The reported torture of citizens, often to death, while in police custody, amid other forms of police brutality, has become a major source of public outrage and frustration in Egypt in the past week, evoking a similar atmosphere as that at the end of 2010, leading up to the 25 January Revolution in 2011.
At the time, 25 January was selected by political activists specifically for being the National Police Day. Even though the police had seemingly adopted a different attitude and reforms after the revolution, in recent months, they have been perceived to have gradually returned to their previous repressive status.
In less than two consecutive weeks this November, and according to available information, at least three men lost their lives while in police detention, two of them did not even make it to the end of the day of their arrests. There are ongoing investigations into torture accusations.
Demonstrations erupted among the relatives of victims demanding “retribution”, and threatening to take further measures against the police. Some even spoke of “returning to the square”.
In a recent statement, the Egyptian Social Democratic Party (ESDP) said: “Police brutality incidents have become part of our daily life.”
“What is even less acceptable and inexplicable is how those crimes pass unpunished, pushing policemen to become more defiant of respecting the principles of human rights, as the absence of legal reinforcement of punishment leaves the country to the survival of the fittest,” the ESDP said.
From Khaled Said to Sayed Belal, and from Shaimaa Al-Sabbagh to Kareem Hamdy, reports state that the police have gone so far as to torture 19-year-old detainee Mohamed Moawad, who suffers an intellectual disability, until a part of his stomach had to be surgically removed.
Torturing a prisoner with special needs
On 2 November, Al-Haqanya Law Center, an NGO working with detainees, reported the torture of Moawad, stating that his medical reports by the Abbasiya Psychiatric Hospital show that he has a mental illness that affects his speech efficacy.
“Moawad has been detained for a few months, and was subjected to beating inside prison,” his lawyer Sarah Rabea told Daily News Egypt. “The police have been taking him back and forth to the hospital simply to revive him every time, but he would be tortured again,” Rabea asserted.
Rabea further recounted that Moawad’s family noticed during their visits to him in jail that he often had his hands on his stomach, but did not vocally express his pains. “Everybody thought stomach medicine would [relieve him of the pain],” she added.
But instead of improving, Moawad’s health deteriorated as he started bleeding from the mouth. “This is when the police feared taking responsibility for his possible death, thereby deciding to quickly take him to the hospital. There, he underwent a gastrectomy,” Rabea explained.
She further pointed out that Moawad’s stomach and chest injuries make it hard to prove he was tortured. “These are internal injuries that are not obvious. Moawad was hanged from his feet and beaten. But the prosecution did not order his examination by the Forensic Medicine Authority, so even the traces on his feet must be gone by now,” Rabea said.
“They know this person cannot express himself. The officers have explicitly told the family that there was nothing they would be able to do, nobody to hold them accountable, as though they are bragging about being able to act as they please,” Rabea stated.
Rabea had previously struggled with the prosecution authorities to be able to file a report, and no action was taken against the perpetuator, despite Rabea’s official accusations against the police officer who allegedly tortured Moawad.
“Torturing a human being is a very serious claim. The least any decent state should do is to immediately act upon receiving such complaints by inspecting the detention place where the complaint comes from,” Rabea concluded.
Accountability vs. ‘justifications’
Some argue that those who commit police brutality are “distorting the image of the entire Interior Ministry”. However, until now, there is rare recognition or acceptance, even among some human rights advocates, that torture practices are systematic. Instead, those incidents are generally referred to as “individual mistakes”.
However, the Socialist Popular Alliance Party (SPAP), which saw its share of excessive use of force by the police when it lost one of its members, Shaimaa Al-Sabbagh, in a peaceful march last January, said using the term “individual mistakes” is an ‘unacceptable justification by the Interior Ministry’.
“Crimes of torturing and murdering citizens cannot be labelled as accidental violations. They are deliberate, according to a careful officially approved policy aimed at restoring fear among citizens, something they had overcome with the January revolution,” the SPAP stated.
Al-Sabbagh, 32, was shot dead near Tahrir Square on the eve of the 25 January Revolution anniversary. As a trial took place, the court established that there was no justification for the police opening fire at a short range from the marchers.
One of the major aspects of Al-Sabbagh’s case was the Interior Ministry’s immediate denial of using birdshots. However, a Central Security Forces officer was sentenced to 15 years in prison, convicted of Al-Sabbagh’s murder using birdshots.
Further, the Interior Ministry’s media spokesperson, Major General Abu Bakr Abdul Kereem, has consistently maintained that there is no such thing as “torture in detention places”, but that in case of individual incidents, “no crimes would go unpunished”. However, no official admissions of these crimes have been made.
Commenting on the ministry’s “justifications”, Rabea said even the percentage of those brought to justice is small in comparison to the number of incidents that actually occurred. “The Matariya police station alone is enough to establish that torture practices by the Egyptian police are systematic. How many people have died there?” she said.
She further stressed that even when police officers are brought to trial, it does not mean they are held accountable. “Only when a case is made public, authorities are unable to cover it up.”
Rabea explained that by “systematic”, she means that torture occurs at the level of groups and not just individuals, and is extended to several governorates, and occurs regularly. The question remains as to the extent to which this phenomenon will fuel public unrest.