Litany of Abuses Fueled Protesters’ Fury

In Egypt, where protesters continued to demonstrate Tuesday for the eighth day in a row, the use of torture by law enforcement officials over the past two decades has contributed to the growing unrest, rights groups say.

In a new report by Human Rights Watch (HRW), the international advocacy group claims the practice is endemic and often practiced with impunity.

“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, in a statement. “The Egyptian government’s foul record on this issue is a huge part of what is still bringing crowds onto the streets today.”

Mubarak’s appointment on Sunday of Omar Suleiman as his vice president – his first – has largely been received with disapproval by Egyptian protesters, as allegations of his involvement with torture are publicized by critics. As the head of the Egyptian General Intelligence Service (GIS), Suleiman worked with the CIA’s renditions program.

Torture and Terror

According to another HRW report from six years ago, from the 1990s through 2005, Egypt received the largest number of CIA detainees under the U.S. intelligence agency’s controversial extraordinary renditions program, which delivered suspected terrorists to governments with questionable rights records for interrogation.

HRW’s latest report, titled “‘Work on Him Until He Confesses’: Impunity for Torture in Egypt,” claims that the country’s State Security Investigations (SSI) – which is responsible for monitoring political dissidents and opposition forces and is a leg of the country’s intelligence community along with Suleiman’s GIS – is Egypt’s most notorious perpetrator of abuses, including routine forced disappearances.

Nasr al-Sayed Hassan Nasr, a former Muslim Brotherhood member, told HRW about his 60-day detention, where a SSI officer told him that “[t]his is the biggest citadel in the Middle East for extracting information. You are 35 meters below the ground in a place that nobody except the minister of interior knows about.”

Nasr says he was blind-folded the entire time, beaten, electro-shocked, and threatened with sexual abuse and humiliation. Laurence Wright, author of The Looming Tower, a history of al-Qaeda, suggests that a connection exists between the abuses of Egypt’s jails, where al-Qaeda’s number two, Ayman Zawahiri, was tortured, and the 9/11 attacks on the Twin Towers in New York and the Pentagon.

“By visiting imprisonment, torture, and exile upon Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood, Mubarak foreclosed any possibility of an Islamic revolution in his own country,” wrote conservative columnist Ross Douthat in the New York Times Monday, citing Wright. “But he also helped radicalize and internationalize his country’s Islamists, pushing men … out of Egyptian politics and into the global jihad.”

A state of emergency, which essentially allows security forces to operate outside the law, has been in place in Egypt since 1967. Hosni Mubarak, who became president in 1981, has justified the extension, despite international denunciation, on the basis of a continued threat of terrorism.

With some $2 billion in U.S. military and economic aid pouring into Egypt every year, Washington has had to balance its longstanding support of the Mubarak regime against public criticisms of Cairo’s repression of citizens and abuses of power.

A January 2009 WikiLeaks cable from U.S. Ambassador to Egypt Margaret Scobey to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton admitted that Mubarak’s government “has not begun serious work on trying to transform the police and security services from instruments of power that serve and protect the regime into institutions operating in the public interest, despite official slogans to the contrary.”

In March of that year, Clinton responded to a question about a State Department report on Egypt’s human rights record by saying, “We consider Egypt to be a friend and … we all have room for improvement.”

Impunity and Injustice

Over the past 20 years, Egyptian authorities have shifted from denying the pervasiveness of allegations of torture to conceding that while abuse does occur, complaints are investigated and brought to trial if there is enough evidence.

But the 95-page HRW report states that factors within Egypt’s legal and institutional framework impede torture victims from holding the authorities accountable and discourage them from lodging complaints or following through with them. These include a lack of prosecutorial independence, conflicts of interest within police ranks, and witness intimidation.

Last summer, the issue of police brutality peaked in the public’s consciousness when the death of Khaled Said gained widespread publicity. Witnesses claim Said was arrested by police in an Internet café, dragged out into the street, and beaten to death. Khaled’s family believes the authorities wanted to punish the 28-year-old for circulating a video recording of police corruption, HRW says.

According to the report, an investigation into Said’s case was closed after claims of “false allegations” by the Ministry of Interior, but re-opened after organized protests and an unusual amount of press coverage.

HRW also cited the example of Imad al-Kabir, a microbus driver from Giza who was tortured by police in 2006. A video of his abuse reached the Internet and sparked public outcry and press interest, which ultimately resulted in the prosecution and sentencing of an officer.

But human rights groups claim the amount of attention paid to Said’s case by authorities and the conviction and sentencing which resulted from al-Kabir’s case are rare in Egypt.

According to the HRW report, government statistics show that between 2006 and 2010, citizens filed hundreds of charges of deaths and abuse in police custody. Egyptian courts only convicted a handful of officers for torture and inhumane treatment.

“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,” Stork said.

(Inter Press Service)