“In Egypt, any suspect in police custody is subject to torture.” This statement has been made to Daily News Egypt by several human rights’ lawyers, including prominent figure Khaled Ali, amid increased reports of deaths inside detention and severe mistreatment of prisoners.
Daily News Egypt investigated citizens’ torture inside places of detention based on media reports and NGOs working with families of the detained, with special attention to the second half of Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi’s first year in presidency.
In March, Al-Sisi replaced Mohamed Ibrahim, former minister of interior since 2013, and appointed Magdy Abdel Ghaffar. Nonetheless, the situation in detention places did not seem to improve.
The state-affiliated National Council for Human Rights (NCHR) visited Abu Za’abal prison last March in response to a rescue call by prisoners and observed several violations of the rights of prisoners.
Additionally, there has been a series of legal cases against Egypt’s Ministry of Interior, responsible for the police force, as several policemen and security officers have been referred to trial in cases of prisoners’ deaths inside detention places, especially police stations.
Daily News Egypt has tallied cases that have either been reported by different well-known, pro- and anti-state media, in addition to data provided by the NCHR, Al-Haqanya Center and El-Nadeem Centre for Rehabilitation of Victims of Violence, and the Egyptian Commission for Human Rights.
Meanwhile, the state repeatedly denied any torture claims, often referring to “some violations” and “individual mistakes” as opposed to “systematic torture”. The NCHR clearly stated there was no such thing as systematic torture, and abstained from using the word. In its annual press conference last May, NCHR’s president Mohamed Fayeq said there was no evidence either to support or contradict systematic torture claims.
However, reports indicate that police officers are facing accusations of “beating to death”, forensic medical reports indicate parts of the victims’ bodies are damaged enough to have resulted in death, in addition to the conditions of detention and medical negligence of the prisoners.
The disciplinary confinement for instance, which is used as a punishment for prisoners, has been described in an interview as a “graveyard for the living”, by photojournalist Ahmed Gamal Ziada, who was sent more than once to the disciplinary cell during his detention.
According to lawyer Mohamed Abdel Aziz from the Al-Haqanya Center for Law and Legal Profession, there is currently a common misperception of the definition of “torture”, as Egyptians tend to limit it to certain violations solely in places of detention, while international laws – which Egypt has ratified – established a broader definition of the term, which includes any form of forced word or act on a person.
“Torture is not what we see in movies, it’s not removing people’s nails and other things like that. An abusive word or gesture could be categorised as torture. Our human rights’ standards have lowered. Prisoners think it is okay for police officers to insult, hit or push them into their cells for instance, as long as they are not getting beaten or electrocuted,” Abdel Aziz said.
Egypt ratified the UN Convention Against Torture in 1986, under which torture is defined as:
“An act by which severe pain or suffering whether physical or mental is intentionally inflicted on a person for such purposes as obtaining from him or a third person information or a confession, punishing him for an act he or a third person has committed, or is suspected of having committed, or intimating or correcting him or a third person or for any reason based on discrimination of any kind.”
The role of NGOs
NGOs working in human rights have lawyers who are in touch with victims and their families. Like many civil society organisations, activity is constrained by state pressure and lack of funding.
“Most of the time, I go to the victim and not the other way round. Only 10% of the victims’ families actually file complaints,” Abdel Aziz said.
According to Abdel Aziz, NGOs face several issues in working with torture files. First, some human rights’ advocates fear security pursuit. Second, the families of the victims themselves are sometimes afraid to report, in order to avoid any further vengeance on their detained relatives.
The state’s constant rejection of torture allegations, along with the oppression of civil society, has led NGOs to have scarcer legal presence in such cases. “It takes considerable efforts, on the material and emotional levels,” said Abdel Aziz.
He explained that a lawyer working on a torture case would be dealing with one defendant as both a suspect and a victim. The lawyer also has to investigate the case himself, find eyewitnesses, obtain their testimonies, and protect them. “It takes a lot of going back and forth to court, as would a lawyer completely dedicated to torture cases, a luxury which most of us don’t have,” Abdel Aziz stated.
NGOs following up on torture reports also play a role in mobilising the public through organising press conferences and pressuring the state to undertake the appropriate measures. Moreover, there could be new legal complications that result from a torture case.
The role of the state
More policemen are facing detention, trial or prison sentences amid increased reports on alleged police brutality against citizens in places of detention. Beating to death, sexual assaults, and torture of prisoners are among the most reported human rights violations practiced in Egypt.
Among the cases, a police conscript was sentenced to life in prison by the Giza Criminal Court on 24 May over charges of sexually assaulting a mentally ill female prisoner inside Imbaba police station.
A police officer and two policemen were detained pending investigations before being referred to criminal court over beating a citizen to death on 5 May in Rashid.
A police officer and a number of policemen were referred in March to criminal court over beating and torturing a journalist in Minya, in a case that dates back to 2013.
In February, the Ain Shams prosecution started investigating a police officer and a policeman over beating a detainee in Ain Shams police station.
However, Abdel Aziz claimed that only 15% to 20% of torture complaints go to court, amid prosecution authorities’ intransigence towards torture victims. Investigations into the allegations are usually delayed, medical tests on the victims denied, medical reports falsified – victims are usually examined by prison doctors and have to obtain prosecution authorisation to be checked by other doctors.
In addition to having no eyewitness protection programmes, security authorities also pressure eyewitnesses not to speak of torture.
Being the only organisation that has access to prisons, NCHR conducted several visits to evaluate the conditions of detention in prisons such as Abu Zaabal, Tora, Qanater, Al-Aqrab, Tanta and Wadi El-Natrun between October 2013 and September 2014. NCHR members also visited a number of police stations in October and November 2014.
The NCHR’s accounts of Tora and Al-Aqrab prisons in 2013 observed verbal and physical assaults by prison authorities and police officers on prisoners, lack of leisure time, prevention of prisoners’ access to mass media, absence of medical care in prison hospitals and the “refusal of some to receive patients, which endangers their lives”.
The NCHR also said there was no proper organisation of the distribution of prisoners according to the type of crime or jail term, discrimination among prisoners in their treatment, absence of any rehabilitation programmes, and unsuitable waiting areas for visiting families.
Other examples of violations noted by the NCHR in the remaining prisons included the existence of barbed wire between prisoners and their relatives during visits. When the NCHR visited detained political activists Alaa Abdel Fattah, Ahmed Douma and Mohamed Adel in Tora Prison in February 2014, who were on a hunger strike then, it stated that prisoners were banned from contacting their lawyers and families and being held in solitary confinement for 20 consecutive hours.
The NCHR also condemned automatically renewed temporary detentions of prisoners without meeting prosecution officials or a judge and forced disappearance in detention places.
As for police stations which the NCHR said have shifted from temporary to permanent detention centres, the spaces of the cells were damaged and too small in comparison to the numbers of detainees (an average of half a metre per person), with improper bathrooms and lack of ventilation systems.
Ministry of Interior
Generally, the Ministry of Interior’s attitude towards claims and reports of systematic torture practices and assaults committed by police officials against prisoners is aggressive denial.
On 30 March, Abu Bakr Abdel Karim, spokesperson of the ministry and former head of the Human Rights Department denied that prisoners were subject to any sort of inhumane treatment, following opposing statements made by the NCHR after a visit to Abu Za’abal prison.
“If we had anything to hide we would not have invited human rights’ delegations into our prisons,” he repeatedly told different TV channels.
On 6 April, the ministry made a public announcement regarding complaints from citizens on violations committed by ministry officials, with several hotlines, that are usually answered. Nonetheless, there were no initiatives to protect the claimant’s identity, and the only promise given is to investigate the claims, after the victim files a police report.
According to a ministerial source, there are different stages to proof or deny a ‘torture’ claim. All complaints provided to the ministry are taken seriously, but in order for a complaint to be described as an incident, the claimant must file an official police or prosecution report.
After that, the issue is investigated by prosecution authorities who decide whether to close the case or refer it to trial. The court will either acquit the suspect or declare him innocent through several procedural verdicts.
Once a final court conviction is issued, the ministry counts it as a case.
On 4 June, Minister of Interior Magdy Abdel Ghaffar stated that “respecting human rights and freedoms were necessary, adding that there should be an improvement of detention places and that it had become the ministry’s top priority.”
Abdel Ghaffar made the declaration while attending the opening of a new prison. His statements admitted that current places of detention were overcrowded with prisoners.
Finally, the interior ministry slammed the NCHR again after its recent report on 31 May, saying members of the council did not actually go into the cells, which makes them unfit to make claims on the conditions in prison.
An example of a torture case: El-Sayed Al-Kosbary
A case documented by Al-Haqanya rights organisation
El-Sayed Al-Kosbary was arrested by a security force from his workplace in Rashid (Rosetta), a coastal northern city, without being informed of his charge. He was severely beaten and dragged on the ground in the process, then taken to Rashid police station, where he was accused of possessing a firearm, adding the charge of resisting authorities to him and his relatives.
Al-Kosbary, 32, did not receive medical treatment until late in the night, when he was taken to Rashid Hospital, which stated the injuries inflicted on him were by the police force. The next morning he was shown before the general prosecution, where he accused the police force of beating him and requested the Forensic Medicine Authority to inspect his injuries.
The prosecution did not respond to his request, nor did it investigate the security force, and Al-Kosbary was taken back to the police station.
From 3 to 5 May, Al-Kosbary was allegedly subject to another round of beatings and torture until he eventually collapsed and was transported to the hospital on 5 May, but he did not survive to reach it.
Four days after the initial request to show “injured” Al-Kosbary before the forensic medicine authority, the prosecution ordered showing now dead Al-Kosbary before the authority.
A police officer and two policemen were detained pending investigations before being referred to criminal court with the charge of “beating that led to death”.
Killers of Sayed Belal acquitted after being convicted of torture
An Alexandria Criminal Court acquitted on 29 May the state security officer accused of torturing to death a young man, Sayed Belal, shortly before the 25 January Revolution.
Mohamed Al-Shemy, an officer in the state security investigations department, was initially handed a 15-year prison sentence in June 2012 for murder and using torture to extract confessions.
The court of appeals accepted Al-Shemy’s appeal and the police officer is due to be released soon.
Al-Shemy was accused, along with four other police officers. Two of them were sentenced to life imprisonment in absentia, another has been released, and one is a fugitive.
Sayed Belal, along with Khaled Said, another young Alexandrian who was tortured to death, became revolutionary symbols against police brutality. Posters with their faces were carried during the 25 January 2011 protests.
Examples of practiced torture (box)
- Electrocution (leaves least marks on body)
- Hanging from feet and arms (leading to a person being unable to let his/her arms down for long hours)
- Severe beating
- Medical neglect and prevention of medical care
- Hiding prisoners’ location of detention from their lawyers and family members
- Inciting prisoners against a particular prisoner or group of prisoners
- Detaining minors with adults
- Sexual assaults
- Insults, forcing prisoners to chose female names and say degrading things about themselves
- Preventing prisoners from leisure time, bathrooms, and sometimes food
- Inhumane conditions of detention and overcrowding prison cells (leading to spread of diseases)
- Threats to harm relatives