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As Egypt cracks down, charges of wide abuse

Regular reports of torture and police abuse are fueling protests across the country.

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The Egyptian government says police abuse and torture here are isolated incidents and that the guilty are prosecuted. In an interview with a local newspaper earlier this year, Gen. Ahmed Dia el-Din, an assistant to the interior minister, accused the media of sensationalizing police abuses to stir up opposition to the government.

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Those words have been followed in recent months by efforts to silence those who complain. In September, the government closed the Association for Human Rights and Legal Aid after it helped bring a case against the government over a political activist, Mohammed al-Sayyed, who died in police custody.

Last week, the government arrested two political activists – Mohammed al-Dereini and Ahmed Mohammed Sobh, both members of Egypt's tiny Shiite minority – following their recent efforts to expose torture in the Egyptian prison system. Mr. Dereini's 2006 book, "Hell's Capital," chronicles torture in Egyptian prisons and includes firsthand accounts from his time in jail in 2004-2005.

"Is police torture a bigger problem today? There's no question," says Gasser Abdel Razek, the director of regional relations for Human Rights Watch. "Fifteen years ago, we used to say that this or that police station is bad, or if that you were an Islamist and you got picked up after a bombing, you could count on being tortured. Today, I can't name a single police station that's good. And the victims are middle-class, they're educated, they're homeless. It doesn't make any difference."

One case that caused particular shock and revolution was the death of a 13-year-old boy, Mamduh Abdel Aziz, after he was taken into police custody in August in the delta town of Mansoura. He was charged with theft. The boy died in hospital, four days after he was beaten while in police custody. Before his death, the nearly comatose boy was shown on a video posted to with extensive burn wounds in his genital area.

The boy's mother, Saieda Sourour, has told local newspapers that government officials offered her money in exchange for her promising to keep silent about the case. The Interior Ministry, in a written response to the furor, said an autopsy showed the boy died of an infection and said the evidence of torture was simply "allegations."

Mr. Razek, like many Egyptian human rights activists, says the spread of torture was a natural consequence of the government's use of violent interrogations against alleged Islamist militants in the 1980s. What became standard doctrine for the country's antiterrorist police units spread throughout the system as officers shifted to other jobs in the police force.

"It became a culture. We have two generations of police who were brought up to use torture against Islamists. But if it's allowed and seen as effective, it spreads," says Razek.

Razek says there has only been one successful torture prosecution of a police officer in Egypt this year, and argues that police violence is systemic, not isolated.

"We've seen dissent spreading beyond those who are politically organized, for instance, the labor unrest; so the regime feels it needs to make its people afraid to control its fate," he says. "I'm not talking people agitating for democracy, but people who are worried about feeding themselves."

Meanwhile, Ghad, whose brother was murdered in Amrania, says his family will continue to demand a prosecution. "The worst has happened. I don't even have the energy to be afraid anymore."