Egypt bloggers reveal new torture case
by Paul Schemm
CAIRO, Feb 1, 2007 (AFP) - Egypt's politically active blogger community has brought to light another torture case against the regime's security services amid a rising tide of outrage over police brutality.
On Saturday, lawyers from the Association for Human Rights and Legal Aid (AHRLA) will go to court in a last-ditch effort to keep alive the case against a state security officer accused of torturing to death a man he arrested three and a half years ago.
The case against Captain Ashraf Safwat is gaining new attention following the decision by Egypt's activist blogger community to post the details online in the wake of several other cases of police brutality in recent weeks.
"The most significant aspect of the case is this is the first state security officer to truly be put in front of a criminal court," said Mohsen Bahnasi, a member of AHRLA's board, referring to the country's feared plainclothes security service.
Mohammed Abdel Qader and his brother were summoned to a Cairo police station on September 16, 2003 by Safwat. Abdel Qader died five days later and an autopsy gave torture by electric shock combined with a weak heart as the cause of death.
More than three years later, the case continues to drag on, hampered by slow prosecutors, uncooperative security services and now the family's decision to drop the case and disappear.
In the past few months, however, torture cases have gained new prominence in Egypt as bloggers have posted videos, photos and accounts of brutality in police stations, prompting renewed investigations.
On January 20, Abdel Qader's case appeared on a blog, featuring excerpts from the forensic report and gruesome autopsy pictures showing the mangled corpse of a heavily bearded man.
"There is evidence of the application of high temperature to the right and left breast and the penis resembling the effects of electrocution with an electric wire," read an excerpt. "He was subject to those injuries hours before his death."
"The pictures have done something, because they are visual -- it is a shock," said Aida Seif al-Dawla, a veteran anti-torture activist who credits the bloggers for raising public awareness on the pervasive use of torture by security services.
Hossam el-Hamalawy, on whose Arabawy blog the pictures appear, said it comes as no surprise bloggers should take interest in such cases.
"The bloggers themselves were victims of torture during the past years," he said, referring to the case of Mohammed al-Sharqawi who was allegedly sodomised after being arrested. "We are receiving so many videos now."
Bloggers came to public attention during the political ferment surrounding elections in 2005 and then most recently when they posted the grim video of bus driver Imad al-Kabir being sodomised in a police station in 2006 -- the first of many such examples of police brutality to be publicised.
Interior Minister Interior Habib al-Adly last week lashed out at the bloggers, condemning the "intentionally unpatriotic campaign striking a national service that seeks stability in the country."
The campaign strikes at the heart of official assertions that torture is not widespread and limited to individual cases.
"The outcry has encouraged people to come forward in person and take the government at its word that it takes torture seriously and prosecutes it whenever possible," said Elijah Zarwan of Human Rights Watch.
Proving a torture case in Egypt, he added, is very difficult due to a narrow definition of torture by authorities and lengthy incommunicado detentions during which the marks often fade.
It took seven months for Safwat to answer the subpoena in the current case, and when he did it was with his own autopsy report claiming the burns came from a defibrillator used to revive the victim after a heart attack, indicating he was familiar with the case prior to the trial.
A special committee of experts then took two tries to conduct a new autopsy based on the pictures and available documents which finally concluded that there was torture, opening the way for the trial to begin in June 2006.
The repeated delays, leaking of information to defendants and allowing the suspected officers to remain free during the trial are typical of attempts to bring torture cases against police, said AHRLA president Tariq al-Khater.
"The prosecutors in Egypt are in collusion with the police," he said.
In November, the officer's lawyer suddenly produced a paper signed by Abdel Qader's family withdrawing Khater's power of attorney and dropping the civil case for damages against the officer.
Khater is convinced that state security pressured the family, which has since disappeared, by threatening their still imprisoned other son, Sameh.
With his case against Safwat threatening to fall to pieces, Khater has taken the unusual step of challenging the family's decision on the behalf Abdel Qader's three daughters on the grounds it is against their interests.
On Saturday, the criminal court will decide whether the case proceeds.