Rights groups interrogate Taba investigation
Human rights groups are charging that wide scale abuses were committed by police in North Sinai following the Taba bombings. Mustafa El-Menshawy reports
Three Egyptian human rights organisations -- the Hisham Mubarak Law Centre, the Egyptian Association Against Torture and Al- Nadim Centre for the Rehabilitation of Victims of Violence -- have investigated allegations of an excessive police response to the triple bombings that took place in Sinai on 7 October, killing 33 people.
In a report released last week, the groups drew a grim picture of some 5,000 North Sinai residents being detained by the authorities as they searched for the perpetrators of the attack. This massive wave of arrests was accompanied by widespread allegations of torture at the hands of police forces in Arish, the report said.
When the fact-finding mission visited the North Sinai capital from 15-17 November, Arish seemed like a ghost town -- even though it was the second day of Eid Al-Fitr. The streets were empty, without the traditional festivities that normally mark the holiday signifying the end of Ramadan. In fact, said the report, there were very few signs of normal life in Arish at all.
A few weeks earlier, on 25 October, the Interior Ministry had announced the results of their investigation into the blasts. Nine culprits -- one Palestinian and eight Egyptians -- were said to have been involved. While two were killed during the blasts, five were arrested, and two others remained at large.
Observers have questioned the validity of these charges, their speculation fuelled by the secrecy surrounding the official investigations, with neither the Interior Ministry nor the state security investigations body willing to provide details of progress made until the sudden announcement of the perpetrators' identities. Some have gone so far as to accuse the ministry of picking scapegoats just to show that something was being done.
The human rights groups' report cited testimonies from released detainees and eyewitnesses alleging the use of torture by the police in the course of their investigations into the bombings.
Although the ministry did not comment on the report, a senior security official in Arish told Al-Ahram Weekly, on condition of anonymity, that the report's estimate of the number of detainees was exaggerated. "Eight- hundred people at most were detained in the governorate after the Taba blasts," the source said.
Asked whether the detainees were subjected to torture, the official did not directly deny the claims; he did, however, say the allegations reflected "no more than an old perception of how the police works in Egypt".
The accounts in the report range from detainees being hung from the ceiling with their arms tied, to subjecting the detainees to electric shocks for hours at a time.
The report also said that 140 women were detained and tortured until the "wanted" members of their families turned themselves in to the police.
The report also said that detainees were so ill-treated while in custody, that "some died in detention," said Ahmed Seif-el-Islam of the Hisham Mubarak Law Centre, one of the three groups that produced the report. Seif-el-Islam told the Weekly that Mohamed Ahmed El- Roba', one of the men identified by the ministry as a perpetrator, is believed to have died after being tortured.
State Security prosecutors, said Seif-el- Islam, refused to allow the human rights organisations' lawyers access to any of the interrogations of detainees that took place.
According to Ashraf Ayoub of the Popular Committee for Citizen Rights in North Sinai, detainees were warned by the police not to contact human rights organisations. The groups said that one of the Sinai inhabitants interviewed by the fact-finding mission was later detained, and "has been hospitalised with partial paralysis in the right half of his body, including a partial loss of sight and the inability to talk."
Sinai locals expressed fears that the fury over the massive arrests and detentions could catalyse an armed conflict with the police. One human rights activist from Sinai told the Weekly, on condition of anonymity, that people in Sinai were so infuriated about the arrests and torture that "tribesmen were considering taking up arms against the police."
Another local resident expressed his fear that "the detentions and torture would continue".
Although the prosecutor-general met with representatives of the three organisations that prepared the report, human rights activists were not very optimistic about the potential results. "Unfortunately," said Bahieddin Hassan, a member of the National Council for Human Rights, "there was a tremendous escalation in human rights violations in Egypt in 2004, including massive arrests and repressive detention by the Interior Ministry." He said that since its establishment in January, the government-affiliated council has received 4,000 complaints.
Hassan told the Weekly that "the main dilemma is that the official bodies concerned -- including the Interior Ministry and the prosecutor-general himself -- have ignored the council's concerns about human rights violations." In fact, he said, "these bodies have insisted on breaking the law with impunity."
Egypt has often come under heavy fire from international rights groups for its poor human rights record. "Egypt is suffering from an epidemic of torture," Kenneth Roth, executive director of Human Rights Watch said in July. "But instead of addressing the crisis, the government desperately tries to cover it up."
A 2001 Amnesty International report -- entitled Egypt: Torture remains rife as cries of justice go unheeded -- described incidents of torture and ill-treatment in Egypt as "widespread and indiscriminate".
International human rights activists and diplomats interested in Egypt's human rights record have expressed their dismay at this latest development. "We are following the situation closely," a diplomat from the European Commission's delegation in Cairo told the Weekly about the Sinai report. The diplomat, an expert on civil society who demanded anonymity, said contacts with the Egyptian government would be made to discuss the report's findings.
The fact-finding mission's report appeared just as an Egyptian court convicted three police officers of assaulting a lawyer; the officers were each sentenced to a year in prison.