Echoes of 'The Land'
Police face new allegations of torture in the village of Sarandu, reports Mustafa El-Menshawy
"The police," says nine-year-old Mohamed Fathi, "stormed our house on Sunday evening and arrested my mother as she was about to pray. They released her on Monday and on Tuesday she died."
Nafissa Zakaria, 38, died in a public hospital in Damanhour -- 150km northeast of Cairo -- on 15 March, less than two days after she was detained at a makeshift prison in Sarandu.
The village is the scene of an on-going dispute between smallholders and landowner Salah Nawwar. The villagers say they have legal title to 25 feddans of land which they cultivated for generations while Nawwar claims the land is his property.
Nawwar, say the farmers, has used intimidation to force them off the disputed land and sign documents relinquishing their right to cultivate the 25 feddans. Human rights organisations -- including Human Rights Watch -- report the villagers have suffered at the hands of both Nawwar and the Damanhour security forces.
On the morning of 10 March, testify the farmers, Nawwar came to the village with 50 armed men. Three hours later, human rights groups allege, police stormed the village and conducted wholesale arrests. The detained included 13 women and five children, aged between two and nine.
"Mohamed Ammar, head of Damanhour investigations department, is reported to have used arbitrary detention, false criminal charges and intimidation to assist the Nawwar family in their efforts to force villagers from the disputed land," said Human Rights Watch.
Ammar denies the allegations but refuses to comment further.
The Washington-based group sent a letter to Interior Minister Habib El-Adli and Prosecutor-General Maher Abdel-Wahed requesting an investigation into the allegations. Families of the detained villagers and human rights activists also took part in a demonstration on 17 March to protest against the death of Zakaria.
While Abdel-Wahed initially agreed to an investigation on Sunday he announced there was nothing to investigate since no one had been found in detention. He added the woman had died of natural causes according to doctors at the Damanhour hospital and family members. The latter, he said, had refused an autopsy.
Human rights groups criticised Abdel- Wahed's announcement as inaccurate.
"Abdel-Wahed stated that Damanhour hospital doctors said Nafissa Zakaria suffered low blood circulation which means that her death could have been caused by bleeding or psychological shock," said Aida Seif El-Dawla, head of the Egyptian Association Against Torture (EAAT).
Villagers detained alongside Zakaria have told Al-Ahram Weekly that they have been instructed by the police not to speak to the press.
"I was detained with a group of other women from the village for 16 days," says one. "Women were beaten and electrocuted before my eyes."
Those who are willing to speak tell a single story. Police break into homes, beat women and children and, when searching for an absent male relative, detain wives and children as hostages.
Ammar, say human rights activists, remains in his post despite being under investigation for allegedly beating a pregnant woman.
According to a report published by the Land Centre for Human Rights 49 farmers have been killed, 328 injured and 429 arrested in land-related violence since Law 96/1992, governing agricultural tenancies, came into effect in 1997.
Police repression of tenant farmers in the interest of big landowners was immortalized in the landmark 1960s film "The Land' by internationally renowned cinema director, Youssef Chahine.