One year on and the confrontation continues
The anniversary of 25 May sexual assaults against women activists was marked by local and international solidarity demonstrations and by security forces using ever more violent tactics against dissidents, reports Amira Howeidy
For the last three months Hisham Bastawisi and Mahmoud Mekki, the two judges from the Court of Cassation referred by a government committee to a disciplinary court for contesting the fairness of the 2005 parliamentary elections, have acted as symbols for the pro- democracy and pro-reform movement in Egypt.
In the last week, though, attention has shifted to Mohamed El-Sharqawi, a 24- year-old political activist, who says that while he was in police custody he was systematically tortured and sodomised. The accusations have galvanised civil society.
On Thursday, 25 May, El-Sharqawi, dressed in a blue T-shirt and jeans, was standing in front of the Press Syndicate in Cairo silently holding a sign that read "I demand my rights".
He had been released from prison two days earlier, after being detained for a month for participating in a peaceful demonstration, on 24 April, in solidarity with the reform judges.
After Thursday's demonstration ended -- riot police had prevented the protesters from marching to the street -- El-Sharqawi got into a friend's car and headed for Ramses Station. He was planning to catch a train to Alexandria to visit his mother, who was unwell.
He never made it.
Eye witnesses say the car was stopped by a group of men in civilian clothing. El-Sharqawi was dragged from the vehicle into the entrance of a near-by building where he was severely beaten.
Karim El-Shaer, another protester, also released shortly before the incident, was kidnapped in the same manner and at around the same time, according to MP Saad Hammoud, who witnessed the incident.
Both were then placed in blue vans and driven away. It took lawyers four hours to discover their whereabouts -- the State Security Prosecution (SSP) in Heliopolis.
Gamal Eid, one of the lawyers who first saw El-Sharqawi on Thursday evening, desc
ed him as "unrecognisable" from the "torture meted out in Qasr Al-Nil police station" before he was transferred to the SSP.
"When they brought him for questioning at the prosecutor's office and I saw him I was close to tears," said Eid. "He wasn't the energetic and lively person I saw in the morning. On Thursday night I saw a different man."
Eid said El-Sharqawi's eyes were swollen red and blue and his lips were cut and bleeding. "I could see the signs of torture all over his body. All the time I was there his hand was on his chest. It seems he broke a rib during the beatings. He also told me he was sodomised for around 15 minutes with a rolled up piece of cardboard while in the Qasr Al-Nil police station."
Eid said that although the prosecutor appeared shocked at El-Sharqawi's appearance, "the decision to remand him and El-Shaer in custody for 15 days pending investigations had been made in advance. The interrogation lasted only half an hour and the prosecutor refused to refer El-Sharqawi to forensics or have him hospitalised. The complicity with the Qasr Al-Nil police officers was clear."
"Imprisoning El-Sharqawi for 15 days, or more if the prosecutors renew his detention, is one way of keeping evidence of his torture away from any doctor who can then testify about what happened."
The news of El-Sharqawi's treatment at the hands of the police provoked enough local and international outrage for the Tora prison authorities -- where both detainees are being held -- to refer El-Sharqawi to a doctor on Sunday afternoon, 72 hours after he was first detained.
It will be weeks before lawyers are able to access the forensic report, said Mahmoud Qandil, another lawyer following El-Sharqawi's case. "If the report confirms El-Sharqawi's claims, then the prosecutors should refer it to court."
In a press conference on Sunday, a group of activists, including Kifaya coordinator George Ishaq, vowed to "expose" the names of police officers accused of torturing and abusing dissidents "in a black list soon to be released".
"What happened to El-Sharqawi gives us more reason to continue with our struggle," said Ishaq. "If we remain silent it means we are all complicit in these horrific crimes."
A protest is scheduled to take place today, Thursday, at 5pm in front of Qasr Al-Nil police station.
The El-Sharqawi/El-Shaer case is the latest incident in a two-month long clampdown on activists from across the political spectrum who defied a security ban on public demonstrations in support of the judges.
Following arrests on 24, 26 and 27 April, and 4, 11 and 18 May, an estimated 600 -mostly Muslim Brotherhood members- have been detained during peaceful protests which were quashed by the police.
They are accused of congregating in groups of more than five persons in violation of the emergency law, of promoting sensational and false allegations that mislead public opinion, obstructing traffic and verbally attacking police officers on duty.They are also accused of "insulting the president," a misdemeanour.
Among the detained are many influential activists who have been at the forefront of the campaign for political reform. They include the left-wing activists Kamal Khalil and Wael Khalil, Muslim Brotherhood leaders Essam El-Erian and Mohamed Mursi, journalists Ibrahim El-Shari and Saher Gad, Ahsraf Ibrahim an engineer and activist and bloggers Malek Mustafa and the award winning Alaa Abdel-Fattah..
News of El-Sharqawi's experiences in Qasr Al-Nil police station overshadowed local and international demonstrations marking 25 May, the day last year on which plain-clothed policemen sexually assaulted female activists and journalists present at the Press Syndicate during an anti-government demonstration calling for a boycott of the referendum to amend the constitution.
For several weeks following what came to be known as Black Wednesday, protests were held on the same day in different locations in Cairo. It was during that time that several new movements for change emerged, their members demanding an end to systematic police oppression. But Cairo's spring of dissent would prove short- lived.
Pressure for reform began to build a new head of steam when the board of the Judges' Club, the elected representatives of Egypt's 8,500 judges, renewed their 15-year-old demand for judicial independence to be guaranteed ahead of last year's presidential and parliamentary elections. Tensions escalated when several judges publicly contested the fairness of the parliamentary elections, paving the way for a long battle between the executive and judicial authorities, of which Mekki and Bastawisi's trial is likely to be only a staging post.
The judges' demands acted as a catalyst among groups already demanding reform, and which include university professors, lawyers, journalists and a wide array of independent public figures.
The Judges' Club marked 25 May by holding a general assembly and picketing the headquarters of the Supreme Court in downtown Cairo. The Press Syndicate also held a session of its open- ended ordinary general assembly, while lawyers organised a demonstration in front of the Bar Association. And for the first time ever, Egyptian and international activists in 12 cities across the world -- including London, New York, Montreal, Paris, Seoul, Athens and Beirut -- organised solidarity demonstrations in front of Egyptian embassies and consulates demanding independence for the judiciary, an end to the emergency law and the release of prisoners of conscience.
Hamdeen Sabahi, an opposition MP for the Nasserist Karama (Dignity) Party, believes "the past few days have demonstrated strong support for the judges on the street."
"The judges' demands," he says, "are also popular demands." The authorities are conscious of this escalation which is "why they are reacting in such a violent way... they fear civil disobedience." But there is little to suggest that the current tension will wane "any time soon" says Sabahi.
Al-Ahram Weekly 's attempts to contact Ministry of Interior officials for comment all proved unsuccessful.
A top security official, Major General Ahmed Diaaeddin, assistant to the interior minister, was quoted in Nahdat Misr newspaper on Wednesday saying that the protesters had "violated" the law by demonstrating without an official permit.
Fouad Allam, a former senior security official, said that security forces are reacting violently "because they're provoked at how the outlawed Muslim Brotherhood have sabotaged events to their own advantage".
"But this is no excuse," he told Al-Ahram Weekly. "Violence on both sides is unacceptable and it has reached unprecedented levels on the part of the authorities. My advice to the security apparatus would be to try and contain the anger and not provoke more. If this carries on, groups who have never been involved in politics or demonstrations might join in and God knows what will happen then," Allam said.