CAIRO: Surrounded by more than 100 state security police, a crowd of 50 human rights activists gathered on the steps of the Press Syndicate to mark last week’s National Police Day with a protest against torture.
For the demonstrators, the holiday – a rarely celebrated commemoration of the police’s role in ending British rule – serves as a stark reminder of the abuse they claim still exists at Egyptian police stations.
“Celebrating Police Day has no meaning, said the young editor of the watchdog website tortureinegypt.com. She did not want to be named, citing fears of a spreading crackdown on anti-torture activism.
“All the things the police did in the revolution happened a long time ago.
She continued: “Years ago if you had a problem, you would happily go ask the police for help. Now when most Egyptians see the police, they are afraid. This is a big change.
As the young state security soldiers looked on appearing bored at the small crowd of protesters, activists chanted slogans and held up signs denouncing torture and the emergency law.
“We organized this protest today to remind the police of the things they once did for our country, said organizer Aida Seif El-Dawla, motioning to the line of riot police surrounding the demonstrators. “And to show them that we know what they do now.
El-Dawla alleged that torture was widespread in Egypt and how when one person speaks out, it is easier for the second and the third and the fourth to follow suite.
“Recently many video clips of torture have been leaked as well. They have had a large effect. Images are very powerful, she said.
For the past several weeks there has been a national uproar over a series of camera-phone videos purportedly taken inside police stations across the country showing citizens being tortured and abused by police officers.
The most high-profile video shows a Cairo mini-bus driver Emad Al-Kabir being sodomized with a broom stick by policemen as he lay screaming on the floor of an interrogation room.
In the video Al-Kabir screams for mercy as police taunt him with threats that they will distribute the video in his neighborhood to show family and friends that “when you lie with your wife there will be no difference between you.
In Egypt, these clips were passed between mobile phones, downloaded them from websites like YouTube, and heatedly discussed in cafes across the sprawling capital.
“These videos have had a big effect, says the editor of the anti-torture website.
“People are more aware of torture now and are more interested in keeping an eye on what the police are doing. People want to know what is happening behind the doors of police stations. Magda Adly, the director of the Nadim Center for the Rehabilitation of Victims of Violence says that all Egyptians are potentially victims of torture.
“Make no mistake, police torture is a policy, alleges Adly. “All the techniques are the same, from Alexandria to Aswan. They all use the same way of hanging, the same way of electrocuting their victims, the same way of beating.
While activists are glad that allegations of torture by police have garnered attention in local and international media, they are concerned that this may provoke a crackdown by the state. Some fear it has already begun. Last week the office of the state prosecutor in Cairo began proceedings against Al-Jazeera producer Howayda Taha.
Taha, 43, had been filming a documentary about torture and now faces charges of defaming the state.
She stands accused of “practicing activities that harm the national interest of the country and of “possessing and giving false pictures about the internal situation in Egypt that could undermine the dignity of the country.
Taha was detained at Cairo airport en route to Qatar and was interrogated for more than a day about her work for the satellite channel. Police confiscated over 50 videotapes from her luggage, which are now being held as evidence in the case.
The official reaction to the torture controversy has been mixed.
The Associated Press reported that Interior Minister Habib El-Adly has said that many people are “upset about . some videos, newspapers and some critics who were trying to increase the view of police hostility. I consider this to be an intended unpatriotic campaign.
Others take a more muted view. Hussein Amin, a member of the policy committee of the NDP and chairman of the department of mass communication at the American University in Cairo, disputes the claim that torture is systematic inside Egyptian jails.
“Is torture the norm? I don’t think so, he says. “I think these are just things that come to our minds through the media and affect our perceptions of prisons and police officers.
He says he has seen videos of interns being tortured in Abu Ghraib in Iraq as well as photos of political prisoners abused in Guantanamo.
“If the Americans treat prisoners this way, I think that Egyptians take that as a model.
He contends that violence exists but questions whether it is really systematic: “That is the question. I do not think it is.
Statements by the interior ministry suggest otherwise, say activists.
In a Jan. 17 interview with Arabic-language daily Al-Masry Al-Youm, General Ahmad Diaa, assistant to the interior minister, said: “The percentage of torture in Egypt over the past few months has been five out of every 1,000 detainees.
Human rights activists balk at these statements.
“That is still thousands and thousands of people, said blogger and activist Sherif Ahmed.
If they torture five of every 1,000 detainees – that is not a small number at all.