Campaign against torture
An anti-torture campaign featuring oral testimonies from victims began at the Press Syndicate this week. Amira Howeidy listens in
"They made me take off my trousers and shoes, and they beat me and kicked me," journalist Ibrahim El-Sahari told the audience at the Press Syndicate on Monday. El-Sahari was one of six people -- who had been arrested and allegedly tortured in prison -- speaking at a Press Syndicate seminar, the first in a series of 'torture testimonies' organised by the syndicate's Freedoms Committee. The event was part of a wider anti- torture campaign that was launched last month by a number of human rights groups including the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights Centre (EIPR), the Hisham Mubarak Law Centre and the Al-Nadim Centre for the Rehabilitation of Victims of Violence.
The campaign was triggered by the government's recent clampdown on anti-war activists, and also featured a statement issued by these same groups warning the Interior Ministry that security officials who conducted or participated in the torture or mistreatment of arrested anti-war activists would be "prosecuted" at the International Criminal Court (ICC).
This was the second time in four months that El-Sahari was speaking at the syndicate's downtown headquarters about his arrest and torture in prison. An anti-war activist and journalist with the economic daily Al-Alam Al-Yom, El-Sahari was arrested in February, and spent two weeks in police custody. Arrested again on 14 April, his whereabouts remained unknown until 21 April, when he was finally allowed access to lawyers at Tora Prison.
Released on 24 April, El-Sahari said he had been blindfolded, beaten violently and humiliated while in custody. He told his audience on Monday evening that, "they asked me who my 'link' was at the Foreign Ministry because they thought that the [local and international] campaigning that was done on my behalf could only have been conducted via a ministry big shot with connections outside Egypt."
El-Sahari's multiple arrests were part of widespread government clampdowns on anti-war activists. In late March, the security apparatus arrested approximately 800 people in connection with anti-war demonstrations. The second wave of arrests -- in April -- resulted in the detention of dozens of anti-war activists including university professors, lawyers, students and two members of parliament.
During both of his testimonies, El-Sahari -- a founding member of the Socialist Studies Centre, and the author of a book about US oil interests in Iraq -- chose to focus on the suffering of others he had met in prison, rather than his own personal experience. "This time I met someone who had spent 14 months in some governorate that he couldn't even identify because he was held in an underground prison cell," El-Sahari said. "And there is another person who has been detained for 14 years without trial, who has received 82 release orders, but they won't let him out." Both of these people, he said, are among some 28,000 detainees allegedly affiliated to Islamist groups, who are being held in prison without trial. "No one talks about these people. None of the opposition political parties talk about their suffering. What happened to me and other anti-war activists is nothing compared to what those [Islamist] detainees go through in prison."
El-Sahari was detained along with another journalist, Marwan Hamdi, who was also released on 24 April. All but three of the arrested anti-war activists have been released. Ramez Gihad, Mahmoud Hassan, and Wael Tawfik, however, are reportedly still being held at Borg Al- Arab Prison near Alexandria. They have been detained for a month, denied access to their lawyers or relatives, and were reportedly tortured or mistreated while originally being held at State Security Intelligence (SSI) headquarters in Lazoghly Square, downtown.
According to Kamal Abu Eita, a prominent anti-war activist, 25-year-old Cairo University student Ramez Gihad "was electrocuted and severely tortured, more so than the rest". Several of the Press Syndicate speakers said that police officers had ordered Gihad's cell mates "not to give him water to drink because his body had been exposed to too much electricity, and if he drinks he'll die". In fact, the police's refusal to disclose Gihad's whereabouts or allow his family or lawyers to meet him has resulted in a widespread rumour that he died in prison.
Manal Khaled's testimony, meanwhile, also shed light on some of the more sordid aspects of the alleged torture practiced by security officials. Photos of the 31-year-old assistant film director's bruised face and swollen eye had appeared in several opposition newspapers and human rights Web sites following her 21 March arrest. At the Press Syndicate on Monday, Khaled said that she had been "walking, alone, in Bab Al-Louq Square on the day that demonstrations were taking place at Al-Azhar, but that nothing was happening where I was. Several plain-clothes policemen called my name and then took me to their commanding officer. I was severely beaten in the eye and head."
Khaled was accused of attacking police officers, destroying public property, and setting a fire truck ablaze, amongst a long list of other accusations. "It's ironic," Khaled said, "because the fire truck in question was actually set ablaze several hours after they arrested me in Bab Al- Louq."
She said she was taken to the Ezbekiya Police Station where she was severely beaten and then handcuffed in a painful position. "My back, shoulders and arms were really hurting, and when I complained they told me I had better shut up because they had been given orders to treat me in that way."
Khaled, who was released on bail on 29 March, said that after being severely beaten, verbally abused and threatened, she was taken to Al- Qanater Prison, "where I was placed with convicts, murderers and drug dealers. But even those convicts fully sympathised with me, and couldn't understand why we were arrested simply because we were taking part in an anti-war demonstration".
Lawyers in attendance at the Press Syndicate seminar pledged to take legal action against State Security Intelligence officers who ordered and took part in torture. Although sceptical observers doubted the effect that such exposure might have on preventing torture in Egyptian prisons, El- Sahari and others pledged not to give up.