Egypt in the dock over tactics of police torturers

Dissidents tell of cattle prods, whips and beatings as Cairo rejects US criticism of abuses in Mubarak onslaught on opposition

The man’s face crumples in agony and his screams grow louder. He shouts, ’enough, stop’, but the police around him go on insulting him and assure him that everyone will see his humiliation.

One policeman uses his mobile phone camera to record the torture and then shows the images unashamedly. The clip will join dozens of others on the internet – graphic illustration of the brutality of the Egyptian police.

On Friday, Ahmad Aboul-Gheit, the Egyptian Foreign Minister, reacted angrily to a report by the US State Department that Egypt, a close Western ally, routinely abused human rights. ’The government’s respect for human rights remained poor, and serious abuses continued in many areas,’ the report said.

Aboul-Gheit said the US had no right to interfere in Egypt’s internal affairs, but many Egyptians are feeling the pressure of what has been called the ’biggest crackdown in 26 years’ on opponents of the regime. Tareq Khater, director of the Association for Human Rights and Legal Aid, said torture of suspects was routine in Egyptian police stations and an important weapon in the war on dissent. ’Torture has become systematic under President Mubarak. He uses it to force people to submit to his absolute power and to create fear, so that people think twice about disobedience,’ he said.

It seemed so different in 2005, when Mubarak introduced limited democratic reforms and tolerated public protests. For the first time since he took office in 1981, government-approved candidates were allowed to rival him in the presidential polls, and the Muslim Brotherhood was able to run for election to the People’s Assembly. Since then, however, his regime has arrested hundreds of oppositionists, including 300 members of the Muslim Brotherhood. They joined tens of thousands of political prisoners who have been imprisoned in Egypt without trial. Allegations of torture, rape and brutality are commonplace.

Suspects claim that the torture takes various forms, including being beaten or slapped, electrocuted or, in the case described above, sodomised with a broomstick. Mohammed Sharkawy, 25, is still limping following the beatings he received last year for taking part in pro-democracy protests.

In April he was held for 30 days after a march by the Kefayah (Enough) pressure group demanding political reform. ’On my first day in prison, I was attacked by 10 people using batons, fists and electric cattle prods,’ he said. Three days after his release, Sharkawy took part in a pro-democracy rally in Cairo. As he left the rally, his car was surrounded by 20 men in plain clothes. He recognised three of them as secret service agents who often attend protests. ’They dragged me to a doorway, called me a spy and started beating me. One of the agents wanted to stop, and so they attacked him as well,’ he recalled. Taken to the police station, he was blindfolded and attacked with cattle prods and whips. ’They knew I had a knee injury, so they beat my knee. They removed my clothes and stuck a cardboard tube in my backside,’ said Sharkawy, who was finally released after 60 days. ’The police are trying to send a message that anyone who dreams of change or has a positive vision for Egypt will suffer what I have suffered.’

According to Khater, Mubarak maintains complete control by making all the key appointments himself: ’The President chooses the ministers, the prosecutors, the head of the supreme court, the head of the court of appeal, the head of the police, the head of the army. He has complete and absolute power, even legislation proposed by the People’s Assembly has to go through him.’ He said it was impossible to quantify the scale of police brutality because national human rights group were not big enough for the task, but he estimated that there could be as many as 80,000 prisoners held in Egypt’s jails without trial. Other groups put the figure at around 14,000.

A main worry for the regime is the Muslim Brotherhood, which won a fifth of the votes for the People’s Assembly in 2005. Mohamed Habib, the organisation’s deputy leader, said that success, combined with the victory of the group’s offshoot Hamas in the Palestinian elections in 2006 and Hizbullah’s success in combating Israel in the 34-day war in Lebanon the same year, had ’shown that the resistance could prevail against the Western supported powers.’ Many secular Egyptians fear the Muslim Brothers would apply Islamic law if in power. One effect of the repressive actions is that the Brotherhood is the only group the regime has not been able to marginalise.

Mohammed Said, a political analyst at the al-Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies, said Egypt was paralysed by apathy. ’The regime is very powerful but it has no vision for the country’s future. Its power derives from the apathy of the public. There is a mood for change, but no desire for activity because all channels for participation are blocked.’

Members of the President’s National Democratic Party insist that there has been reform in recent years. One MP, Mustafa Fikki, said: ’The space for freedom is larger and political participation is deeper. Egypt is still in a transitional period, and we cannot say that everything is a failure.’