Q&A with activist Mona Seif: Torture video only tip of the iceberg

Mostafa Ali, Wednesday 28 Sep 2011

Mona Seif, an active opponent of the use of military trials in Egypt, tells Ahram Online that army personnel - as well as police - are now regularly torturing detainees

Mona Sief
Mona Seif, an activist with No to Military Trials (Photo: Reuters)

Mona Seif, an active member of Egypt’s ‘No to Military Trials’ campaign, spoke to Ahram Online about her reactions to a video that appeared on the Internet on Tuesday showing men dressed as ‎police and army officers torturing two men in what looks like a police station’s interrogation ‎room.‎ Seif's campaign ‎has provided legal and political support for hundreds of people tried ‎in military courts since the military assumed executive power following the February ouster of longstanding president Hosni Mubarak‎.

Ahram Online: How did you feel upon first seeing the video?

Mona Seif: I wasn’t surprised to see people who looked like police and army officers torturing suspects. I’ve heard many stories about similar torture sessions from people detained by the army within the last several months. But to be honest, it’s one thing to hear stories about torture and another thing altogether to see it with your own eyes.

I was probably like most others who saw the video - quite shaken and disturbed. These officers seemed to enjoy torturing these men; they didn’t appear to have any qualms about what they were doing. Still, I’ve heard about and documented many acts of torture by the army that make the acts you saw in the video seem mild by comparison.

AO: What do you mean by 'mild'?

MS: I’ve heard stories that are much worse than what you see in the video. For example, the officers in the video are using a small taser gun to electrocute suspects. But I’ve heard from some detainees that sometimes as many as three different soldiers will apply larger and more powerful electrocution batons on a single detainee at once.

Also in the video, we see the officers slapping the two men on the face and the back of the neck. While I’m sure this is painful - both physically and psychologically - to the victims, such slapping was not of the more violent type that leaves permanent scars or causes long-lasting physical damage.

AO: What other kinds of abuses have you heard about?

MS: Some detainees say they were beaten unconscious with sticks and metal wires by soldiers or army officers. Other detainees told us that army personnel had tortured them with cigarette butts. A few detainees told stories about being sodomized, and a couple even told us that the army had used ‘water-boarding’ techniques on them, like the Americans do in Guantanamo.

But I want to give you one more example, and this one’s unbelievable. We had just started working on the case of a young man in his twenties named Mohamed Ahmed from the Upper Egyptian governorate of Assiut who was serving three years in military prison for alleged larceny. He also happened to suffer from diabetes and epilepsy. His family told us that every time their son had seizures, soldiers would beat him up in order to ‘bring him under control.’

AO: Do detainees - or their families - ever file complaints against abusive soldiers or officers?

MS: Some have. But most don’t press charges because they fear that accused soldiers will retaliate by treating them even more savagely.

AO: What happens when detainees file formal complaints?

MS: A few people took their torture cases to the military prosecutor-general’s office. The prosecutor-general listened to a couple of witnesses in a couple of cases, then simply shelved the investigation.

The result has been that not a single soldier or officer, as far as I know, has been brought up on charges of torture or abuse in the eight months since the military took power - despite the overwhelming body of evidence that exists.

AO: Are soldiers and officers more abusive towards political detainees than criminal ones?

MS: I’m afraid not. There is equal opportunity when it comes to torture. In fact, the army has recently escalated its indiscriminate campaign of repression against poor and working-class people, which reminds me of what the police used to do on a daily basis during the Mubarak era.

In the first months after January, some people thought the army used torture simply because some activists ‘pissed them off’ or some criminals ‘gave them a hard time,’ in the belief that the Egyptian army did not systematically torture people. The use of torture is, however, systematic.

For example, the ruling military council has waged an all-out campaign against street vendors in recent weeks. They’ve brought the police with them on many occasions, launching ruthless campaigns to drive these people off the streets without any consideration for their desperate situation.

The ruling council treats poor people with the same deep contempt that Mubarak’s other men treated us with.

AO: Are you suggesting that the use of torture is as widespread today as it was during the Mubarak era? If so, are there any statistics to support this assertion?

MS: In terms of statistics, we don’t have any conclusive data on torture in Egypt since January.

Up until around June, people were scared to report incidents of torture by the army. It’s only in recent months that some - not many - have come forward to speak out against the military police, which arrests and processes civilians. In cases of police torture, by contrast, people are much more ready to report it, and to even challenge it directly.

The police might be unable to use torture freely - as they used to do in the past - but the army is now using torture against civilians. Incidents of police torture may be down, but that doesn’t mean that the overall use of torture has decreased.

AO: What is the ‘No to Military Trials’ campaign planning next?

MS: We’re still receiving calls from families who want to protest military prisons and trials on behalf of detained loved ones. We receive numerous phone calls and Facebook messages. We’re doing our best to keep up.

We’re also preparing for the national mobilization against the emergency law scheduled for 30 September in Cairo’s Tahrir Square, Alexandria and around the country. We plan to take part in a march from Tahrir to the Cabinet building to demand an end to all extraordinary and oppressive forms of injustice.

We will be joining the families of young people detained by the army on the night of the 9 September protest at the Israeli embassy and who are currently facing trial before civilian emergency courts.

AO: Are you expecting a large turnout on 30 September?

MS: I believe it will be big. I personally know many people who are very upset about the recent reinstatement of draconian emergency laws, Field-Marshal Hussein Tantawi’s leaked testimony in the Mubarak trial, ongoing police brutality, and the abuse of poor people, among a number of other things.

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