Torture in Egypt: Never again?

Yasmine Fathi , Saturday 25 Jun 2011

Marking the International Day in Support of Victims of Torture, 26 June, Ahram Online sheds light on the systematic use of torture against Egyptians by the ousted Mubarak regime

Khaled Said Anniversary protest (photo: Hossam Hamalawy)
'The Egyptian has raised his head and will not bow down again' says the sign held by one of the protesters marking the anniversary of the death of Khaled Said in front of the Interior Ministry headquarters (Photo: Hossam Hamalawy, courtesy of Hossam Hamalawy's blog 3arabawy)

“Where is your uncle!” screamed an officer in a Cairo police station. A murder had been committed in the area and the police had a suspect, but couldn’t locate him. That is until someone had the bright idea that maybe his nephew would know his whereabouts. So the nephew was brought to the police station and the interrogation began.

“Where is your uncle, where is he?” the police repeated the question to the terrified nephew. When the officer did not get an answer that satisfied him, he began burning the victim with a cigarette, on various parts of his three year-old body.

“That’s right, the nephew was only three years old,” remembers Aida Seif El-Dawla, human rights activist and therapist at the El-Nadeem Centre for the Rehabilitation of Victims of Violence. “They thought that by torturing the boy they could solve the murder.”

As horrific as this story is, it is just one of myriad nightmarish accounts of how torture was used during the Mubarak era. In fact, during his 30 years in power, torture and police brutality became one of the most effective tools the ousted president used to keep his regime in power. So inhumane was the police in Egypt that the 2011 Egyptian Revolution was launched on 25 January, National Police Day.

During those three bleak decades, torture was used by the notorious State Security Investigations (SSI) apparatus against political enemies of the state with the purpose of extracting confessions, cracking down on opposition and neutralising dissent. But as the sweeping powers given the police under a continuous state of emergency went on unchecked, it began also using torture in criminal investigations, with police stations sites of daily screams and torment.

And as torture became routine police procedure, it also became a major instrument of intimidation directed against the Egyptian people as a whole, especially the poorer and more vulnerable sections of the society.

“People were tortured for a whole variety of reasons, but you can put them all under ‘We will terrorise the people until they know who their masters are’ banner,” explains Seif El-Dawla.

In fact, she adds, the word “masters,” or asyad in Arabic, sums up the mentality of a police system that was given the power to operate under complete impunity. “They had uncontrolled power and this is a very dangerous thing,” explains Seif El-Dawla. “Torture spread in Egypt because these people were not accountable to anybody.”

Indeed, according to the Human Rights Watch report, “Work on Him Until He Confesses,” the Egyptian criminal courts convicted only six officers between 2006 and 2009, despite thousands of cases being monitored by various human rights organisations.

Nonetheless, Egypt is party to the UN Convention Against Torture, and Article 126 of the penal code limits torture to cases of physical abuse, when the victim is "an accused," and torture is used to extract a confession. This didn’t stop the phenomenon from growing.

Security forces often used the country’s notorious emergency laws, in force since 1981, to detain political adversaries many of whom would simply “disappear” for months. SSI had advanced facilities, which included numerous underground floors where suspects could be quietly detained and tortured for months on end.

In fact, Egypt, during the Mubarak era, became so famous for torture that the United States and some European Union countries would send “terrorist” suspects to be tortured in Egypt under the notorious programmes of extraordinary rendition.

Behind the wall of silence

Torture was used for a variety of reasons, but mostly it was seen as the most efficient and effective tool to get a confession. “If a crime takes place, the police wouldn’t really go and take finger prints, conduct investigations and question witnesses like we see on CSI (the US television show),” says Hossam El-Hamalawy, a renowned blogger and political activist. “No, they would spread out a huge net across the poor people in the area, arrest and torture them until one confesses.”

In fact, El Hamalawy describes the behavior of Egypt security forces as similar to that of an “occupation force” where they would patrol poor neighborhoods and arrest young men at random and take them to the station.

“They would tell them, 'Okay, you look like a thief, take this crime,' and 'You look like a killer, take this crime,'” explains El-Hamalawy. “They just wanted to fill the quota. They have 70 unsolved crimes, so they would arrest 70 people.”

But torture was also used for other, even more sinister reasons. If an important official wanted to buy a piece of land from a person unwilling to sell, he could use connections in the police to have that person tortured.

One case Seif El-Dawla recalls is that of Monbeyya, a grandmother in the Egyptian governorate of Qalyoub, who was tortured for several days in the police station because she refused to give her land to the town chief.

Often people were tortured because the torturer was simply doing a favour for a friend. One case is that of Ahmed Tamam, who in 1999 had a fight with his neighbour. The latter decided to use his relations to a police officer in the Omraneya Police Station to “teach a lesson” to the neighbour. Tamam, 19, was then taken to the police station where he was tortured to death. Another case is that of the cook of former Minister of Health Ali Abdel Fatah, who was partially paralysed after being tortured because he wanted to quit his job.

“These cases had nothing to do with crimes,” says Seif El-Dawla. “This was merely the police using the power it knew how to use against the people.”

In some cases, entire families would be dragged to the police station and summarily tortured one by one. In one case, reported by El-Nadeem, 13 members of a family of various ages, the youngest being six months and the eldest 75 years old, were all arrested and tortured in a police station after a murder took place in their neighbourhood.

The methodology of torture

People who were detained in State Security headquarters or police stations were subjected to all forms of terror. The methods used included suspension, where the victim’s hands are tied behind his back and then he is suspended from the ceiling, an excruciatingly painful form of torture, and also psychologically humiliating because the victim resembles an animal in a slaughterhouse.

Other methods used included severe beatings, flooding the head in dirty water, forcing the victim’s hands into scalding water until the skin peels, electric shocks to various parts of the body, spraying ice water on the body, burning with cigarettes or hot metal rods, and rape with a stick or a metal rod on both male and female victims, as well as sleep and food deprivation. Many victims were also imprisoned in rooms known as the “fridge” which had very cold temperatures, while others were tied to a crucifix-like apparel dubbed “El-Arosa” — the bride — to restrict their movement as the torturer whips them.

Victims were also subject to psychological torture that included threats to their family. In some cases, the victim’s family members would be brought to the station and tortured in front of them. At other times they would be forced to watch the torture of other victims.

El-Dawla points out that torture equipment was vital to the police, and that Egypt imported all the necessary tools. “The police don’t buy these things from their pocket money,” she says. “They are not improvising. These are apparatuses set up in police stations with the full knowledge of the government, using taxpayers' money.”

The torture of political enemies

The torture of Mubarak’s political foes became one of the ousted president's favourite tools to stop the opposition from gaining strength. During his era, anyone who dared to contest his power was detained and arrested. Members of the Muslim Brotherhood and their supporters were regularly rounded up and tortured in detention.

Abdel Aziz Megahed, 26, a member of the Brotherhood, was detained for 22 days at SSI headquarters for running a blog that criticised the corruption of the Mubarak government. He was stripped of his clothes, his hands tied behind his back, and blindfolded.

“They beat me, electrocuted me and suspended me for two and a half days,” remembers Megahed. “The pain was excruciating, but the psychological torture was even worse. You were always being beaten and when they are not torturing you, you can hear the screams of others being tortured, knowing that your turn will come.”

His torturers, he remembers also refused to call him by name and used “Number 17,” when they addressed him referring to the number on his cell. Even worse, says Megahed, is that many of those detained had been kidnapped off the street and no one knew where they were.

“You just disappear and your family have no clue what happened to you,” says Megahed. “My family thought I was dead.”

El-Hamalawy was also detained and tortured at SSI headquarters in 2000 for four days for his political activism. He was kidnapped by SSI officers while on his way to a dinner party and blindfolded with the Palestinian scarf he was wearing.

“They beat me and stripped me naked just like in the photos you saw of Abu Gharib Prison in Iraq,” says El-Hamalawy. “They also threatened to rape me and to take nude photos of me and send them to everyone if I talk about the torture.”

When they finally removed the blindfold after four days, he saw the face of his torturer, Hisham Abu Gheida. In the years that followed, Hossam would often come face-to-face with Abu Gheida during anti-government protests.

“I was so angry, I just wanted to see him dead,” recalls El-Hamalawy. The experience was so harrowing, says El-Hamalawy, that to this day he struggles to come to terms with it.

“As I walk down the street, I would look behind me, always worried that I will be arrested,” says El-Hamalawy. “When I hear knocking at my door while I am not expecting anyone, there is always a moment when I wonder: ‘who could this be? Will they take me again?’”

The abuse of the regime’s political enemies continued to the last moment. Mohamed El-Suify, 18, was arrested from downtown Cairo on 3 February because he was participating in the mass anti-Mubarak protests in Tahrir Square. He was taken to the Egyptian museum, tied up and searched.

“They kept asking me about Iran and if I was receiving any funding from them,” says El-Suify. “They beat me, suspended me upside down and submerged me in a barrel of water. I can’t remember how long I was hanging there. I just lost track of time.”

He was then taken in a bus with a group of other men to an undisclosed location. “I was beaten, insulted, electrocuted and threatened with rape,” says El-Suify. “They used to humiliate us by calling us female names.”

El-Suify was released on 10 February and the next day he returned to the square literally the moment Mubarak stepped down. “I just fell down on my knees and began crying hysterically and my friends kept telling me to calm down and that the person who did this to me is gone.”

History of violence

“All this talk that Egyptians were ruled with an iron first for 7000 years is just a malicious lie perpetuated by the regime to justify what they were doing,” insists Khaled Fahmy, professor and chair of the Department of History at the American University in Cairo.

Fahmy poins to an incident in 1858 during the rule of Said Pasha when a slave called Sultan was whipped to death by his overseer, Umar Bey. His fellow slaves sent a messenger to the police station to report the incident and the Cairo Police Commissioner immediately summoned Umar Bey, who was arrested, put on trial and then banished from Egypt.

“So in this case you have black slaves who managed to bring a legal case against their abuser and succeeded,” explains Fahmy. “So, no, torture does not have a long history in Egypt and those who administered torture were not let off the hook at all.”

However, slowly the use of torture became common against political detainees. During the liberal era in the 1930s and 1940s, torture was used against communists, revolutionaries and members of the Muslim Brotherhood. During the Nasser era, it was also used against the Brotherhood and the communists, sometimes to death.

“However, during the Mubarak era, the people who were tortured were not just political enemies,” explains Fahmy. “Torture became a tool not just for political investigations, but also for criminal investigations.”

It didn’t immediately start after Mubarak became president in 1981. Fahmy points out that the situation was triggered by the confrontation between the Mubarak regime and militant Islamists in the 1990s.

“At the time, Mubarak was given the green light by society, the political establishment, political opposition and particularly the leftist opposition to go after the Islamists, who they saw as a serious threat,” says Fahmy.

Mubarak didn’t stop there. First, he tortured violent Islamists. Then he began rounding up non-violent Islamists and torturing them too. Then the torture extended to non-political crimes.

“Then he began also not just torturing suspects but also their wives, husbands, daughters and brothers,” says Fahmy. “By the time he was done, even people who were not suspected of any political or criminal crime were tortured.”

El-Dawla adds that when political enemies were tortured they came out as heroes. Many of them also know why they were apprehended and what they can do to avoid a repeat scenario. However, for ordinary citizens the situation is vastly different, especially since most of them struggled to make sense of what happened.

“So this made people become very passive, and this is the effect of the torture, in that it produces the subservience of the quarter or village from which the torture victim has been taken,” she explains.

“So it sends a clear message to all other people that the police is master, the regime is master, and that this is what will happen to them if they don’t keep their mouths shut.”

The psychology of a torturer

Mahmoud Kutry, security expert and former police officer who wrote “Confessions of a Police Officer in the City of Wolves,” said that the training that police officers get in the police academy allows many of them to be transformed from normal people to heartless torturers.

“They were taught that they are above everyone else and were banned from talking or being friends with civilians or sitting at a café,” explains Kutry. “Sometimes the Ministry of Interior would force them to divorce their wives if a particular wife was deemed not up to standard.”

Kutry says that when the young policemen graduate they see seniors in police stations abusing suspects, which then feeds even more into their arrogance and heartlessness. “They think they are above the law, and that people are inferiors, like insects, and their deaths just don’t count,” Kutry points out.

The fact that the Ministry of Interior refused to spend any money on proper training or bring the necessary tools needed to investigate a crime meant that many police saw violence as the “easy way out”.

“Police officers have a very high status in Egypt and they get a lot of perks and they try and maintain that,” explains Kutry. “But then if they are not solving crimes, their seniors begin admonishing them, and so they start beating suspects so that they can get a confession and close the case. Sometimes I would have officers complaining that their hands are hurting because they’ve been beating people all day.”

The turning point

During the last years of Mubarak’s regime, many began to voice their anger at police brutality. With social media gaining ground, it became increasingly difficult for the regime to keep a lid on what was going on behind the walls of its police stations.

In 2006, a video of a 20-year-old  driver called Emad El-Kebeer screaming and begging for mercy while being sodomised in a police station made the rounds on the internet. In 2010, the battered and distorted face of 28-year-old Egyptian activist Khaled Said triggered a public outcry and led to the establishment of the “We are all Khaled Said” Facebook page, on which activist Wael Ghonim set the date of a protest that became a revolution — 25 January, Police Day.

What now?

Revolutionaries have repeatedly demanded that all police officers who tortured Egyptians be put on trial. While some are indeed being tried for shooting and killing protesters, many who have been active for years remain at large, even holding senior positions in the police system.

El-Hamalawy launched in 2008, where he lists the names and photos of police officers known to have engaged in torture. “Many of them would attend protests to control the crowd and we would photograph them,” says El-Hamalawy.

The site helps victims of torture to speak up and add detail about what happened to them inside police stations. El-Hamalawy hopes that it may also help bring torturers to justice. “If these people are not prosecuted in court, the people will settle scores with them on the street,” he says. “If they are afraid of street justice, then give us justice in court."

Never again?

Since the revolution erupted, several cases of torture in police stations and military prisons have been reported. On 22 May, 21-year-old Mohamed Shams was on his way home in Alexandria when his car was cut off by another vehicle. Then a man dressed in civilian clothes got out with a machine gun.

“A month before, thugs had blocked my way and stole my phone, laptop and LE6000 of my money, and so I thought the same thing was happening again,” remembers Shams. Panicking, he began to reverse his car, but the man fired a bullet that hit him in his left eye. The man, who turned out not be a thug but a police officer, then took him to the police station where he was refused treatment even though he kept complaining that he couldn’t see anything.

The officer told him that he would only let him go if he said that he was shot because he tried to resist arrest. “He told me that he has absolutely no problem if I bleed to death and that he will not let me go until I agree,” says Shams. After 18 hours, he was finally taken to the hospital, where the doctor operated but told Shams that his sight was gone forever.

“He told me that I had needed surgery immediately and the delay is the reason I will not see with again,” says Shams.

Now, Shams wants to understand how a revolution that was triggered, in large part, by police brutality does not seem to have changed anything. “How can this happen to me after the revolution?” demanded Shams. “What has changed? Nothing!”

Supporters of Shams have launched a Facebook group entitled “We are all Mohamed Shams”. For many, it is a worrying sign that the Egyptian Revolution got rid of the head but not the nervous system of the former regime.

Photo gallery captions:

1/7 'The Egyptian has raised his head up high and will not bow down again' says the sign held by one of the protesters marking the anniversary of the death of Khaled Said in front of the Interior Ministry headquarters. (Photo: Hossam Hamalawy, courtesy of Hossam Hamalawy’s blog 3arabawy)

2/7 Protester puts up a list of victims of police violence and torture on the occasion of the anniversary of the murder of Khaled Said at police hands. (Photo: Hossam Hamalawy, courtesy of Hossam Hamalawy's blog: 3arabawy)

3/7 “The people are a red line,” says the sign held by one of the protesters marking the anniversary of the murder of Khaled Said at police hands. (Photo: Hossam Hamalawy, courtesy of Hossam Hamalway's blog: 3arabawy)

4/7 Protesters gather in front of the headquarters of the Interior Ministry to mark the first anniversary of the murder and police hands of Khaled Said. (Photo: Hossam Hamalawy, curtsey of Hossam Hamalawy's blog: 3arabawy)

5/7 Protesters stencil the image of Khaled Said, murdered at police hands on 6 June 2010, on the walls of the Interior Ministry on the first anniversary of his death. (Photo: Hossam Hamalawy, curtsey of Hossam Hamalawy's blog: 3arabawy)

6/7 Anther young protester stenciling Khaled Said image on Interior Ministry walls. (Photo by Mai Shaheen)

7/7 Youth protesters demonstrating before the Interior Ministry on the occasion of the first anniversary of Khaled Said’s murder at police hands. (Photo by Hossam Hamalawy, courtesy of Hossam Hamalawy's blog 3arabawy)

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