11 - 17 July 2002
Issue No. 594
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Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875 Recommend this page

Trying torture

Two trials involving senior police officers accused of torturing suspects to death witnessed surprising turns this week, reports Khaled Dawoud

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Key defendant Salama recanted his eye witness account of police brutality in court
The large courtroom at the Abbasiya Court House Complex was packed on Sunday for what was meant to be the final session in the trial of three senior officers and a policeman accused of severely torturing two suspects at the Nasr City Police Station, killing one and badly injuring the second.

Riot police in full gear were lined up at the entrance to both the building and the courtroom itself, a measure usually reserved for trials involving suspected Islamist militants and high profile cases.

Most of those in the courtroom were family members and colleagues of the four defendants: Major Hazem Derbi, the head of the investigations' department at Nasr City Police Station, his deputy, Captain Ashraf Gohar, Colonel Gamal Fouad, the former head of the department combating motor vehicle theft, and policeman Mahmoud Khalifa.

Derbi, Gohar and Khalifa were brought to the courtroom from the prison were they have been held since the trial began in early May. But unlike other defendants facing trial, they were not brought to the courtroom handcuffed to a policeman.

As they made their way to the defendants' cage, they were greeted -- in a clear show of camaraderie -- with hugs and kisses from their fellow officers in the audience. Inside the cage, Derbi stood cleanly shaven, smoking American cigarettes, with an ashtray placed right next to him. He was also making calls from his cell phone, in what was a clear exception to the norm since prisoners are never allowed to keep their mobile phones.

When Colonel Fouad, on bail pending a sentence, showed up, he was also put into the cage amid the salutes and expressions of support of his colleagues.

Policeman Khalifa, the lowest ranking of the four defendants, was the only one in the cage who seemed clearly devastated. He stood slightly away from the three other officers, weeping and murmuring verses from the Qur'an.

When the panel of judges entered the courtroom, to everyone's surprise they were a different group than the one which had been presiding over the case since it began. The presiding judge announced that the original chief judge, Alaaeddin El-Geddawi, was ill and had requested a reprieve from handling the case.

The new judge, Mustafa Abdallah, announced that he would begin new hearings on 5 August, meaning that it could take weeks or even a few months before a new date would be set for sentencing.

"This is very bizarre," commented Mohamed Zarie, a lawyer and director of the Human Rights Centre for the Assistance of Prisoners (HRCAP). "The original judge clearly did not want to lay down a ruling in this case."

Even the defendants and their lawyers were surprised by this sudden turn of events. "Did any of you demand that the case be re-opened to provide new evidence?" asked one of the lawyers. The four defendants looked at each other and said no.

Derbi, Gohar and Khalifa, who all worked at Nasr City Police Station, are accused of arresting two suspects, Sayed Eissa and Mustafa Helmi, in January, for suspicion of involvement in car theft. The two men were allegedly kept incommunicado for nearly 45 days, during which they were subjected to severe torture, including beatings, electric shocks and whipping. Prosecutors said that after Eissa and Helmi's health deteriorated, Derbi and Gohar allegedly took them to a flat belonging to the policeman, Khalifa, to provide them with treatment. Their efforts failed, and Eissa died. They got rid of both bodies by throwing them out in the street.

Helmi, however, survived and complained to the police, after which Interior Minister Habib El-Adli immediately ordered the case to be referred to trial.

During the trial, Derbi's lawyers claimed that Helmi was lying, and that his allegations of torture were prompted by pressure from a member of parliament involved in a dispute with Derbi's father, a well-known lawyer and a former senior police officer. "Derbi's family is very well connected," one of Derbi's colleagues told Al-Ahram Weekly on condition of anonymity, "and they are definitely applying pressure to help their son get out of this."

A separate trial involving the head of the investigations unit at Imbaba Police Station and his deputy, also accused of torturing to death a theft suspect, was no less surprising than that of the Nasr City officers. Major Sayed Baghdadi and Captain Ehab Abdel-Rehim are accused of torturing to death Medhat Tadros, after his arrest last year for his alleged involvement in the theft of a tape recorder and an iron. They are also charged with falsifying official documents claiming that Tadros died as a result of a sudden heart attack during interrogation.

On Saturday, the main witness in the case, Khaled Salama, a convicted thief who was brought to court from his prison cell in handcuffs, suddenly decided to change his testimony. During his original interrogation by prosecutors, Salama had said that he was arrested on the same day as Tadros, and taken into a room at the Imbaba Police Station where Tadros was being kept. According to his original testimony, Salama alleged that the two officers asked Tadros to lift his clothes, whereupon they began electrocuting sensitive parts of his body, which resulted in his death.

This week, however, Salama claimed that he saw nothing, and that he had been pressured by the victim's brother to provide false testimony, in order to receive compensation from the Interior Ministry, which he and the brother then planned to split amongst themselves.

The official forensic examination conducted on Tadros after his death confirmed that he died as a result of torture by electric shocks and severe beating. The five-page document, obtained by Al- Ahram Weekly, said there were "signs of injuries on his hands, and right and left backside... The deceased was also stripped of his underwear... The traces found on his body are suspected to be a result of electric shocks, and this was confirmed by pathological testing. As a result death is to believed to be a result of electric shocks."

According to Zarie, "The judge could simply ignore the sudden change in Salama's testimony, and rely on the forensic report." Zarie said the judge "could do this if he felt that the witness may have been subjected to pressure".

Human rights groups have praised what appeared to be a new trend on the part of the Interior Ministry -- referring officers involved in torturing suspects to death to immediate trials where they could face up to seven years in prison. The groups have noted that -- in recent months -- the interior minister and the prosecutor-general have taken several torture cases involving senior officers to court.

Human rights groups have repeatedly alleged that torture, both against political and criminal suspects, was a "routine practice" in Egypt, while the Interior Ministry vehemently denies this claim, insisting that it does not tolerate such practices. Interior Ministry officials have repeatedly referred to cases of torture as "excesses" by a few officers, and not a reflection of an official policy.

In a separate case also being tried this week, a Cairo misdemeanours court sentenced Major Mahmoud Farrag, director of investigations at the Hadayeq Al-Qubba Police Station, to six months in prison for torturing a woman in an attempt to force her to reveal the whereabouts of her divorced husband. Farrag was also sentenced to a fine of LE200, but the sentence was suspended pending appeal. The woman, Nagia Mohamed El-Sayed, had told the court that she had been taken to the police station and subjected to electric shocks.

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