Monday, May 31, 2004


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By William Fisher

The flagrant hypocrisy of the Arab press over the Al Ghraib prisoner abuse issue in Iraq can inspire only deep doubt about the recent Arab League pronouncements of dedication to democratic reforms.

Egypt, America’s closest ‘strategic ally’ in the Middle East and a major recipient of US aid, provides a prime example.

Mohamed Sid-Ahmed, one of Egypt’s leading commentators, charged in Al-Ahram, the country’s most prestigious newspaper, that Israel “is now cooperating with the US and furnishing it with interrogation techniques based on torturing detainees and extracting confessions…part of an undertaking extending… to civilian contractors who inflict torture in return for a fee...An Israeli human rights organization…has recently discovered… an Israeli version of the Guantanamo Bay concentration camp…where people arrested in Lebanon and Palestine are interrogated under conditions very similar to those we now know prevail in Iraqi prisons...results obtained through torture in the Israeli concentration camps have been an encouragement for what is now going on in Iraq. State-sponsored terrorism of prisoners is also a lucrative business. Thanks to the ill-defined ‘war on terror’, those willing to inflict torture on enemy aliens stand to be handsomely rewarded.”

Maybe so, maybe no. But Mr. Sid-Ahmed conveniently misses the point.

The point is that reputable sources have documented dozens of cases of torture and death in detention in Egypt for decades. For example, a report by Human Rights Watch, submitted to the Egyptian Government and the Arab League last February, says torture in detention 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…. 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.”

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 deaths.

Over the past decade, suspected Islamist militants have borne the brunt of these acts. Recently, however, increasing numbers of secular and leftist dissidents – and journalists -- 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, according to HRW, 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.” Cruelty while in detention carries a maximum penalty of one year, or a fine not to exceed L.E. 200 [$30].

Another reason 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.”

The entire world abhors what has happened to Iraqi detainees. But the difference between Egypt and the United States is that the US is doing something to stop it.

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