It is the first anniversary of the death of Essam Ali Atta - an occasion to revisit the issue of torture and ask what President Morsi has done so far to confront this serious issue.
Atta was a 25-year-old young man who was arrested by the military police on 25 February last year, and charged with illegally occupying an apartment in Moqattam.
Only one day after his arrest, he found himself standing in front of a military court without a lawyer and was shocked to receive a two-year prison sentence.
Atta was taken to the ill-reputed Aqrab Prison in Tora to serve his unjust sentence. After many months of searching and investigating, his family was able to find out where he was incarcerated.
On 25 October, his mother went to visit him in prison and during the visit passed along a SIM card for a cell phone so he could call her and tell her how he was doing.
But another prisoner who was on bad terms with Atta saw him taking the SIM card and reported him to an officer, claiming that his mother smuggled drugs to him.
Accordingly, the officer decided to teach Atta a lesson he would never forget. For two entire days he beat and tortured him, then invented a new form of torture by inserting one end of a water hose into his mouth and the other end into his rectum.
Of course, Atta’s condition critically deteriorated, and the officer ordered him to be transferred to Qasr Al-Aini Hospital for “treatment.”
His mother went to see him there but was told that her son had died after “severe vomiting, loss of consciousness and foaming at the mouth and nose.”
At the time Atta’s case not only enraged public opinion because of its heinous and horrific nature, but also because it happened nine months after a revolution that was founded on a fundamental pillar protesting the systematic violations of the constitution, law, international charters, human morals and principles that the Egyptian police had often practiced throughout Mubarak’s long rule.
A key and critical violation was systematic torture on a near daily basis in police stations, holding cells and in the prisons of the Ministry of Interior.
Although the revolution started on Police Day, in a clear message to the rejection by millions of Egyptians of these heinous practices, the issue of torture did not prominently feature in the media after the revolution.
It was also ignored by the elected government and president who claimed he was elected to fulfil the demands of the people. The president has not taken the initiative to open torture cases by Ministry of Interior agencies under Mubarak’s rule. On the contrary, officer after officer accused of killing protestors has been found innocent by the courts.
Meanwhile, the president himself granted the Order of the Nile – the country’s highest state honour – to the leaders of the armed forces who are accused of killing protestors during the 2011 Maspero clashes.
Even worse, torture continues in prisons and police stations until today according to many human rights reports, most notably one by the Al-Nadeem Centre for the Rehabilitation of Victims of Violence and Torture which was published on 20 October.
The report documented 30 incidents of torture inside police stations and 11 deaths resulting from torture inside police stations during the first 100 days of Morsi’s tenure.
We all know that reforming the security sector is not easy and understand that torture, especially, is a difficult practice to end since there are at least two generations of officers who began their careers in the Ministry of Interior and saw their peers and top brass either ignore this immoral practice or actively encourage it, and trained them in different forms of torture.
But is there a clearer message than the one the Ministry of Interior sends to its officers when it issues each one an electric rod to put in their drawer in police stations, which is an implicit signal that they can use it in their interrogations?
Accordingly, many officers believe torture is the easiest and cheapest way to resolve some crimes, which also saves them the effort of investigating. There’s nothing easier than extracting a confession using torture to “close” the case.
Other officers view torture as a successful means of terrorising people and raising the status of the “pachas” of the Ministry of Interior. Some imagine that this will help maintain security and serve as a reminder that there is a deterrent “government.”
Thus, the culture of torture is intrinsic to the doctrine of the Ministry of Interior and its practices, and at first glance it may seem that eradicating this practice from the Ministry’s fertile soil which nurtures it would be impossible.
But I believe that torture can completely end in all of Egypt’s police stations if there is a political will. President Morsi and Prime Minister Hisham Qandil do not have to read the international charters prohibiting torture or human rights reports that document its practice in police stations and other holding cells.
All they need to do is to ponder, reflect and learn the lessons of the past and realise that while torture may achieve short-term results (such as “closing” a case and terrorising society), it is costly and very dangerous in the long run.
It is noteworthy that Egypt’s police apparatus in the 19th century came to realise this. An important by-law was issued in 1862 that was simply named ‘Replacing beating with incarceration’ with the aim of ending all forms of beating (with wooden planks, whips or batons) in police stations. The police found that confessions extracted by torture are not reliable, since the suspect would confess to anything his torturers wanted to end his torment.
Police records in the National Archives are jam-packed with correspondence at the time between government departments protesting this practice, and showing government keenness to find an alternative to beatings, either as a means of extracting a confession or a legal form of punishment.
This correspondence highlights the maturity of the Egyptian administration in the 19th century, and show how much more advanced it is compared to the Egyptian administration under Mubarak and Morsi.
Three days after Atta died, I went with several friends to Zenhom Morgue where his body was waiting for an autopsy to determine who was responsible for his death.
I will never forget the humane act by Ahdaf Soueif when she sat with Atta’s mother and sister for many hours listening to their mourning and consoling them.
I will never forget the determination of Nawara Negm, who insisted on going to the prosecutor’s office herself to bring the autopsy order.
I will never forget the heroic effort by Aida Seif El-Dawla and her insistence on her right to go into the morgue and oversee the autopsy to ensure evidence is not tampered with. Seif El-Dawla came out many hours later, hugged Atta’s mother, stroked her head and told her: “Don’t worry; we will never stop until justice is served.”
On top of all this, I will never forget the first scene I saw on this difficult day. Atta’s brother was talking to his uncle on the telephone, discussing what the family should do: a quick burial or brave the labyrinth of autopsy and filing a complaint.
Atta’s brother was saying: “There will be an autopsy no matter what; we will never surrender our right.” As President Morsi procrastinates in advocating the rights of torture victims and Qandil’s government colludes with the executioners at the Ministry of Interior, I am consoled and inspired by the position of Atta’s family. No right is lost if it is chased.