Is torture on the rise under President Mohamed Morsi?

Osman El Sharnoubi, Thursday 21 Feb 2013

After alleged death-by-torture of political activist Mohamed El-Gendy, rights groups and independent activists assert that police torture has increased during President Morsi's 7-month-old term

Egyptian riot police arrest a man during clashes with protesters near Tahrir Square in Cairo on January 30, 2013, (Photo: AP).

Mohamed El-Gendy, a 28-year-old political activist, was, according to several sources, illegally detained in a Central Security Forces (CSF) camp following a recent anti-government protest and tortured for four days straight.

He died eight days later after being hospitalised for four days, all the while unconscious, in an intensive care unit.

This is the story of El-Gendy’s death as told by his family, friends, the Egyptian Popular Current of which he was a member, the broader Egyptian opposition and many others, including two police sources interviewed by Reuters.

The other narrative is a simpler one, told by the interior ministry and the justice minister: El-Gendy died in an automobile accident.

A coroner's report issued last Wednesday corroborated the police and justice minister's account, but that won't necessarily change many people's minds: El-Gendy is already being regarded as Egypt’s second Khaled Said, the 28-year-old Alexandrian man beaten to death by police in 2010 – a case largely regarded as one of the triggers of the 25 January revolution.

The forensic report on Khaled Said, too, did little to change public perceptions. It claimed Said had died of asphyxiation due to a small bag of marijuana that had become lodged in his throat. This was widely seen as an attempt to tarnish Said’s image, and served to provoke many citizens already suspicious of the government.

Torture under Morsi

Following El-Gendy’s death, police torture has come under the limelight once again, prompting critics to ask if the practice – which had been a characteristic of ousted president Hosni Mubarak's police apparatus – is continuing under President Mohamed Morsi.

Torture is not only continuing after the revolution, and under Egypt's first elected president, but is in fact increasing, believes Aida Seif El-Dawla, psychiatrist, human rights activist and executive director of the Cairo-based Nadeem Centre for the Rehabilitation of Victims of Violence.

"There is always the question as to whether torture has actually increased, or if people are simply talking about it more often," Seif El-Dawla told Ahram Online. "I believe it is increasing."

Seif El-Dawla, who has worked for Nadeem for over a decade, asserts that the frequency of torture in Egypt has changed.

Before the revolution, she says, torture was common, but was kept far away from the public eye – that is why the case of Khaled Said, when revealed, was so shocking. Now, by contrast, says Seif El-Dawla, torture is practiced in broad daylight.

"Group torture is now practiced everywhere. A torture chamber now exists wherever there are security forces" she said.

In 2012, the Nadeem Centre issued a report tallying different types of police abuses seen during the first 100 days of Morsi’s presidential term. It counted over 30 cases of torture by police, 11 of whose victims died in police stations.

An article published by Amnesty International, entitled "Torture ties the Egyptian government to a brutal past" also supports the assertion that torture is continuing under the new president.

In the article, the international rights group published several accounts it collected of police abuse and violence against protesters and randomly arrested citizens.

One of Amnesty's interviewees, a 17-year-old protester tells of the beatings he suffered while being arrested, then when being held in a police truck and finally when arriving and kept at the Tora CSF camp close to Cairo's affluent district of Maadi, an illegal place of detention.

Similar accounts circulated in the Egyptian media and rights groups' reports, especially after the period of political unrest following the Egyptian revolution's second anniversary in January.

Monir Adib, a journalist who published research papers on police torture in the Mubarak era, agrees that the practice is still carried out systematically by security forces.

"Most of the top-ranking officers in Mubarak’s State Security, renowned for practicing torture, are now running the National Security apparatus [which replaced State Security after the revolution]," Adib said.

"The rest of the police leadership is still at the interior ministry," he asserted, stressing that such a factor would perpetuate the abuse. Nevertheless, Adib does not believe torture today is becoming more violent.

A spike in torture?

Seif El-Dawla, on the other hand, believes that not only has the frequency of torture increased, but that it has become more brutal.

"The torture is more violent and the sexual abuse involved is increasing," she told Ahram Online, to the extent that many victims don't want their accounts published – even when knowing they would be anonymous – due to the horrific effects it has had on them.

On the revolution's second anniversary on 25 January, anti-government protests erupted across Egypt and a wave of clashes, riots and arbitrary arrests followed. It was amid these events that El-Gendy disappeared and dozens of others were shot dead.

Ahmed Mohamed Ahmed, a 25-year-old protester, appeared on Egyptian satellite television program Al-Ashera Masaan saying that he was raped by CSF conscripts while being detained. Ahmed claimed he was also held illegally at a CSF camp for three nights before being prosecuted. He was arrested in Cairo, he says, during a protest on 28 January.

Rights activist Nazli Hussein, working with others to track down those recently kidnapped and detained, told Ahram Online that most of those arrested since 25 January of this year have been tortured.

Hussein, a member of the 'No to Military Trials for Civilians' campaign, said of the 400 people detained during recent clashes, more than half were tortured in CSF camps – unofficial detention venues in which Mohamed El-Gendy was allegedly tortured to death.

"For some time now, police haven't been torturing people in detention centres, but this time it's different," Hussein told Ahram Online.

Asked about the types of torture encountered, Hussein said: "Take a simple beating, and then think about what happened to El-Gendy and imagine everything in between." Hussein said electric shocks and standing half-naked in the winter rain were some of the techniques that detainees had endured.

Some of the findings Hussein recounted were published in a recent report by several rights activists.

One of the protesters interviewed by Amnesty told the group that "detainees were forced to strip down to their underwear and stand in the cold for over 45 minutes, while members of the riot police continued beating them targeting their blows on existing wounds sustained in the initial arrests."

Another protester, Ayman Mahni, was, according to a video testimony taken by the Nadeem Center, arrested in Alexandria, taken to a CSF camp where he was tortured with others.

"We entered amid continuous beating and insults, they kept calling us infidels and threw water on the room's floor which they later connected to electric wires. We kept hopping from the shock of the electrocution," Mahni said.

He claimed that he and other detainees were tied by ropes around the neck and forced to bark like dogs.

"They'd take videos of us with their phones, show them to each other in front of us and laugh at them," he told Nadeem.

Activist, lawyer and member of Mohamed El-Gendy's defence team Mohamed Abdel-Aziz also believes torture has intensified under Morsi.

"Why hasn't the interior ministry not been restructured yet?" he asked, telling Ahram Online that, in the latter half of 2012, dozens of torture cases have been reported. "This shows that there is no intention to reform."

Abdel-Aziz strongly criticised the forensic report that stated El-Gendy had been killed in a car accident.

"The official narrative is misleading the course of justice and exploits the fact that the forensic authority is under the auspices of the justice ministry, which makes it politicised," he said.

Abdel-Aziz said that Justice Minister Ahmed Mekki was now officially accused in the El-Gendy case of misleading justice, after announcing the cause of death before the forensic report was issued. He added that the forensic report would be appealed.

Ending an era of torture?

Following El-Gendy's death, presidential spokesman Yasser Ali stressed that the presidency would not ignore human rights abuses, whoever the perpetrators.

"The era of covering up violations of Egyptian citizens' dignity has passed; this is what we fought for and this was the basis of the January revolution," Ali said in a press statement last week.

Leading Muslim Brotherhood figure Essam El-Erian, who is also deputy head of the group's Freedom and Justice Party, said that cases like El-Gendy's – in which policemen are accused of killing and torturing – contravene both Egyptian law and the constitution.

El-Erian called for immediate investigations inside the interior ministry, aside from those being carried out by the prosecution-general, in order to hold those involved in such actions accountable.

A new anti-torture law is being reviewed by the Egyptian parliament's upper house, which is currently in charge of legislation. The new law, according to the minister of justice, who played a major role in drafting it, allows the torture victim to file a lawsuit directly to the criminal court.

Mekki told Al-Ahram Al-Massai daily newspaper that the old system used to put binding conditions on such cases, where the victim would have to wait for the prosecution to take up the case, since those accused of torture are considered public employees.

Notably, when the body of Khaled Said underwent a second forensic examination shortly after his death, the result was very similar to the first and the cause of death the same: asphyxiation by a plastic container filled with hemp.

Said's family, however, along with much of the public, weren't convinced. Said's sister, for her part, has vowed to take the case to the United Nations if justice isn't served.

It seems El-Gendy's family, too, isn't accepting the government story. "The forensic report is not the Quran," his father told Al-Ahram's Arabic-language news website.

"There is no real change and there was no real intention to change the security mentality, which is about protecting the regime and not the citizenry," Adib told Ahram Online.

Adib believes the current government needs Mubarak-style security, given the strong opposition it faces.

Like Adib, Seif El-Dawla asserts that the current government is depending on repression to safeguard its longevity.

"Morsi won’t change the interior ministry, which protects him; he needs it the way it is," she said. "Purging it or restructuring it is impossible at this time."

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