Monday, May 31, 2004


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By William Fisher

Of course, Arabs are outraged by the awful photographs of the abuse of Iraqi prisoners by US soldiers in Iraq. We are all outraged. But one has to question whether there is not more than a little hypocrisy in the reactions of most Arab governments and of the Arab League itself.

A spokesman for the League said in Cairo, "It is beyond the words of despicable acts and disgust that we feel at watching such photographs."

What’s wrong with this picture is that many of the Middle East’s Arab states, as well as Israel, have long, bloody, and current histories of torture and death among prisoners while in detention. Egypt is near the top of the list, and the Cairo-based and gravely dysfunctional Arab League is well aware of it.

Egypt’s record was comprehensively documented in a February 2004 report by Human Rights Watch (HRW), along with detailed recommendations to the League and to the Government of Egypt for corrective actions. To date, neither party has done anything to remedy the situation.

The findings? HRW documented dozens of cases of torture and death in detention. Torture in Egypt, the Report says, is “epidemic, a widespread and persistent phenomenon affecting large numbers of ordinary citizens who find themselves in police custody as suspects or in connection with criminal investigations. Security forces and the police routinely torture or ill-treat detainees, particularly during interrogation. In most cases, detainees are tortured to obtain information and coerce confessions, sometimes leading to death in custody. “ Deaths in custody as a result of torture and ill treatment have shown a disturbing rise in the past two years, HRW says -- at least ten cases in 2002 and seven in 2003. In the September-November 2003 period alone, Egyptian human rights organizations reported four cases of deaths in custody.

Methods include beatings with fists, feet, and leather straps, sticks, and electric cables; suspension in contorted and painful positions accompanied by beatings; the application of electric shocks; and sexual intimidation and violence.

In the past decade, suspected Islamist militants have borne the brunt of these acts. Recently, however, increasing numbers of secular and leftist dissidents have also been tortured by police and security officials. In March and April 2003, for example, demonstrators and alleged organizers of public protests against the US-led war in Iraq were tortured and ill treated in detention. Police and state security agencies continue to use torture in order to suppress political dissent.

Egyptian authorities fail to investigate the great majority of allegations of torture. In the few cases where officers have been prosecuted for torture or ill treatment, charges were often inappropriately lenient and penalties inadequate. This lack of effective public accountability and transparency has led to “a culture of impunity” and contributed to the institutionalization of torture.”

The Prosecutor General’s office opened criminal investigations in some of the cases of death in detention following formal complaints by human rights lawyers and family members. But, says HRW, “none of these investigations have led to criminal prosecution or disciplinary actions against the perpetrators.” Moreover, Egypt’s Penal Code fails to provide for effective punishment of law enforcement officials responsible for torture and ill treatment. It states that any official who subjects persons to “cruelty,” including physical harm or offences to their dignity, “shall be sentenced to an arrest period of no longer than one year, or with a fine not to exceed L.E. 200 [$30].”

One of the reasons for Egypt’s failure to investigate and punish acts of torture by law enforcement is that it has appointed the fox to guard the henhouse. Says HRW: “There is an apparent conflict of interest in placing the responsibility to monitor places of detention, order forensic exams, and investigate and prosecute abuses by officials within the same office that is responsible for ordering arrests, obtaining confessions, and successfully prosecuting criminal suspects.”

Egypt, a close American ally and one of the largest recipients of US aid, is party to all the international human rights treaties prohibiting torture and mandating investigations, and torture is forbidden by Egypt’s Constitution. Moreover, the country now has an official human rights commission, headed by former United Nations Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Gali.

Let us hope the US military will mete out swift and appropriate punishment to the American soldiers who disgraced their country. And let us hope that Egypt and other Arab governments are watching – and learning.

About the writer: William Fisher has managed economic development programs in the Middle East and in many other areas for the US State Department and the US Agency for International Development. He served in the international affairs area in the Kennedy Administration