Al-Ahram Weekly Online   30 June - 6 July 2005
Issue No. 749
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Zero tolerance for torture

Even the Lazoghli headquarters of State Security Investigations has become the site of demonstrations, this time against torture, reports Amira Howeidy

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A first-ever demonstration in front of State Security headquarters in Cairo called for an end to torture

When 150 demonstrators gathered on Sunday outside the notorious building that houses State Security Investigations, known to Egyptians as Lazoghli after the name square SSI headquarters overlooks, they were breaking yet another taboo.

"You who rule us with the SSI, the people feel your injustice," chanted the protestors, "down with [Interior Minister] Habib El-Adli, down with the Emergency Law."

One woman in the crowd held aloft a poster reading "I demand the trial of the [security] pashas ".

The event, which marked International Day in Support of Victims of Torture, never before commemorated with public demonstrations in Egypt, came a month after an attack on a peaceful demonstration thought to have been orchestrated by the ruling National Democratic Party (NDP) during which women demonstrators were violently beaten and sexually molested in broad daylight, in the street. The attacks, many filmed on video cameras, sparked local and international outrage, focusing the spotlight once again on Egypt's appalling human rights record. Despite the filmed evidence and eyewitness accounts there has yet to be a single prosecution in connection with the attacks, leading at least two international human rights groups to issue statements criticising the Egyptian government.

On 22 June Human Rights Watch (HRW) accused the government of stifling dissent, not only by granting immunity to the perpetrators of the 25 May attacks but for detaining hundreds of Muslim Brotherhood members, including leaders such as Essam El-Erian and Mahmoud Ezzat, "for exercising their rights to freedom of speech, association and assembly". After six weeks of investigations the government has yet to show that a crime has been committed and should release the detainees immediately said Joe Stork, deputy Middle East director at HRW.

On the same day the World Organisation Against Torture (OMCT) issued a statement expressing concern over the "sexual assault and intimidation" of women on 25 May. OMCT said it had received information from the Cairo-based Arab Centre for the Independence of the Judiciary and Legal Profession (ACIJLP) confirming that some of the victims and eyewitnesses "continue to be threatened and intimidated by security forces".

But last Sunday's demonstration was about more than a month-old attack against peaceful protestors. Standing in the tiny space commanded by the protesters and surrounded by metal barriers and hundreds of special force units at Lazoghli, a man in his 20s held a red box covered with names printed in black letters. Ahmed Ibrahim, Medhat Fahmy, Mohamed El-Hussein Imam, Abdel-Raouf Youssef -- they, along with every one else whose name appeared on the box, had been tortured to death.

"Egypt," chanted the protesters, "your people have suffered from injustice and repression." And in a reference to the administration of electric shocks to detainees, allegedly a routine torture practice, they shouted "raise the voltage, raise the voltage, give him 200".

Yet other demonstrators held an enlarged photograph taken during the 2003 anti-war Cairo protests of a man curled on the ground with his arms wrapped around him as six police officers attack him with truncheons.

"We demand a torture-free country," read the statement at the bottom of the placard.

The demonstration, organised by the Hisham Mubarak Law Centre and Al-Nadeem Centre for the Rehabilitation of Victims of Torture, included representatives from several newly- formed activist groups, including Youth for Change and the Street is Ours.

Left-wing activist Kamal Khalil led chants demanding the release of El-Erian and other Brotherhood detainees and, for the first time, Abboud El-Zomor, the former Al-Gamaa Al-Islamiya leader and army officer charged with plotting the assassination of President Anwar El-Sadat in 1981. Though El-Zomor has completed his sentence of 15 years with hard labour the authorities refuse to release him, along with thousands of other political detainees who have served their sentences, citing political reasons.

Local and international rights groups claim 17,000 political detainees are held in Egypt without charges, some since the 1980s. They also complain that nothing is being done to combat torture, a routine practice in prisons, police stations and SSI offices, which even the government-appointed National Council for Human Rights (NCHR) acknowledges is part of "normal investigative practice in Egypt". In its first report on human rights in Egypt in 2004-2005 the NCHR reiterated demands by human rights groups and political parties for an end to the 24-year-old Emergency Law which allows detention without a warrant for up to 30 days.

The growing number of renditions to Egypt in recent years has also given international rights groups a reason to revisit Egypt's human rights file. In May HRW issued a report, Black Hole: The Fate of Islamists Rendered to Egypt, that identified 63 individuals rendered to, and in a few cases from, Egypt since 1995. HRW's view of the situation in Egypt is summed up in the quotation -- from former CIA official Rober Baer -- that introduces the report: "If you want a serious interrogation you send a prisoner to Jordan. If you want them to be tortured you send them to Syria. If you want someone to disappear -- never to see them again -- you send them to Egypt."

Yet another rendition scandal surfaced last week when, in Italy, a judge issued an arrest warrant for 13 people linked to the CIA and accused of kidnapping an Egyptian cleric in Milan two years ago and flying him to Egypt for questioning. Egyptian authorities remain silent over this and other rendition cases.

Nasser Amin, director of ACIJLP, believes the latest anti-torture campaign is one of the strongest yet in Egypt. The authorities, he told Al-Ahram Weekly, "have now received the message that torture is no longer a matter that will be tolerated". There is a lot of pressure to prosecute the perpetrators of the 25 May attacks in particular and, says Amin, "if it doesn't happen here there is always the option of taking it to an international court."

But it is precisely this "empowerment from abroad" -- as critics of the political reform movement call it -- that is used to question the patriotism of people like Amin the moment they refer to international justice. During a debate last week in the human rights parliamentary committee, human rights groups were accused of receiving foreign funding to "tarnish Egypt's image".

Amin is unmoved by such allegations. "The head of this committee is Hamed Hammad, a former SSI officer who led the torture campaigns of the 1980s," he said.

"As a student in 1978 I was wanted for alleged Nasserist political activities and when they didn't find me they took my father and brother. My father was electrocuted, and Hammad was responsible."

But will Sunday's demonstration at Lazoghli have any impact on the human rights situation in Egypt?

Perhaps, thinks Amin, "if those held in the underground prison cells of the SSI headquarters heard the anti-torture chants. This is the first time in history that demonstrators have gone so far. Lazoghli is Egypt's Bastille and it has to go."

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