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Dispatches From Cairo: Torture in Post-Mubarak Egypt
Posted on Oct 30, 2011
We asked Lauren Unger-Geoffroy, an Arabic-speaking American who lives in Cairo, to share her perspective of life in Egypt after the revolution. In this entry, she writes about two cases involving alleged official brutality and the deaths of prisoners.
CAIRO—On Friday at the corner mosque, the imam was hoarse with emotion as he gave his sermon. Through a loudspeaker system, he shouted the story of Ibrahim [the Old Testament’s Abraham] and about sacrificing for freedom and faith. He went on for an hour, until his voice broke and his last recitations from the Quran were punctuated by breaks and what sounded like sobs.
The imam’s passion was inspired by the fate of Essam Atta, who died Thursday at Qasr El-Eini hospital in Cairo after prison guards allegedly tortured him by sodomization. According to several media reports, an officer from Tora Prison took Atta to the hospital when it became evident he was dying. Some press accounts put his age at 23 and others said he was 24.
Malik Adly, a lawyer for the family, reported that after Atta was tortured, the prisoner phoned relatives to say that police had injected water into him through his mouth and anus. Atta’s brother told the media that he had seen the corpse at the hospital and it was leaking foamy water and bloody fluid from the mouth and nose and had contusions on the face.
“We accuse the officers of the Tora prison of being behind the victim’s death,” Adly said. Cairo’s Nadim Center for Victims of Torture also accused guards of killing Atta. The family is asking Egypt’s state prosecutor for a full investigation into the death.
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Activists carrying Atta’s body in an open coffin wrapped in the Egyptian flag marched to Tahrir Square on Friday, chanting slogans against the Ministry of Interior.
An Egyptian security official denied the allegations of official brutality, saying prison medics found that Atta had taken drugs and was suffering from exhaustion. When his condition worsened, he was taken to the hospital, the official said. Another presenter on national television said that sources reported he died from ingesting drugs.
The alleged torture occurred only one day after two policemen were given seven-year prison terms for a similar crime—the murder last year of Khaled Said, 28, in Alexandria—an incident that turned out to be a major catalyst for the national revolution that started in January.
Said was beaten to death in June 2010. Pictures of his bloodied face, broken jaw and bruised body were widely circulated, and activists later used a Facebook page called “We are all Khaled Said” to help organize the uprising against now-deposed President Hosni Mubarak. The page remains an influential rallying point for protests and revolutionary activity in Egypt.
At the sentencing of the policemen last Wednesday, enraged families of the two officers smashed wooden benches in the courtroom and tried to attack the dead man’s lawyers and relatives, one of the lawyers said.
The newest reported victim of police atrocity, Atta, was taken into custody Feb. 24 as he watched a street fight. He was arrested under an accusation of thuggery and eventually was tried by a military court on a charge of illegal occupation of an apartment. Atta was sentenced to two years in the maximum-security ward at Cairo’s Tora Prison, where a number of former figures in the Mubarak regime are being held.
After Thursday’s death, one police official reported that Atta had also been arrested earlier, in 2004 for drug dealing and in 2010 for illegal weapon possession. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because, he said, he was not authorized to address the media.
One cannot avoid seeing the similarities between the cases of Atta and Said. Authorities had portrayed Said, too, as a drug dealer and declared that he had choked to death on a packet of drugs he swallowed in trying to hide it from police. However, protesters who succeeded in having an independent forensic group explore Said’s remains said the examiners found that the packet had been forced into the mouth after death.
For many Egyptians, the prosecution of the two low-ranking policemen in Said’s death and their sentencing were a success and a rare satisfaction of justice. Despite the fact that many felt the punishment was not sufficient, there was a sense of victory against the endemic brutality of this police force. Even so, activists continue to call for a complete revision of the Interior Ministry, Egypt’s police and prison system. In addition, an end to military trials for civilians remains a central demand.
On a Facebook page protesting military trials Atta posted a message Oct. 7:
“I’m imprisoned because my family is poor. But I’m sure God will stand by me, as God is greater than all people,” he said 20 days before his death. Members of Atta’s family say that when he died they were preparing to appeal the verdict.
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