Egypt police subject to the law, says human rights lawyer

Yasmine Fathi , Wednesday 16 Mar 2011

The human rights advocate and lawyer Amir Salem, who has spent much of his long career holding Egypt's state security to account, shares his vision for the future of the country's reformed police force with Ahram Online

Amir Salem

The minister of interior’s announcement on Tuesday that the country’s hated State Security Investigations (SSI) is to be dismantled is the first step towards a more transparent police force and Ministry of Interior, says human rights lawyer and advocate Amir Salem.

Salem, head of the National Association for Human Rights, held a three hour meeting with Mansour El-Essawy, Egypt’s minister of interior, late on 14 March, the day before El-Essawy announced the dismantling of the SSI.

“We discussed how to help the ministry reclaim the confidence of the people and I told him that they won’t be taking any steps forward without dismantling the SSI,” says Salem. “I had been asking them to dismantle the SSI since pretty much the second day of the revolution.”

The next day, the minstry announced that the SSI in its current guise is to be dismantled. Salem’s request that this be done is one that was shared by the majority of those who participated in the January 25 Revolution. After Mubarak stepped down on 11 February, protest after protest was held in Tahrir Square demanding that the country's state security be dismantled, and, says Salem, for good reason.

“The SSI felt that their main duty was to destroy Egypt’s political life and abort any opposition,” explains Salem. “This meant that they infiltrated almost every sector in Egypt, including political parties, syndicates and universities and controlled almost everything, which gave them a feeling of total power and supremacy.”

They also infiltrated telecommunication companies and used them to spy on people, says Salem. Add to that, he adds, their constant use of riot police, which were stationed in every city ready to pounce and destroy any public dissent before it could grow.

“When the opposition began growing in Egypt, they didn’t want it to look like they were having a face off with the civilians, so they began using thugs, and ex-convicts registered in various stations to fight the people and make it look like a confrontation between two civilians.”

The collapse of the SSI and the police force during the revolution was a result of their blurred and erroneous belief of who it was exactly they worked for.

“They never worked for the people. For years they operated under the idea that the police protected and served the SSI and the SSI protected and served the President and his mafia,” says Salem. “That is why when the president and his regime collapsed, so did they.”

Following his meeting with El-Essawy, Salem believes all this will change; not just for the SSI but for the ministry as a whole. During the meeting he exchanged ideas with the minister about how the ministry of interior should operate in the future.

Salem suggested that the SSI be transformed into a civil intelligence-gathering agency, similar to the Information and Decision Support Center that answers to the government.

“Their focus would only be on specific kinds of crime, such as terrorism and organized crime, that may threaten the security of the nation,” explains Salem. “That would mean that they will be completely separated from Egypt’s political life and would no longer have a presence in political parties, syndicates, universities or the media.”

Salem says that he also suggested that each police station has four lawyers who are always present to provide legal aid to any citizen who enters the station and to monitor and record any violations of human rights that take place in the station.

“The fact that El-Essawy has given his initial agreement and is studying the idea is revolutionary and means the days when officers felt free to abuse defendants and do what they like are over.”

Salem says that once the idea is approved, he will work to convince the lawyer’s syndicate to volunteer lawyers throughout the country’s police stations.

“We have about 600,000 lawyers in Egypt, but only 250,000 of them are working, so this idea will also help many of them find employment, while at the same time do something that will benefit the community and human rights in Egypt,” he says.

A complete overhaul of the country’s prison system was also one of the main issues discussed in the meeting. Salem says that Egypt’s prisons should function as social institutions, which aim to rehabilitate prisoners and help them return to public life once their sentence is served.

“I would like to have a western style prison system, with NGOs and civil society to help to socially and psychologically cure the prisoners,” he says Salem. “In Egypt prisoners take ten piasters for a day’s work which is ridiculous.”

Salem says that he rounded up his ideas with the suggestion that Egypt’s police officers should undergo a rehabilitation program themselves to help them better understand their role in society.

“They need to have a better understanding of their duty and that they, like every other citizen, are subject to the law and the Constitution,” says Salem before conceding that “all this will take time.”

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