Public concern in Egypt over police brutality

Friday 18/12/2015
Riot police detain an anti-government protester during a demonstration in downtown Cairo, last January.

Cairo - The recent death of a phar­macist in Ismailia prov­ince after alleged torture by police brings to mind an activist who was tor­tured in police custody and whose death incited the 2011 revolution.

The 47-year-old pharmacist was at his drug store when a police of­ficer reportedly entered, searched the store, slapped the pharmacist and took him into custody. About an hour later, the man, a cardiac pa­tient, had died.

Three other Egyptians died the same week, alleged victims of tor­ture in police stations.

On December 12th, two police of­ficers were sentenced to five years in jail by an Egyptian court for tor­turing a lawyer to death in Febru­ary. Karim Hamdy, 27, had been arrested on charges of taking part in anti-government protests organ­ised by the Muslim Brotherhood. He died two days after his arrest af­ter sustaining fractures to the ribs, bruises and bleeding in the chest and head, the initial forensic report showed.

“Torture has not stopped for a day inside police stations,” rights advocate Negad el-Borae said. “Such torture will not stop in the absence of a political will.”

In 2010, the death of activist Khaled Saeed in Alexandria trig­gered a nationwide uproar and a revolution. Photos of Saeed’s badly injured face were widely circulated on social media and displayed the severity of violence to which he was subjected.

The scenario seems to be repeat­ing itself. Increased allegations of police torture prompted Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi to pledge to punish those who commit “mistakes”.

“When someone makes a mis­take, we will punish him,” Sisi said on December 3rd while visiting the Police Academy on the outskirts of Cairo. “This is something we all must pay attention to.”

Nevertheless, he noted that “iso­lated incidents” should not and do not reflect on the conduct of the whole police force.

Deteriorating conditions inside police stations and jails are inviting attention, inside and outside the country.

The father of a woman who re­cently accused a policeman of beat­ing her to extract confessions about stolen jewellery, described the po­lice station where his daughter was interrogated as a “slaughterhouse”.

Anti-police brutality websites and internet pages are bursting with photos and videos of citizens who were allegedly tortured at po­lice stations.

Rampant reports about alleged torture are being used against Sisi in the run-up to protests on Janu­ary 25th, usually Police Day. Anti- Sisi activists called for major pro­tests against, among other things, the abuses by the nation’s police.

When they descended on the streets on January 25, 2011, demon­strators wanted to protest the bru­tality of the country’s police and deteriorating human rights condi­tions.

Egyptian Interior Minister Magdy Abdel Ghaffar denied the presence of systematic torture in police sta­tions. He said officers who commit violations were usually brought to account and he vowed to apologise if violations were confirmed.

A columnist recently accused police of “conspiring” to bring Sisi down.

Security experts say Egypt faces the challenge of striking a balance between fighting terrorism and protecting human rights. Egypt has seen a surge in terrorist attacks, of­ten targeting police, soldiers and judges.

Hundreds of police and troops have been killed by terrorists in the Sinai peninsula, where a home-grown group that has recently sworn allegiance to the Islamic State (ISIS) is active and in prov­inces where “lone-wolf” operatives have attacked security forces.

On November 28th, gunmen killed four officers at a police post in south-western Cairo. Five days earlier, several people were killed in North Sinai when terrorists drove a booby-trapped car into a hotel, where judges overseeing the second phase of Egypt’s parliamen­tary vote, were staying.

Retired police lieutenant Ehab Youssef said most police officers work 16 hours a day.

“They [police officers] are un­der this continual psychological pressure,” Youssef said. “Some­times policemen cannot restrain themselves when they also have to counter this surge in terrorist ac­tivities.”

However, most of the victims subjected to police brutality have nothing to do with terrorism.

The officer who arrested the pharmacist had harassed him for a year to please the landlord who wanted the drug store closed, the pharmacist’s family said.

The victim did not have a gun or a bomb at the time of his arrest, according to news reports. He was at a café when an officer took him away in a police car. When he ar­rived at a hospital an hour later, there were marks of physical tor­ture on his body, reports said. He died at the hospital.

Nine police officers accused of responsibility for the man’s death were arrested December 4th.