CAIRO: On the evening of Oct. 31, 2007 a young man in his early 20s called Ahmed Saber left his house to go to the shop at the end of the street. He was arrested and was taken to the local police station.
Forty-eight hours later, he was carried outside the police station and dumped facedown on the ground, unconscious.
He died on Nov. 6 after three days in a coma – during which time his internal organs stopped working, one by one.
Today, three months later, nobody has been held responsible for the death and the media has largely lost interest. The remarkable thing about this case is not that a man met a violent end in a police station, nor that he was left to die in the street, nor that nobody has been found responsible for his death.
The remarkable thing about this case is that these events are wholly unremarkable.
On Wednesday last week journalists and anyone else interested was invited to attend an informational meeting about what exactly has been done since Ahmed’s death.
The meeting was held in Talbeyya, Giza, at the flat where Ahmed lived with his mother and three siblings, located in the narrow street where he was arrested.
The flat is at the top of a building reached by an unlit, crooked staircase. A group of us – two journalists, two activists and three individuals interested to know more details about the case – were received by Ahmed’s mother, Samia, and his sister, Heba, both of whom were dressed in black, for Ahmed and his father, who died in January 2007.
One activist who preferred to remain anonymous, told us about the events that preceded Ahmed’s death, which began when he was confronted by a group of police officers in the street.
“Ahmed went down to the supermarket on the corner to buy some cheese. He had LE 214 in his pocket – he had just been paid that evening. When he went down, a group of police officers demanded that he hand over his money but he refused. They tried to take off his belt and take down his trousers in the street on the pretence of searching him and took him to the Omraneyya police station when he objected to being searched in this way, he explained.
“Once at the police station they fabricated drugs charges against him. The public prosecution office ordered that he be released the next day on LE 100 bail, he continued.
But Ahmed was not released, and at some point during the 48 hours that he was kept inside the police station, he was subject to intense physical violence, alleged the activist.
Amr – a friend of Ahmed’s who was with him when he was arrested – continued the story from the point when Ahmed was dumped outside the station.
“Two friends and I were standing outside the wall of the police station waiting to get in to visit Ahmed. He’d been arrested on Wednesday night, and was kept inside on Thursday and Friday despite the fact that the lawyer kept telling us he’ll be released today. He wasn’t. On Saturday, at about 6:15 pm we thought we’d try to find out why he hadn’t been released. While we were standing outside the police station we saw someone lying down in front of the door to the place where people are detained, he said.
Amr and his friends were not immediately able to identify the body because it was facedown.
“We saw the body, someone lying facedown, but didn’t know who it was. We were trying to get into the police station but the guard kept telling us to wait – so we waited. Five minutes later a door in the police station opened and a voice told us to ‘move back, move back.’ We heard a voice inside shout ‘throw him outside’ and then four men wearing plain clothes appeared carrying the body. They threw it down in front of the people waiting outside the police station and then went back inside, Amr said.
The body the four men were carrying was Ahmed’s, alive but unconscious. Amr and his friends took him to El-Haram Hospital which, Amr says, initially refused to admit him, only doing so once it was revealed that Ahmed’s sister – who is a nurse – works there.
The medical report issued immediately upon Ahmed’s admission to the hospital recorded bruising, abrasions and lacerations all over his body in addition to kidney and liver failure and oedema of the brain (swelling caused by excess fluid). The report also documents that his heart stopped beating on several occasions while he was on a life support machine.
He was pronounced dead on Nov. 6, 2007.
Was it torture?
“Did he die as a result of torture? The problem is that I don’t have a single witness who saw Ahmed being beaten, said Mohamed Mostafa, a district attorney based in Giza’s monolithic, crumbling court who has been investigating the case.
According to newspaper reports in November, the police officers said that he had not been immediately released (as ordered by the public prosecution office) because he was completing papers.
Mostafa told me that the police officers he questioned initially said that Ahmed died of heart failure unrelated to anything which may or may not have happened inside the police station.
This story changed some 10 days into the investigation when it was claimed that Ahmed was injured during a fight with other detainees.
As for why Ahmed was thrown outside on the pavement, police officers told the district attorney that they gave orders for him to be taken to his sister in El-Haram Hospital, and that Amr and his friends were charged with this duty.
Police officers on duty at the time Ahmed was being held inside Omraneyya police station gave varying accounts, some telling Mostafa that they know nothing about the incident, others saying that nobody assaulted him while still others claimed that he was beaten up by other detainees.
Surely, I asked Mostafa, the fact that police officers changed their story seriously undermines the credibility of their accounts.
“Of course it does, but I have no firm evidence of anything and no names, he says.
The autopsy report would, of course, help clear up some of these uncertainties, but it has yet to appear. Mostafa says that three months for a report to be sent is “entirely normal, given the load of cases and number of doctors, adding that he has sent demands to the pathologist’s office (which is part of the Ministry of Justice) for the production of this report to be speeded up. Alternative scenarios
It is, of course, very remotely possible that Ahmed got unlucky, that one of the detainees held inside Omraneyya at the same time was an old enemy with a score to settle, and that the police officers had no direct role in Ahmed’s death.
The credibility of this scenario is brought into question by several aspects of the case, however. The police report claims that Ahmed had drugs in his possession at the time of the arrest, but Ahmed has no prior convictions and neighbors have attested to his good behavior.
There is also the humiliating manner of his arrest and search, and the fact that he sustained the injuries which eventually killed him during the 48 hours he was illegally detained in the police station after the public prosecutor had ordered his release.
And why was he dumped, dying, so ignominiously in the street? And why did police officers subsequently change their explanation of what killed him?
But, most importantly, these events must be considered within the context of the 25-year state of emergency, which allows the suspension of the basic rights crucial to the protection of detainees. It also perpetuates the systematic policy of torture (according to the Egyptian Organization for Human Rights) in police stations, which has emerged as a result of detainees being placed outside the scope of judicial supervision. More than anything, the culture of impunity has so emboldened police officers that some of them have recorded acts of torture on mobile camera phones – for titillation perhaps, or to intimidate, or as a tribute to their invincibility.
The Nadim Center, which offers psychological rehabilitation to the victims of violence, produced a report in January on torture in Egypt between 2003 and 2006.
The report lists the names of 272 police officers a
ccused of involvement in the abuse of individuals, and states where the incidents took place.
Omraneyya police station is mentioned seven times; the report alleges that two people were murdered and five people tortured by police officers inside its walls between 2003 and 2006.
Regardless of who killed Ahmed, he died because he was poor, vulnerable and lacked the powerful connections which serve to protect the more fortunate.
Perhaps the autopsy report – when it eventually appears – will change what is currently a stagnant case.