The Arabist

The Arabist

By Issandr El Amrani and friends.

Reporting torturers

I've been following for sometime an excellent Arabic website that is keeping an eye on torture in Egypt. The site was an initiative taken by a group of independent activists, who saw that "abusing one citizen = abusing the whole nation."

The site content is a disturbing crashcourse into the world of "lawenforcement" in our country, with breaking news about torture cases in police stations, horrible stories of minors receiving electric shocks in interrogation rooms, women suspects abused and whipped... As disturbing as it is, I strongly recommend the website for anyone who can read Arabic.

التعذيب �ي مصر

One thing you'll notice when going thru the cases of abuse on the website is that most of the torture victims are not political activists, but ordinary citizens and "criminals." Rights lawyers like Ahmad Seif al-Islam have long pointed out to another phenomenon, the "privatization of torture," where police intervene in personal disputes between neighbors, for example, carrying out torture as a "favor" for their friends and contacts.

Check this story I covered for the Cairo Times back in 2002:

Privatizing torture
Cases of police brutality finally being condemned by the courts

Hossam el-Hamalawy
As of late, Egypt's courtrooms have been filled with hundreds of Islamist militants, civil society activists, cult leaders and gays. Now police officers are also among those sitting in holding cages and prison cells.
On 8 October, two police officers were sentenced to three years in jail by a Cairo court for brutality causing the death of a detainee. Four days later, on 12 October, the trial of another officer opened at a Giza court. Lt. Colonel Arafa Hamza Mansour was accused of torturing a teenager to death three years ago.
The officer, then the head of inspections at Al Umraniya police station, arrested 19-year-old Ahmad Tammam on 19 July 1999 at his home following a fight that took place between Tamman and another young man in his neighborhood. Tammam's family received their son's dead body three days later.
According to Tammam's family and reports by human rights groups, the arrest and alleged torture at the station were done as a favor to the other young man who had ties to the police officers.
The family fought for three years to press charges against the perpetrators and claim that during that time they were subject to threats by thugs connected with the police and relatives of the other man involved in the fight.
"Waiting for three years was the worst torture for us," recalls Tammam's brother, Muhammad, a 34-year-old civil servant at the Ministry of Power Supply. "That was a period of humiliation. The killer was outside [prison], while we have been suffering daily pain."
Human rights groups say torture in Egypt has become so endemic among law-enforcement agencies, that the state can no longer turn a blind eye to it. There's a wave of torture trials because "there's a wave of people dying of torture," said Aida Seif Al Dawla from the Nadeem Center for the Management and Rehabilitation of Victims of Violence, which has been campaigning in solidarity with the Tammams.
"Public awareness about torture has also increased," she continued. "Some lawsuits have been won. This encouraged others to join in. The people are not silent anymore about such practices."
Other human rights activists say it's because of cases like Tammam's that the state has undertaken the latest campaign against torture in police stations.
"We are seeing here the 'privatization' of torture," said Ahmad Seif, director of the Hisham Mubarak Law Center, whose lawyers are filing the case on behalf of the Tammams.
"Police officers now do not only torture upon government orders, but they also do that as a favor for their friends as in the case of Tammam. The government may have felt there was a loss of control."
While the government may provide political cover for State Security police in cases where torture is used to extract confessions from government dissidents, it is not interested in involving itself in personal fights and providing protection for those who do, Seif continued.
In the past, reports by international human rights committees have criticized the Egyptian regime's practices and its denial that torture took place in the country's police stations and prisons. This tarnished the state's image and embarrassed the Egyptian Foreign Ministry, which in turn pressed the government for action, according to Seif.
"In my view the Foreign Ministry asked the government [to investigate] a couple of 'real torture cases,' so as to give the impression that there is progress, and that Egypt is a modern state," he said. "That's why they appointed, around three years ago, the new Public Prosecutor, Maher Abdel Wahed. He has referred to the court more torture cases than any of his predecessors ever have."
But it seems there's still a long way to go if the government wants to foster its image domestically given its dismal record.
"I'm worried, and I lost trust in the system and everything," said Muhammad Tammam. "We put our faith in God hoping my brother's blood wasn't shed in vain. Justice has to be served."

Volume 6, Issue 32
17 - 23 OCTOBER 2002

Cairo Times