’Helpline’ for victims closed

’Helpline’ for victims closed

Activists gathered on Sunday outside the headquarters of the Association for Human Rights Legal Aid in downtown Cairo to protest against the association”s closure by security forces. The closure order was issued jointly by the governor of Cairo and the Ministry of Social Solidarity who allege the association has misrepresented financial accounts. The association was set up by Tareq Khater to provide victims of human rights abuses with free legal aid. Recently it has been involved in several torture cases that have grabbed public attention.

The protesters say the closure is an attack on civil liberties and intended as a warning to other groups addressing the abuse of human rights in Egypt. Hundreds of security personal encircled the protesters, cutting them off from the journalists and the public.

Khater told Al-Ahram Weekly that the government”s move against the association had not come as a surprise. “Given the recent jailing of journalists and the crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood we expected that an attempt would be made to stop the association from carrying out its work.” He believes the attention given by the press to recent cases of torture, some resulting in the death of the victims, made it inevitable that the security forces would seek to close the association.

Sources at the Ministry of Social Solidarity say the action against the association has nothing to do with its recent activities. It is being closed, they say, because it has violated laws governing the operation of NGOs and failed to present its accounts in the prescribed manner.

Whatever the reasons, the closure order has highlighted the problems faced by NGOs working in the field of human rights. While they have been relatively successful in bringing abuses to light, particularly incidents of torture in prisons and police stations, they have been less successful in developing a strategy that can tackle the underlying pattern of abuse.

“The problem is multi-layered,” says human rights lawyer and activist George Naguib. “On the one hand you face a huge problem because the legal definition of torture or abuse is vague under Egyptian law. Add to this the continuing emergency laws and it becomes extremely difficult to prove cases of abuse that happen in prison or police stations.” The cases that have caught the attention of the public, he says, have been relatively clear cut, tragically because the victims died or else because the torture was caught on film. But these cases, says Naguib, are the tip of the iceberg. “Unfortunately, in the absence of a robust definition and proper oversight little can be done in terms of legal advocacy.”

“The abuses you see in jails and police stations today grew out of practices used in the past against political detainees, the majority of them Islamists,” says Naguib. There was a political decision to allow the security forces to use whatever means necessary to counter this Islamist threat, he argues, and the practices developed then have spilled over into all other aspects of police work. To tackle the issue head on, he says, human rights associations must state clearly that no abuses, whatever the circumstances, are permissible. “It is one thing to stand up for a boy who is beaten to death in prison but activists must work to change perceptions across the board, including abuse directed at those, such as terrorists, for which society has little sympathy.”

Retired police Lieutenant Amir Suleiman, who served in Upper Egypt at the height of the security campaign against extremists and who is currently writing his memoirs, told the Weekly that police practices did indeed change during the campaign. “Some measures had to be taken at the time to resist a very real threat to the country. They are measures that would not be acceptable to many people,” he said, refusing to go into further detail. “It was a difficult and lawless time. The violence bred yet more violence.”

Activists and bloggers, though, are determined to overturn past precedents by a campaign of naming and shaming, as well as reaching out to the victims of abuse. A website focussing on torture in Egypt has set up a 24- hour hotline for victims to call, while the newly created group Egyptians Against Torture campaigns to assist the families of victims of torture. Bloggers have begun naming officers accused of carrying out torture in prisons in the hope this will deter others from abusing detainees.

The Interior Ministry remains unruffled, despite cases of abuse coming to light on an almost daily basis, and the focus of debate has yet to move beyond activists saying torture has become systemic and ministry officials saying the cases reported in the press are isolated incidents. NGOs have yet to force the ministry to review its own policy. In the meantime it seems NGOs are themselves coming under attack.