Recently circulated footage of policemen torturing suspects has forced the Interior Ministry on the back foot, reports Karim El-Khashab
Videos have appeared on the Internet showing police officers torturing suspects in a number of Egyptian police stations. The Ministry of Interior, which in the past has responded to allegations that torture is endemic with a flat denial, faced with film evidence has issued statements saying none of the police officers caught on camera was acting upon the orders of superiors.
Among the most disturbing films, all of which were taken with mobile phones, are short sequences of a girl being whipped with a length of plastic hose and a man being sodomised with a wooden implement. Another video showed police cadets being instructed on how to beat suspects, with older officers demonstrating techniques.
The Interior Ministry has said that some of the officers identified from the videos have been removed from their posts and are currently under investigation. Such acts, it insists, are not representative of police practice and are isolated incidents. Two of the police officers identified, says the ministry, have been found to have sexually molested girls as young as nine.
Journalist and blogger Hossam El-Hamalawi, who posted several of the videos, points to one that will not be investigated. It is a short sequence showing school children playing a game of cops and robbers. The "cop" stands on a chair in a classroom and slaps the "robbers" as they file in front of him. The game, says El-Hamalawi, clearly shows what the public perception of police practice is, even among children, despite repeated Interior Ministry assurances that acts of violence are isolated.
It is not the first time police actions in Egypt have come under scrutiny. The National Council for Human Rights, headed by former UN secretary-general Boutros Boutros-Ghali and reports directly to the president, has issued two reports documenting complaints regarding human rights violations by the police. The council has not yet commented on the recent allegations but has documented over 200 cases of alleged assaults by the police which were all referred back to the ministry. Only a handful of the cases have been investigated and in most of those no further action was taken. In one case, in which a police officer was found guilty of shooting and wounding a microbus driver and his assistant, he was suspended for two months and fined LE2,000.
Noha Atef, editor of the Torture in Egypt blog, which has chronicled abuse by the police force in Egypt, says such behaviour is systemic, and can be traced back to the Police Academy, where such techniques of abuse are taught.
Perhaps the most outspoken critic of the Interior Ministry is retired police lieutenant Mahmoud El-Koutri whose 2004 book Confessions of a Police Officer in the City of Wolves was banned on the orders of the Interior Ministry which claimed he was intent on defaming the Egyptian police because of personal grudges. El-Koutri told Al-Ahram Weekly that police brutality can be divided into arbitrary violence and more systematic torture. The root of both, he says, can be found in the Police Academy, where from day one students begin to be taught that the citizen is the enemy and not someone it is their job to protect. He says cadets are repeatedly told they are the cream of society, and are discouraged from befriending members of the general public.
The academy, he continues, is only the beginning. While working in the ministry, El-Koutri says officers are constantly being pressed to improve their performance by superiors: "They are constantly being asked to fill quotas and repeat past performances. If they collected 100 unlicensed weapons one year they have to repeat or better that the next or else they will not be promoted or transferred elsewhere." The officers use any and every method to meet the goals they are set, a situation El-Koutri says is the result of a "dictatorial leadership style that goes all the way to the top".
Officials at the Police Academy, while unwilling to address El-Koutri's claims directly, point to the number of cadets from other Arab countries that come to Egypt for training as testimony to their professional standards.
Police officers who spoke to the Weekly on condition of anonymity seemed to support El-Koutri. But if there has been an increase in violence used by the police it is a result, they argue, of increasing violence among the population at large.
"If people themselves are acting more violently we have no choice but to be even more stern," one newly graduated officer said.
They argue that they are asked to deal with every social ill in Egypt, from unemployment to sexual frustration and political dissent, and there is only so much they can do with the limited resources.
"It's not true that this kind of violence is practised by most officers, but sometimes these tactics are necessary to get to the truth," said one officer, and while the majority of those who spoke to the Weekly denied ever been involved in such acts, many admitted that they had heard of, and sometimes witnessed, violent practices.
El-Hamalawi places the blame solely on the shoulders of the state. It is the police, he says, who have taught the public to use violence. The collapse in police discipline he dates to Anwar El-Sadat's assassination when "the security forces as a whole panicked and started arresting people on mass" having been given a green light from the authorities to crack down on any suspect. And while El-Hamalawi says he can "understand the widespread use of violence during that period and even in the early 1990s when the ministry was fighting radical Islamists", the techniques developed then have become part of everyday policing.
He points to recent reports in the independent paper Al-Dostour that in the last two years the Ministry of Interior's budget has increased by more than LE2 billion. It is not a coincidence, he argues, that the increase should have coincided with increased political activism among opponents to the regime. "At times the ministry may inflate threats and heighten security scares just to show that they are still as important as they were in the early 1990s," El-Hamalawi explains. In the end, he adds, the problem of abuse in jails and police stations stems from a political decision to give the Interior Ministry carte blanche to do as it pleases.
Atef does, at least, see increasing pressure for change and for the state to act in accordance with the international agreements it has signed. Civil society groups, she says, are increasingly focussed on police malpractice, though she worries that without tackling underlying structural problems, including lack of oversight and proper training, as well as changing the pervasive culture among police officers, pressure for reform may not prove effective.