, the head of the Socialist Popular Alliance Party, said.
The security forces should differentiate between peaceful activists and militants, he added.
Dozens of police have been killed in attacks by Islamist militants since Morsi’s ouster.
Torture is completely forbidden by Egypt’s new constitution. Article 52 states: “Torture in all its forms is a crime without a statute of limitations.”
Source : Ahram Online