EGYPT: Blogger, interpreter tortured by SSI

EGYPT: Blogger, interpreter tortured by SSI

NEW YORK, July 18, 2008 (HRW/IFEX) – Egypt should immediately release six men who have been detained for more than 90 days without charge since their arrests following a workers strike and street protests in Mahalla al-Kobra in April, Human Rights Watch said today.


Human Rights Watch also called on authorities to suspend the prosecution of 49 others by a security court where procedures violate fair trial rights and to investigate allegations that some of the men were tortured.


The men, whose names were released by Human Rights Watch, were arrested after thousands of security forces prevented workers from striking to protest the failure to implement promised wage increases at Mahalla”s Misr Spinning and Weaving textile mill, Egypt”s largest factory on April 6. Mahalla residents took to the streets later that day and again on April 7 to protest recent food price hikes. Witnesses said security forces used live ammunition to disperse demonstrations, and news reports said two people were killed.


“Not only has the government blatantly violated the right of workers to strike, it has refused to provide those arrested with basic due process rights,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, director of the Middle East and North Africa division at Human Rights Watch. “Nothing justifies torturing and indefinitely detaining protesters without charge.”


Six of the men were arrested on April 6 and 7, and 32 others were detained during a three-day sweep on April 21, 22 and 23.  The six men have been detained for over three months without charge, leaving it unclear what, if any, crime they are alleged to have committed. The 32 others currently in detention had been detained without charge in “preventive custody” until June 6, when a prosecutor charged them and transferred their cases, along with 17 others, to Egypt”s Supreme State Security Court.


In total, the East Tanta General Prosecutor”s Office transferred 49 cases to the Supreme State Security Court, according to a charge sheet obtained by defense lawyers. All 49 men face a wide range of charges, including participating in a gathering of five or more people “of a nature to disturb public order” in violation of Egypt”s Emergency Law, as well as destroying public property, illegally possessing firearms, and assaulting policemen.


Egyptian human rights lawyers say the men could face lengthy prison terms, since judges can increase criminal sentences in cases related to national security or public order.


Two former detainees from Mahalla told Human Rights Watch that security forces tortured them in custody.


On April 10, Mahalla police arrested James Buck, an American journalism student, and Mohamed Marei, a 23-year-old veterinary student who was working as his translator. Buck told Human Rights Watch that the public prosecutor in Mahalla ordered their release later that night, but that police rearrested them moments later. They later released Buck.


On April 11, Marei told Human Rights Watch he was transferred to State Security Investigations (SSI) offices in Mahalla, where officers interrogated him for seven hours, beating him, kicking him in the head and genitals, and threatening him with electric shock by holding electricity cables so close to his head that he could hear the current. He said the SSI threatened to put him “in the oven,” and that his feet and hands were bound so tightly during the interrogation that he lost feeling in them for four days. He was beaten “into unconsciousness” before being transferred, blindfolded, to a detention center and kept in solitary confinement for 19 days.


Marei said his family tried to visit him, but SSI officers denied that he was in custody. They then transferred him to Burj al Arab prison, near Alexandria, where he twice went on hunger strike to protest continued detention. He did not see his family for 32 days, and did not see a lawyer for 42 days. He was released on July 5, after 87 days in detention, without ever being told of any charges against him.


Karim el-Beheiri, a textile factory worker who wrote a blog that supported the planned strike, told Human Rights Watch that after security forces arrested him early in the morning on April 6, they detained him for three

days without food or drink in the SSI Mahalla offices. SSI agents blindfolded him, bound his arms and legs, and used electric shocks all over his body during their interrogation.


El-Beheiri said the interrogators told him they would torture his mother and sister if he did not cooperate, and that he should stop advocating for workers” rights. “They said I should stop reading the newspapers and keep

quiet,” el-Beheiri said.


El-Beheiri was then transferred to the Burj al Arab prison outside Alexandria. His lawyer, Ahmed Ezzat, said that a misdemeanor court in Tanta ordered el-Beheiri”s release on April 16, and the next day the Tanta criminal court affirmed the release order. Nonetheless, on April 21, before el-Beheiri was released, the Tanta prosecutor”s office ordered him to be detained again. El-Beheiri said he twice went on hunger strike to protest

his redetention. On May 31, he was transferred to SSI custody in Tanta, where he said that officers tortured him again and warned him not to talk to foreign journalists before releasing him from custody late that night.


El-Beheiri now suffers from leg pain, memory loss and severe headaches, and has trouble eating. He told Human Rights Watch that he receives threats that he will lose his job at the Mahalla textile mill.


“Impunity for torturers continues to undermine the rule of law in Egypt,” said Whitson.