By William Fisher
In a new report on torture, started considerably before Egypt’s current paroxysms, Human Rights Watch excoriates the Mubarak regime and demands fundamental changes that a transition government would do well to embrace.
The report -- "’Work on Him Until He Confesses': Impunity for Torture in
Egypt," -- documents how President Hosni Mubarak's government “implicitly condones police abuse by failing to ensure that law enforcement officials accused of torture are investigated and criminally prosecuted, leaving victims without a remedy.”
In a message directed both to the tottering regime of 30-year President Hosni Mubarak and whatever transition or national unity government takes over if Mubarak resigns, the message of Human Rights Watch (HRW) is:
"Egyptians deserve a clean break from the incredibly entrenched practice of
torture," said Joe Stork, deputy director of the Middle East and North Africa
Division at HRW.
"The Egyptian government's foul record on this issue is a huge part of what is still bringing crowds onto the streets today," he said.
The grisly 95-page report opens with a look-back to June 2010. During a demonstration in Alexandria, protesters held pictures of 28-year-old Khaled Said, who was dragged out of a public Internet café by two undercover police officers, who beat him to death on the streets of Alexandria.
The event dominated headlines and set off demonstrations across the country. The local prosecutor initially closed an investigation and ordered Said's burial, but escalating public protests prompted the Public Prosecutor to reopen the investigation and refer it to court.
While the incident is but one of many similar abuses, the Said killing was so egregious – and so broadly publicized -- that many observers see it and what it led to as some of the definitive catalysts for the current demonstrations.
News of Said’s killing was carried not only by newspapers, but perhaps more significantly, via Twitter and Facebook messages linking potential demonstrators with one another.
"We Are All Khaled Said" is the name of the Facebook group that helped initiate the mass demonstrations on January 25, 2011.
Joe Stork, deputy director of the Middle East and North Africa Division – who has been live blogging from Cairo since the demonstrations began – said, “Egyptians deserve a clean break from the incredibly entrenched practice of torture. The Egyptian government's foul record on this issue is a huge part of what is still bringing crowds onto the streets today.”
The report says, “Torture is an endemic problem in Egypt and ending police abuse has been a driving element behind the massive popular demonstrations that swept Egypt over the past week.”
“Prosecuting torture and ending the emergency laws that enable a culture of impunity for the security forces should be a priority for the Egyptian government,” the report said.
It urges officials to undertake immediate legal, structural, and political reforms to ensure that the judicial system holds perpetrators of torture accountable and deters future abuse. It examines dozens of cases of torture and death in custody for which victims or their families instituted legal proceedings by filing a complaint.
The vast majority of torture complaints never reach court because of police
intimidation of victims and witnesses who file complaints, an inadequate legal framework, and delays in referring victims for medical examination,
the report said, adding:
“Another factor is that police from the same unit as the alleged torturer are responsible for gathering evidence and summoning witnesses.”
HRW says, “Said's case was an exception, one of very few in which media coverage and public outrage prompted senior members of the Public Prosecutor's office to become involved, which ensures a speedy and full investigation.”
The report notes that in November 2009, the government published statistics showing that between 2006 and 2009, Egyptian courts had sentenced only six police officers for torture and inhumane treatment, despite hundreds of complaints about torture and deaths in custody.”
In July 2010 an Alexandria appeals court confirmed a five-year sentence against a seventh officer, the report says.
HRW’s Stork adds, "In a country where torture remains a serious and systemic problem, the conviction of a mere seven police officers over four years reflects a huge disconnect from reality and leaves hundreds of victims and families without justice."
The report found that “law enforcement officers routinely and deliberately use torture and ill-treatment -- in ordinary criminal cases as well as with political dissidents and security detainees -- to coerce confessions, extract other information, or simply to punish detainees.”
The report presents numerous verified case histories. Here is one of them:
Ahmad Abd al-Mo'ez Basha, a 22-year-old driver in Imbaba, Cairo, told HRW how officers arrested him at his home in July 2010:
“They took me to Imbaba police station and put me in a room by myself. Two officers came in and told me to confess. I asked, ‘What to?’ They answered, ‘Confess to the theft.’ The head of the Criminal Investigations unit said, ‘Work on him until he confesses.’
“They handcuffed my hands in front of me and hung me from the door for more than two hours. They had whips and hit me on the legs, on the bottom of my feet, and on my back. When they took me down, they brought a black electric device and applied electro-shocks four or five times to my arms until they started smoking. All of this time they kept saying, ‘You have to confess’.
“The next morning they beat me again and whipped me with the cable on my back and on my shoulders. I fainted after three hours of the beating.”
“Impunity for torture is especially acute with State Security Investigations
(SSI), the Interior Ministry department responsible for monitoring political
dissents, HRW said. The SSI routinely engages in enforced disappearances, detaining suspects in its facilities for extended periods, concealing the fact that it is holding them or refusing to provide their whereabouts and denying detainees contact with lawyers, family, or doctors,” the report charges.
It notes that SSI facilities are not lawful places of detention: “Egyptian law prohibits detention in facilities other than recognized prisons and police stations.” The government denies that the SSI detains suspects at its sites - where suspects often face torture - despite considerable testimony to the contrary.
No SSI officer has ever been convicted for torture, although in at least three
cases officers have appeared before a court. One former SSI detainee and Muslim Brotherhood member, Nasr al-Sayed Hassan Nasr, told Human Rights Watch of his 60-day detention by SSI in 2010, during which he says he was blindfolded the entire time:
“They beat me with a shoe across the face. They kicked me in the testicles so that I'd fall to the ground. Once on the floor they used electro-shocks to make me stand up and then would kick me again in the testicles. At one point the officer tried to strangle me. The officer would call the guards and say, ‘By four o'clock I want you to bring Nasr's wife and daughters here and strip them in front of him’.”
“They took photographs of me while I was naked and being tortured and threatened to publish them. Victims and families of victims who had made complaints of torture consistently told Human Rights Watch that police officials tried to intimidate them to withdraw their complaint or to settle out of court,” the report says.
Egypt's legal framework fails to criminalize torture fully in line with
international law, another factor contributing to impunity, Human Rights Watch said.
The group called on the European Union and United States to speak out publicly against torture in Egypt, as well as about the government's failure to suppress these practices and punish those responsible.
"Police abuse becomes commonplace when there is effective impunity for law enforcement officers and their superiors," HRW’s Stork said. "That's one reason why so many people took to the streets this past week demanding an end to police abuses. Egypt needs to seriously confront the crime of torture, starting with the faulty investigation process, to send a strong signal that torturers will be held accountable."
As a result of incidents such as these – led by the beating death of Khaled Said -- throughout June and July 2010 hundreds of Egyptians took to the streets in a rare wave of protests to voice their anger at the police, whom witnesses accused of publicly murdering Said.
Some of these protests were loud and angry, with demonstrators demanding a full investigation into Said's death on June 6, and the prosecution of all those they held responsible, including the interior minister. In one particular event, hundreds of mourners dressed in black lined the Alexandrian coast in Said's memory, staring silently out to sea.
The Khaled Said case-including gruesome pictures of Said's battered body that soon appeared on social networking websites-shook and outraged many in Egypt, where an emergency law grants wide powers to police and security force.
Some citizens could identify with Said as victims of police brutality, while many young people could understand the experience of being randomly accosted by police in an internet café – public internet cafés are subject to surveillance and require a national ID to enter.
An initial attempt by authorities to cover up police culpability only fueled
public anger. According to Egyptian lawyers and domestic and international human rights groups, which have extensively documented the practice of torture in Egypt, law enforcement officials have used torture and ill-treatment on a widespread, deliberate, and systematic basis over the past two decades to glean confessions and information, or to punish detainees.
The report finds that the government is failing miserably to provide victims of torture and ill-treatment effective remedy, or to deter such abuses from
occurring in the future. Impunity prevails with regard to torture and
ill-treatment, since those guilty of such abuses having little expectation or
reason to fear they will be held to account.
The result is an epidemic of habitual, widespread, and deliberate torture perpetrated on a regular basis by security forces against political dissidents, Islamists allegedly engaged in terrorist activity, and ordinary citizens suspected of links to criminal activity or who simply look suspicious.
HRW urged the government of Egypt – and whoever heads it – to adopt a series of recommendations. For example:
The Ministry of Interior should immediately end the illegal practice of enforced disappearance and detention in SSI offices, and allow prosecutors to conduct unannounced visits to such sites to verify compliance. The Ministry should also announce it will cooperate fully with prosecutors in investigating and prosecuting those allegedly responsible for torture and ill-treatment.
The government should also amend the penal code to bring the definition of torture in line with international law, and make penalties for torture and ill-treatment commensurate with the seriousness of the crime.
The Office of the Public Prosecutor should order all prosecutors to
investigate credible allegations of torture and ill-treatment, even in the
absence of a formal complaint.
Prosecutors should conduct these investigations promptly, impartially, and thoroughly, ensuring that all those allegedly responsible, including superiors, are investigated. Forensic medical examinations should occur as soon as possible.
The government should also amend the Code of Criminal Procedure to allow victims of police abuse to file criminal suits against those responsible. It is vital that an independent body be established to accept, investigate, and pursue complaints of abuse by law enforcement officers.
Reinstating the Office of the Investigative Judge with a mandate to investigate abuse complaints would give the system greater independence, as would establishing a judicial police force to gather relevant material evidence and work with police.
Alleged abusers should not gather evidence, or interact with complainants and witnesses. Taking meaningful steps to investigate, prosecute and punish torturers would demonstrate the government's political will to end the practice and thus comply with its obligations under Egyptian and international law.
The European Union (EU) and United States, which have publicly declared their commitment to upholding human rights in their foreign relations, should speak out publicly against torture in Egypt, as well as the government's failure to prohibit and suppress these practices and punish those responsible.
The report reiterates that governments are strictly obligated by law not to return anyone to countries where there is a risk of torture or inhuman or degrading treatment. It also calls upon governments “to make clear to the Egyptian government that torture decreases Egypt's value as a partner in counterterrorism because the information it obtains through torture is both unreliable and inadmissible in a court of law.”
There are a number of reasons why most torture cases do not reach court. These include Egypt's inadequate legal framework, which does not properly criminalize torture or provide sufficiently strong penalties; prosecutorial discretion to close investigations; intimidation of victims and witnesses; delays and poor quality of forensic medical examination; conflicts of interest in relying on the police for evidence; drawn out investigations; failure to conduct impartial investigations; and impunity for state security officers.