Hundreds more have been injured as security forces used water cannons, clubs, dogs, and even stones against demonstrators. Police have arrested leaders of movements protesting the Iraq war and Israeli actions in the Occupied Territories; journalists, professors, and students; and onlookers, as well as children as young as 15 years old.
Some detainees reported hearing the use of electroshock torture in neighboring cells.
"The crackdown many feared has come," said Hanny Megally, executive director of the Middle East and North Africa division of Human Rights Watch. "Fundamental freedoms in Egypt are now under serious threat."
What started two months ago with isolated detentions of demonstrators and activists has now become a sweeping repression of dissent, Megally said. He urged Egyptian authorities to immediately investigate credible reports of excessive use of force, including beatings of demonstrators and torture of detainees, and to promptly charge or release those arrested.
The arrests followed a massive demonstration in Tahrir Square in downtown Cairo on Thursday March 20, the first day of the war against Iraq. Tens of thousands of protestors rallied, closing the square for over ten hours. While police violently restrained demonstrators from approaching the vicinity of the U.S. and British embassies, they generally allowed the protest to proceed in peace.
The following day, Friday March 21, smaller demonstrations throughout central Cairo drew a violent response. Protesters gathered in areas including Al-Azhar Mosque, Talaat Harb Square, Ramses Street, and the State Broadcasting Corporation. While some onlookers reported scattered stone-throwing by demonstrators, and authorities alleged that protesters torched a car near Tahrir Square, police cracked down with excessive force, both arresting large numbers at the demonstrations and using them as a pretext to detain others.
Eyewitnesses told Human Rights Watch that mid-afternoon on Friday the police retaliated against demonstrators who were pushing against a cordon in Talaat Harb Street. They began beating them with clubs, and then fired water cannons at them. Many demonstrators were injured. A journalist present told Human Rights Watch that his digital camera was damaged and the DVD tape in his video camera confiscated on two separate occasions when he tried to film police striking demonstrators. He saw dozens of demonstrators beaten and arrested.
In other demonstrations, four opposition Members of Parliament--Mohammed Farid Hassanein, Hamdeen Sabahi, Abdel Azim al-Maghrabi, and Haidar Baghdadi--were beaten by police. Sabahi remains hospitalized. In another incident, one demonstrator, Muhammed Abdou Taha, reportedly was beaten and may have suffered a broken spine.
On the evening of March 21, security forces invaded the Lawyers' Syndicate on Ramses Street, and occupied it for almost six hours. Sayyed Abdel Ghany, an official of the Syndicate, told Human Rights Watch that over fifteen lawyers, including some who have defended anti-war demonstrators in the past, were arrested. Many lawyers were severely beaten.
Arrests continued on March 22. That morning, Marwa Farouq, Shaymaa Samir, and Nourhan Thabet--three female students who have been prominent antiwar activists--were arrested while attempting to enter Cairo University to attend a demonstration. Nourhan Thabet, who is pregnant, was reportedly beaten, bound and blindfolded. Her whereabouts are unknown and it is feared she has no access to medical care. Sherine Abul-Naga, a professor at the university who attended the rally, was arrested afterward but later released.
Police presence at the small university rally was massive and obvious. Like the Lawyer's Syndicate, Cairo University has traditionally been regarded as a safe space for dissent, where police forces rarely intervene obtrusively.
Additionally, on the afternoon of March 22, Hossam al-Hamalawi, an Egyptian journalist and stringer for the Los Angeles Times who has attended recent anti-war rallies, was arrested while leaving a restaurant in Tahrir Square. Four plainclothes officers seized him, telling the two friends with him, "He is known to us to be a dangerous man."
Most of the detainees were reportedly taken to al-Darrassa, a Central Security (al-Amn al Markazi) barracks in north of Cairo. Others are believed held at the Lazoughli headquarters of State Security Intelligence (Mabahith Amn al-Dawla) in Cairo. Human Rights Watch spoke to one person detained there on March 21 and released early the next morning, who said he heard five people being threatened with and then tortured with electroshocks.
On the morning of March 22, 61 of the detainees were divided into three groups and referred to three prosecution offices in Cairo to be charged. At one prosecution office, Human Rights Watch was able to speak to Gamal 'Id, arrested on March 21, a member of the Lawyers' Syndicate's Freedoms Committee and a human rights lawyer. 'Id said that several other detainees had been beaten so severely on the arms and shoulders that bones appeared to be broken. He added that 72 people detained in the sweeps shared his cell at al-Darrassa, including children as young as 15. Human Rights Watch has documented widespread torture and ill-treatment of children in police custody.
"It is very troubling that many of the witnesses Human Rights Watch has spoken with describe seeing demonstrators being severely beaten by the police as they were taken away," said Megally. " It is also worrying to hear that children have been arrested and are being held in the same cells as adults."
On the evening of March 22, 'Id and eleven other defendants referred to the Azbakeyya Prosecutor were given four days in detention, renewable at the prosecution's discretion. According to the Hisham Mubarak Law Center, an Egyptian human rights organization, prosecutors examining these twelve detainees acknowledged that at least four had serious injuries. Fourteen defendants referred to the Gamalayaa Prosecution Office in Cairo received 15 days' detention, also renewable.
Many of those who have appeared before prosecutors have been charged with offenses such as blocking traffic or destroying public property. Some have been charged with holding a gathering of five or more people without a permit--a crime under Egyptian law.
Selected Eye-Witness Accounts
Sayed Abd el-Ghany, an official of the Lawyer's Syndicate, told Human Rights Watch:
"The incursion into the Syndicate began at around 6: 30 PM. A number of lawyers had gathered here to talk about the increasing numbers of people being detained. While we were meeting, some of the demonstrators were marching down Ramses Street [outside the Syndicate], trying to get into Tahrir Square, which was sealed off.
Security officers in plainclothes attacked them. They came up and started beating the demonstrators with clubs. Other uniformed police closed in and assaulted the demonstrators with stones and water cannons. And some of the protesters tried to find refuge here, behind our gates. The Lawyers' Syndicate is believed to be a place of refuge.
Some lawyers went out to try to protect the demonstrators from security forces. They joined the demonstration and were themselves attacked. Then, a group of security officers and police entered the Syndicate and closed the gates, locking everyone inside.
Most of the lawyers outside were beaten and arrested. Each was attacked by five or six officers. Along with some of the demonstrators, they were put in vans. Security beat and detained some of the attorneys who remained inside. They were threatening everyone with detention. They said they were doing this on direct orders from the Ministry of the Interior.
We demanded that they leave. We called the heads of the syndicate and they came; eventually the police began to back off. Eventually, at around 12:30 AM, they left.
This is a dangerous precedent. Lawyers have been arrested and tortured for doing the work of lawyers. A place which represented sanctuary and the possibility of unfettered expression of opinion for many has been raided by police."
Attorney Gamal 'Id is a member of the Lawyers' Syndicate's Freedoms Committee, a human rights activist and a Human Rights Watch consultant. He was interviewed in detention at the Azbakeyya Prosecution Office. He told Human Rights Watch:
"I was arrested outside the Lawyer's Syndicate around 7:00 or 8:00 PM. I was just coming in to the Syndicate. I saw demonstrators outside there in the street, trying to get in. Plainclothesman were beating them with clubs. I tried to help some of the demonstrators; there were other lawyers out there trying to help. Then I was seized by three or four security officers. At first I didn't even know I was being arrested. Several other lawyers tried to intervene to help me and they were beaten severely. Two of the other lawyers who were arrested have arms that are broken, or nearly broken.
Most people who were beaten, were beaten on arrest, and there the beatings were extremely brutal. There are many injured people at al-Darrassa. I can't tell you how many are being held there. My cell holds 72. There are children there as young as 15, perhaps younger. I've heard word that 800 people are in detention; I don't know whether that means only at al-Darrassa, or whether it includes the people held at Lazoughli or other police stations in Cairo."
Zuheir (not his real name) is a student in Cairo. He told Human Rights Watch:
"On Friday, March 21, I went to Tahrir Square to join the demonstrations that were supposed to happen that day. Around 1:45 PM I was standing with a friend in front of Hardee's restaurant, and the demonstrations hadn't started yet. A group of people stopped us and asked for my ID card. Some of them were in uniform, some in plainclothes. They let my female friend go and took me in a big Central Security [Riot Police] van. There were 31 of us, and there were two girls kept in a separate section of the van.
The majority of people looked like they had nothing to do with the demonstrations. There was a Jordanian who had been in Cairo for three days; he was arrested as he was walking out of his hotel. Another one said he was having tea at a café when he was arrested.
We were all taken to the Mansheyyat Nasr Police Station. They took our names and personal data as well as our mobiles. I was able to call family while in the van before they took my phone. We were all kept in one cell for two and a half hours, when we started pounding on the doors. They opened the door then: and they took our personal data again.
We were taken then to the Central Security camp in al-Darrassa. We were the first delegation to arrive there; more people kept arriving for an hour. The camp got so crowded that they kept people in the barracks of soldiers.
Around 8:00 PM I was taken alone to State Security Intelligence in Lazoghli. I went there with an officer, in a small private car. When I got there they blindfolded me. They took me to what seemed like a corridor. I stood there between 8 or so and 2:30 AM. They only allowed me to sit down around midnight. I heard a voice later and was able to raise the mask slightly off my eyes and was able to see a group of four people. Some of them were very young, probably school students. They entered an office one by one and I could hear an officer inside insulting them and yelling at them. I could also hear them receive slaps on their faces and the backs of their necks. I could hear them screaming inside and it was obvious that they were being electroshocked. I heard an officer threaten them with electric shocks and all four of them were tortured with electricity.
Another group of around six people arrived later and they were all bearded. Only one of them received electric shocks.
Around 2:20 AM I was called in, still blindfolded, to a room and an officer questioned me. They let me go around 3 AM."
Sanaa (not her real name) was walking in Tahrir Square with her sister Samia (not her real name) early on the afternoon of March 21. She told Human Rights Watch:
"We saw a group of people in plainclothes harshly beating a woman. They were pulling her hair and insulting her with the dirtiest words. We stood there to watch, when a man pushed us violently. I yelled at him and said, "How can you touch me?"--not knowing he was a State Security agent.
We both found ourselves surrounded by about ten people, who seized our hands and pushed us into a police van that was full of men. We were both kept in a separate section of the van from the men. I told one of the guards I would publish all the details. He said he was implementing the orders of the President of the Republic himself.
They took our mobiles and took down our personal data in the van. I asked one of the officers where we were going and he said, "Behind the sun."
We were taken to Mansheyyat Nasr Police Station in Cairo and we arrived there around 2:30 PM. We refused to wait under the staircase, so they put us in the women's cell with women who had been arrested on other charges. We waited there between 3:00 and 4:30 PM, and then we started pounding on the door so they let us out and we were put in the office of an officer. We were there till around 5:30 PM. We were not mistreated there.
Around 6:30 PM we were taken to the Central Security camp in al-Darrassa. They took our personal data again and led the two of us into a place with two beds. We were then joined in the cell by Neveen, who is the secretary to Member of Parliament Hamdeen Sabahi, and Manal Khaled, who is the wife of Sabry al-Sammak [al-Sammak, an antiwar activist and author, was detained by State Security and held for over a week in February 14 2003: see Human Rights Watch press release "Egypt Growing Number of Arrests." They were blindfolded and handcuffed. Manal Khaled had been harshly beaten.
The two of us were released at 9 AM Friday morning."
Hoda (not her real name), is from Cairo. She told Human Rights Watch:
"They tried to arrest me two times. The first one was Friday morning. I was walking through Tahrir Square alone: I didn't even know there might be demonstrations that day, I was doing nothing, minding my own business. Suddenly two guys tried to grab me. They took me, held me, took my name, my address, everything. And they tried to shove me in a police van. By coincidence there was a reporter nearby and he was taking notes and he asked the plainclothesmen what they were doing with me. They let me out.
Later in the morning I saw people holding cameras and the police would take the camera from them and beat them. I saw six or seven people arrested from the street near Tahrir.
The next time I was almost arrested was in the afternoon. A group of us were standing in front of the Lawyer's Syndicate. The uniformed police made this circle around us. We weren't getting violent with them. There were plainclothes police inside the circle with us and they started picking people by looks--if they didn't like your looks they would drag you out of the circle to a police van. They picked a friend of ours who was very tall. They just picked him up and dragged him to the van. We followed, shouting. We said, "If you take him, take us." They started hitting us. We were four people. They hit us with sticks, and one girl they took by her hair and dragged her along, kicking her. They touched her all over--they touched women all over, feeling their breasts. They threw us inside the van. There were five or six other people already arrested in there, I think, it was dark and I couldn't see clearly. And then for whatever reason, they changed their minds and let the four of us go.
In the afternoon I saw a lot of things. There was a point where the police cordon drew back, and there was a firefighter's van that had been behind the cordon, one of the ones they use for the water cannons, and it caught fire. They said the demonstrators burned it but it looked like the police did it--why else would the cordon draw back for no reason? But after the van caught fire the police went wild. On the Corniche [the street along the Nile], there was a kid who was 17, maybe younger. And there were about 20 or 30 police around him, beating him. When some of us tried to beg them, "He's young, don't kill him," they kept on hitting him.
Lots of people were being beaten. There were people getting beaten everywhere. A friend of ours tried to pull a soldier out of the path of a crowd that was coming and the soldier turned on him and, with other soldiers, started beating him.