Prisons in Egypt

Prisons in Egypt

CAIRO: Sadly human rights violations by Egyptian police and security forces are today all too common and have beginnings well beyond the time of Nasser. This long sordid history of abuse has served not as a deterrent, but as a reminder that the all-powerful state does not tolerate dissent.

Despite the best efforts of the likes of Amnesty International and other NGO’s working in Egypt, abuse largely continues to go on and the endemic violence used by the police, unchecked.

Hafez Abu Saeda head of the Egyptian Organization for Human Rights explained torture cases have risen with about 40 cases of torture in 2007 up from 30 cases in 2006. Saeda says torture is not only directed at journalists or political opponents, but “ordinary people are the target of torture.”

This may be reflected best with the story in 2006 of bus driver, Emad el-Kabir, who after breaking up a fight between a policeman and his cousin was arrested and taken to a nearby Cairo police station. He was then sodomized with a stick and beaten while being filmed with mobile phones. After the attack was released on youtube, el-Kabir came forward and filed a complaint to the prosecutor general and two police officers involved were arrested and given sentences in 2007. While justice in this case was given, all too often cases like these are swept under the carpet.

A more recent example was the death of Palestinian Yousef Abu Zuhri in mid-October this year from an untreated hemorrhage. Sadly Zuhri joins a long list of prisoners to have succumbed to torture at the hands of the Egyptian security apparatus.

The media picked up his case because he was the brother of Hamas spokesman Sami Abu Zuhri and his death coincided with the arrest of a Hezbollah cell in the Sinai and Hamas Fatah peace talks under an Egyptian initiated plan. However many deaths and ill treatment have largely escaped the media, and underscore a state unafraid of directing violence against its citizens.

A recent report from Amnesty International on abuse included the case of Mervat Abdel Salam, a pregnant woman beaten by police officers that were searching for her brother. Salam died from her wounds after police refused her access to medical treatment. In retaliation a police truck was set on fire and after her family filed a complaint, Salams attackers were taken to court. It is interesting to contrast the similarities between Marwa el-Sherbini who was brutally stabbed by a German national in Dresden this year to Salam’s, while both deserve outrage and the attention of the public; only one of those stories received it.

Most cases of torture and death go unreported and unchecked, the victim, their family and friends are intimidated by police and told if they lodge a complaint then the police will target them.

Often those killed by security forces are illegal migrants crossing the Sinai to Israel. According to Human Rights Watch at least 12 people have been killed as of May this year. Accountability for these deaths is not shown and reflects the broader government policy.

A few allegations of torture and killings are investigated, but all too often, they are swept under the rug. Usually an investigation only follows if the killing was public, if their families insist on justice or if there is a successful protest against the police.

In 2007, police officers in Tanta deliberately ran over and killed Eid Ahmed Ibrahim as he was trying to prevent the arrest of his brother. In anger and frustration 2000 people protested, which eventually led to the Tanta Misdemeanour Court sentencing the two police officers involved to three years in prison and a fine of LE 10,000. The message is clear: only if a sufficient amount of protest is made, then justice (or a very light version of it) will be served.

Saeda explained the difficulties in the conformation of torture and explained it involved assessing the testimony of victims and family and is followed up by a visit from a lawyer. Saeda confirmed incidents were rising with more than 20 reported deaths in prisons alone last year.

Prisons are controlled through the Ministry of the Interior, and a special website has been set up setting out the international rules of conduct and Egyptian laws passed to ensure prisoners are treated fairly. Claims of torture and denied access to medical resources and adequate food are countered here: as of 1998 the meals of prisoners are “equal to the average meals of the members of middle class society.”

While the government will point out changes have been made in response to torture allegations Saeda is less optimistic, he say’s he has seen no evidence of change. In the EOHR’s annual report for 2008, they recommend continuing to document cases and using testimony to pressure politicians in the government and take more cases to court. In order to break the pattern of police violence, Amnesty International recommendations involve punishing officers guilty of violence, making them accountable combined with giving police proper training.

For police violence to end, a change from the top is needed, if the state didn’t need such a large security and police apparatus to maintain its rule, then there would be hope for ending torture and killings once and for all, activists argue.