On any given day in Egypt, a U.S. ally with a much-criticized human rights record, citizens who cross the nation’s security forces may be subject to brutal violence, according to a leading human rights organization here.
Complaints arrive daily: An 18-year-old man was beaten in a police station and thrown off a third floor balcony. Another man was punched and flogged. Earlier, a family was dragged to the police station, where the father was beaten and the women were threatened with rape.
These and hundreds more allegations have been logged into Egypt’s “torture diary,” a chronicle of claimed transgressions compiled by the Nadeem Center for Rehabilitation of Victims of Violence, an independent victims advocacy group.
Drawing on news reports, a hot line and attorneys for those who say they were on the receiving end of state-sponsored violence, the center notes alleged incidents each day, then releases a full report at the end of each month
According to local human rights groups, which work with Nadeem to compile the accounts, police brutality in the Arab world's most populous nation has become the norm rather than the exception.
The 18-year-old man, Mohamed Salah, a minivan driver, reportedly was assaulted and tortured July 4 by two plainclothes police agents in the Nile Delta city of Mansoura. He was eventually thrown off the third floor balcony. He is currently in a coma.
April 8 was an especially busy day for complaints against Egypt’s security forces: A 24-year-old man allegedly was flogged and punched at a police station in the ancient city of Giza, the home of Egypt’s pyramids, because he refused to inform on drug dealers in his neighborhood.
In the Nile Delta, police reportedly beat 200 people and arrested 10 of them during a peaceful demonstration against a sudden hike in housing costs.
Three pro-reform activists allegedly were held without charge after they distributed fliers in support of Mohamed ElBaradei, a Nobel Peace Prize winner who's emerged as a possible challenger to the U.S.-backed authoritarian president, Hosni Mubarak.
State sanctioned violence?
The Nadeem center's diarists charge that the reports reveal patterns of state-sanctioned violence that could help victims' cases and prove to Egypt's Western allies that the Mubarak administration's promises of reform are empty.
Despite several requests, the Egyptian Interior Ministry wouldn't make an official available to comment for this article.
Magda Adly, the director of the Nadeem center, said that Nadeem and other groups had presented the cases to the U.N. Human Rights Council, which convened last month. The council periodically reviews countries' human rights records.
“It is a counter-message to what the state is doing. These are not the mistakes of one person, this is a systematic intimidation and humiliation of 80 million Egyptians,” said Adly, who charged that she, too, had been a victim of state security tactics when a policeman beat her so badly in 2008 that she fell and broke her shoulder.
Called "Egyptians in an Emergency State,” the diary takes aim at Egypt's broad emergency laws as they're applied to average Egyptians and political dissidents. The laws, in effect for nearly 30 years, allow authorities to make arbitrary arrests, hold prisoners indefinitely without trial and prosecute civilians in military courts.
Cracking down on terrorists, drug traffickers?
Mubarak's government says that the laws, which were extended for another two years in May, are vital for building cases against terrorists and major drug traffickers. Pro-reform activists and human rights groups, however, say the code more often is used to intimidate people and to stifle dissent against Mubarak, who's ruled Egypt since 1981 and remains one of Washington's most reliable friends in the region.
“I get three to five calls a day from people complaining of police insults, arbitrary arrests and torture,” said Haitham Mohamdein, a staff lawyer with Nadeem who also runs the group's hot line.
Addressing the U.N. Human Rights Council on June 11 in Geneva, Hossam Bahgat, the executive director of the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights, a legal advocacy group, criticized the authorities’ continued use of emergency laws.
“The repeated renewal of the state of emergency and the reliance on its sweeping repressive measures sends the message that the government sees itself and its powerful security apparatus as being above the law. The result has been a pervasive atmosphere of impunity for human rights violations, particularly with regard to the systematic and widespread practice of torture in places of detention,” Bahgat said.
The issue of police brutality has surged to the forefront of national news in Egypt with big demonstrations in recent weeks to protest the apparent beating death of 28-year-old Khaled Said.
According to witnesses, two plainclothes policemen beat Said last month, ramming his head against a marble slab, an iron gate and the steps of a staircase, until he died. After Nadeem and other human rights groups challenged early dismissive statements about the case and public outrage persisted, authorities charged two police officers with torture and excessive use of force.
Nadeem staff members charged that their diary showed Said's case was far from isolated and that there had been more than 200 alleged human rights violations since February.
Mohamdein said the pattern he noticed from the phone calls and written diary accounts was that authorities generally arrested men ages 18 to 45. Torture is common _ including electric shock _ along with sexual harassment and harsh beatings, Mohamdein said, and the cases rarely end up in court, either because the victims are too scared to press charges or because authorities stall the legal process and protect their officers.
Even keeping the diary is risky, Adly said. She said security officials regularly subjected Nadeem's staff to threats and intimidation. Other obstacles include victims who are reluctant to report their stories because they've been threatened with more brutality if they share their cases with human rights groups, Adly said.
Those who do come forward tell stories that make for chilling reading. The diary paints a picture of security forces striking against ordinary citizens with impunity.
Most entries are lists of complaints: A family in Alexandria – a father, mother and daughter – reportedly were dragged in the street to the police station on Feb. 18. The father allegedly was beaten and the daughter threatened with rape. Another entry on Feb. 21 says a 4-year-old boy reportedly was detained in the Nile Delta city of Tanta to coerce his father into giving himself up to the authorities.
“From the moment of the arrest it is a mission of breaking the victims’ dignity in front of the family members and neighbors, ending their humanity,” Adly said.
Emergency laws as election issue
As Egypt prepares for parliamentary elections this fall and presidential polls next year, political opposition groups have made the emergency laws a centerpiece of their many grievances against Mubarak’s heavy-handed rule.
In addition to the broad detention measures, the emergency decree restricts freedom of speech, prohibits demonstrations and limits gatherings to five people _ tools the regime has employed to its advantage in past elections.
Egyptians are becoming so upset with the emergency laws that even some members of Mubarak's ruling National Democratic Party now speak against keeping the country under perpetual martial law.
“In my view, the emergency state shouldn’t have been extended, and shouldn’t be limited to terrorism and drug trafficking,” said Georgette Qelliny, a Mubarak-allied legislator who's also on the board of the state-run National Council for Human Rights. "What if we have a famine or a flood or any natural disaster, and martial laws are needed? How do we handle the situation then?"
Edward al Dahaby, the head of the human rights committee in parliament and a member of the National Democratic Party, the ruling bloc in parliament, declined to comment on the issue.
(Nagger is a McClatchy special correspondent.)
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