Egyptian businessman Khalid Said died during what witnesses say was a brutal public beating by police officers on June 6 in Alexandria. His death has ignited protests in Cairo and Alexandria and demands for justice have spread like wildfire on blogs and social networking sites.
But the furor over Mr. Said’s death is not an indication that his case is unique. Rights groups say that while awareness has grown in recent years, police brutality and torture continues to be widespread in Egypt, where an emergency law that grants wide powers to security forces has been in place for nearly three decades. Except for a handful of cases, police have rarely been held accountable.
The US has said it would like Egypt to improve its human rights record, but so far, the Obama Administration has not indicated that failure to make significant progress would affect US military and economic aid.
Aida Seif El Dawla, head of the El Nadim Center for the Rehabilitation of Victims of Violence, says Said’s case is “flagrant,” but not unusual. Dr. Dawla says that the number of torture and brutality cases documented by the Nadim Center has risen in the past few years.
“People are getting angrier, and this is the only thing that maintains the stability of the regime,” she says. “Stories like this are meant to terrorize the victims and the people around the victims. And this is how the regime is ruling – by terror.”
Said was reportedly targeted because he intended to make public a video that allegedly shows police officers dividing the spoils of a drug bust. Graphic pictures of the injuries that killed Said, coupled with the public nature of his beating death and the fact that he was an affable, middle-class man, have propelled his tragic case to prominence, largely through posts on social-networking sites and blogs.
Egypt is investigating the death, and the prosecutor general Tuesday ordered a new autopsy of Said, supervised by independent forensic experts, in response to the local and international uproar over the killing. The government’s first official autopsy report claimed that Said died from asphyxiation after swallowing a plastic bag of narcotics when he was approached by police. Said’s family and witnesses at the Internet cafe where police apprehended him tell a different story, saying police began the abuse in the cafe, then dragged him outside, where they beat him to death.
A battered young man
Gruesome photos of Said, reportedly taken in the morgue and circulated on websites and blogs, support their story. They show his face broken and battered, and bruises on his body.
New media has played an increasing role in recent years in publicizing cases of torture and police brutality, as in the torture and sexual abuse of Emad El Kabeer by police officers in 2006, which was revealed when bloggers posted a video of the abuse online. Mr. Kabeer, a minibus driver, was sexually assaulted and whipped for hours at a police station. He was later sentenced to three months in jail for resisting arrest. (Editor's note: The original version misstated the origin of the abuse video that appeared online.)
“Thanks to the Internet and bloggers, these kinds of cases become public very quickly,” says Moatez El Fegiery, executive director of the Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies. That increased awareness has led more people to speak out in the issue, says blogger and activist Hossam El Hamalawy. He says the presence of visual evidence – such as the video of Mr. Kabeer or the graphic photos of Said – are the catalysts that draw attention to certain cases while myriad others pass without note.
“In the past few years, this issue of police torture has been highlighted in a way that was not highlighted before,” he says. “When people now get tortured, they speak about it. The public perception of what's to be done about police torture is changing.”
What is not changing, according to rights groups, is the rate of torture, or the culture of impunity that surrounds the violence. Dawla says she can count on her fingers the number of cases in which police were brought to justice for committing torture in the past five years. Meanwhile, hundreds of victims continue to pour into Al Nadim for treatment while the police officers who abused them are still on duty – and those are only “the tip of the iceberg,” she says.
Some blame the long-standing emergency law for creating the environment in which torture and brutality thrives, and protesters have called Said the “martyr of the emergency law.” Under the law, which was implemented after the assassination of former President Anwar Sadat in 1981, police can detain people indefinitely without charge.
The “emergency law facilitates this impunity,” says Mr. Fegiery. He says police use torture variously to extract confessions or to exact revenge. “But the main reason of the impunity is lack of judicial independence.” The prosecutor general, through whom all cases must be brought, “is not eager to investigate” police officers, he says.
It is usually only the cases that hit the Internet that result in prosecution. Two police officers were convicted in the Kabeer case, but one has since returned to duty after serving only part of a three-year sentence. Last year a police officer was sentenced to five years in prison for torturing a mentally handicapped man in Alexandria in a case that received much publicity.
In addition to inciting demonstrations in Egypt, where security forces detained and beat protesters, Said’s case has attracted international attention. Amnesty International on Tuesday urged Egypt to protect the witnesses of Said’s death and his family, and to suspend the officers involved until an investigation is completed. The officers are still on duty.
A US embassy official Wednesday said the US has urged Egyptian authorities to conduct a transparent investigation “in a manner consistent with the serious allegations that have been made,” and hold accountable those responsible for Said’s death.
“The Government of Egypt last week supported a UN Human Rights Council Universal Periodic Review recommendation that it investigate police abuse allegations effectively and independently to prosecute offenders,” said the official in a statement. “We believe this case is an opportunity to immediately demonstrate this commitment.”
Many human rights activists were hopeful Wednesday that the publicity around Said’s case would lead to a prosecution, but said it was unlikely to make a difference in the larger problem of ongoing police brutality.