Mohamed ElBaradei joins Egyptian sit-in over police death case

Mohamed ElBaradei joins Egyptian sit-in over police death case

Mohamed ElBaradei, the former head of the UN nuclear watchdog, joined about 4,000 Egyptians at a rare large-scale street protest today, in his most direct challenge to President Hosni Mubarak since returning to the country earlier this year.

The Nobel laureate turned opposition figurehead joined the sit-in in Alexandria over the case of a man allegedly killed by plainclothes policemen.

Numerous witnesses say Khaled Said, 28, died after being kicked and punched by the officers before eventually smashing his head against a marble shelf in an internet cafe on 6 June . Security officials claim Said died of asphyxiation after he swallowed a packet of narcotics hidden under his tongue.

The officers dragged Said into their car and drove off, before returning to dump his body on the street in front of the cafe, the witnesses said.

ElBaradei, who has said he will consider challenging Mubarak for the presidency next year if conditions are free and fair, called the incident an “egregious humanitarian violation” and revealed a “lack of sanctity of human life”.

Human Rights Watch called for the prosecution of the two officers, who remain on active duty. The campaign group also criticised the police investigation and the interior ministry, which accused Said of being a wanted criminal, an accusation his family denies.

“Even if Khaled Said had been wanted, that does not give licence to police to attack and murder him in cold blood,” said Joe Stork, deputy Middle East and North Africa director for the organisation.

Graphic photos of Said’s mangled face have spread across the internet, prompting protests in Cairo and Alexandria, which have been broken up by the police. Today’s protest was the largest so far.

Street demonstrations in Egypt are not uncommon, with regular protests over food prices and low wages but most of them remain very small and are quickly broken up by riot police. The size and scale of today’s events in Alexandria, a stronghold of the opposition Muslim Brotherhood movement, suggest that Said’s death has struck a chord.

ElBaradei and a group of other prominent opposition figureheads – including former presidential candidate Ayman Nour, who was jailed after his unsuccessful attempt to unseat Mubarak in 2005 – arrived in Alexandria earlier to meet Said’s family. After Friday prayers, the protesters congregated at a mosque where they were met by a huge contingent of riot police.

Egypt has been under a state of emergency law for 29 years, offering effective immunity to many elements of the police and security services.

The death of Said, who has become known as the “emergency law martyr”, is viewed by many as a potential turning point for the growing opposition movement.

ElBaradei is believed to have left the protest early after hundreds began chanting anti-Mubarak slogans. He was keen to avoid accusations that he was exploiting Said’s death for political gain and had called for the protest to be a silent one.