The death of Essam Atta, who was reportedly tortured to death in Cairo’s Torah Prison on Thursday, is sure to further encourage popular discontent with Egypt’s ruling Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF).
According to the Cairo-based El-Nadeem Centre for the Rehabilitation of Victims of Violence, police officers punished Atta for smuggling a mobile-phone SIM card into his cell by inserting hoses into his mouth and anus, which reportedly led to bleeding and caused his subsequent death.
The 24-year-old was arrested on 25 February in relation to the illegal occupation of an apartment and, after being tried by a military court, sentenced to two years in Tora Prison, in which a number of former Mubarak regime figures are currently being held.
Members of Atta’s family, who had been preparing to appeal the court verdict, said that Atta had contacted them on Wednesday to say he had been mistreated by prison guards.
The latest incident comes only one day after two policemen were each given seven-year jail terms for a similar crime – the murder last year of 28-year-old Khaled Said in Alexandria – a charge seen by many activists as far too lenient.
“Who will hold the army accountable for the death of Essam Atta?” asked Heba Raouf, a political science professor at Cairo University. “Who will protect the rights of civilians like Essam – even if they are petty criminals?”
The SCAF is already struggling to appease protesters and activists following numerous human rights violations committed by authorities since the council assumed power in February after the ouster of longstanding president Hosni Mubarak.
Many had hoped the departure of Mubarak, under whom police torture had become routine, would see an end to such practices. Almost nine months later, however, such optimism appears to have been misplaced, with many activists and political observers going so far as to question the SCAF’s intentions.
The military council, for its part, has vowed to hand over executive power to an elected, civilian authority, although it has so far failed to set a definite timetable for highly-anticipated presidential elections.
The SCAF has already come under fire for referring some 12,000 civilians to military courts and imposing restrictions on media coverage. The military council has also been censured for repeated abuses against protesters, including conducting “virginity tests” on female detainees in March and clashing with Coptic Christian demonstrators in Cairo’s Maspero district earlier this month, leaving 26 dead.
Analysts note that, while the council has repeatedly stressed its readiness to accept criticism of its management of the current transitional period, its actions appear to contradict this.
Atta’s emotional message
Atta died shortly after being transferred to Cairo’s Qasr El-Eini Hospital, prompting a chorus of anger and condemnation on social networking websites.
On 7 October, a Facebook page calling for an end to the practice of trying civilians in military courts released an emotional message from Atta, whose family says he was simply watching a scuffle between two other men at the time of his arrest.
“I’m imprisoned because my family is poor. But I’m sure God will stand by me, as God is greater than all people,” he was quoted as saying 20 days before his death.
Influential Facebook page “We are all Khaled Said,” which played a major role organising the popular uprising that culminated in Mubarak’s ouster, swiftly denounced Atta’s murder and called on Egyptians to “rally against injustice.”
“Nothing whatsoever can justify what happened. Even if he’s a criminal, he can’t simply be killed without any due process. Justice is the only way to guarantee order in society,” the page reads.
It goes on: “A businessman was recently involved in clashes that featured the use of live ammunition, but was quickly released nevertheless. Meanwhile, poor people like Atta – who aren’t backed by high-profile figures – are arrested and humiliated. We must reconsider the ideas we’ve inherited.”
Observers have also contrasted the treatment meted out to Atta to that received by Ilan Grapel, a US-Israeli dual citizen detained in Cairo in June on espionage charges. Grapel, who was released on Thursday as part of a prisoner swap deal with Israel, has been quoted by Israeli media as saying: “I was isolated, but the guards were okay. They gave me what I wanted to eat, including fresh fish. They paid for my meals – more than the average Egyptian would get.”
Activists say they plan to hold a rally in front of the Zenhom Morgue in Cairo on Friday morning as they await official results from the forensic examination on Atta’s body.
Egypt’s interior ministry, meanwhile, has thus far refrained from commenting on his death – a silence that could end up tarnishing its already-battered image.