Blood in vain?
Rights groups are crying torture. But, asks Amira Howeidy, is anybody listening?
The small but sun-lit accountants' room on the fourth floor of the Engineers' Syndicate headquarters was very quiet on Monday afternoon. Two accountants working in conspicuous silence occupied two of the office's three desks. The third, which belonged to 43-year-old Mosaad Qotb, has been vacant for more than three weeks.
According to his family, Qotb was arrested from his home in the wee hours of 1 November, and detained at State Security Investigations (SSI) Giza offices for three days. On 5 November, an SSI officer contacted Qotb's brother, and told him to "collect" Qotb. When he did, Qotb was a severely battered corpse in the Umm Al-Masryeen Hospital morgue.
"He had blood clots all over his body, especially his head and ears," Qotb's brother Ahmed told Al-Ahram Weekly. "It was clear he had been tortured." On 6 November, the family filed a complaint at the prosecutor's office, which is currently waiting for the official forensic report. A preliminary forensic report noted blood clots at the end of Qotb's backbone, and bruises at the back of his knee joints, wrists, forehead, ears, and lower lip.
"We wanted to receive condolences near his house at the Khaled Ibn Al- Waleed mosque in Kitkat [Imbaba]," his brother said, "but the security apparatus said we couldn't because they wanted to avoid any commotion. They made us shift the service to our father's house in Al-Nahda [on the outskirts of Cairo] so that fewer people would attend, and they could guarantee a quiet event. They paid for everything."
Qotb's affiliation with the outlawed Muslim Brotherhood was viewed as the primary reason for his arrest, and subsequent torture. The group's Supreme Guide Mamoun El-Hodeibi lambasted the incident as "monstrous and unacceptable", vowing to bring justice to Qotb's family. The Bar Associations' Freedoms Committee was quick to file a complaint with the prosecutor-general demanding an "immediate investigation into this crime, which constitutes an offence to every Egyptian".
Qotb's case appears to be merely the latest incident of torture-induced death. According to the Egyptian Organisation for Human Rights (EOHR), Mohamed Abdel-Sattar El-Roubi, an engineer who was arrested last September for disseminating anti-US and anti-Israeli propaganda, died after being tortured at an SSI office in Al- Fayoum. And last October, Mahmoud Gabr Mohamed was arrested and detained at the Al-Sayeda Zeinab police station, where, according to the EOHR, he died after being tortured.
Human rights groups have documented at least 34 cases of torture- related deaths that took place between 2000 and 2003 at Interior Ministry affiliated offices. Despite the shocking statistics, they've been largely ignored by the media, which has also showed meagre interest in the last three cases. This prompted Mohamed Selim El- Awwa, a prominent lawyer, to bring the issue to the attention of his readers via a column in this week's independent Al-Osbou' newspaper. He observed that during 1989-1999, 33 people died as a result of torture, "which means that the frequency of such crimes are increasing".
Although rights groups are working towards taking perpetrators to court, El-Awwa argued that the average citizen is more interested in stopping the crime altogether. "The constitution and the law are not enough, nor are trials that condemn [perpetrators of torture]. A very clear political will and decision is the only thing that will stop a sadistic person, no matter how high up he is, from committing torture. Otherwise it simply won't stop," El-Awwa wrote.
The government made a political nod to such demands last May, when it issued the law that created a National Council For Human Rights. Although the law went into effect on 20 June, it hasn't yet come to light. This is despite the ruling party's interest in human rights issues, as demonstrated by its meeting with several rights groups on the sidelines of its annual congress in September. At around the same time, 12 police officers were ordered to stand trial on charges of torture, intimidation, fraud and attempted rape.
"By taking this sort of action," said Ihab Sallam, a lawyer with the Human Rights Association for the Assistance of Prisoners (HRAAP), "the government is clearly trying to compromise." However, Sallam asked the Weekly, "If 12 have now been referred to court, what was happening before? Was there no torture? Of course there was, but now the government has reasons to make such gestures."
HRAAP and a number of rights groups launched a campaign to eradicate torture in 2000. Although that campaign has been renewed every year, critics argue that the government has not yet decided that it wants to stop the practice.
Qotb's brother says his family "doesn't want his blood to have been spilt in vain, or his life to be wasted like that". But, they said, "there is very little we can do after all, and nothing will compensate our loss."