On November 12, Human Rights Watch will give its highest recognition to Dr. Aida Seif El Dawla, a psychiatrist and activist whose courageous work is breaking the silence surrounding torture in Egypt. Dr. Seif El Dawla’s pioneering work provides torture victims not just solace and care, but also the tools to work for justice.
At least 13 people have died as a result of torture by Egyptian police and security forces since March 2002. Thousands of men, women, and children live with the physical and psychological scars wrought by electroshocks, beatings, suspension from ceilings, and sexual violence. Neither the police who commit the torture nor their supervisors who condone it are punished.
“Everyone in Egypt knows torture is commonplace, but those who speak out face the risk of torture themselves,” said Clarisa Bencomo, researcher in Human Rights Watch’s Children’s Rights Division. “Dr. Seif El Dawla’s work breaks that silence, and gives victims and their families the support they need to begin healing. She also helps victims file legal complaints and claim compensation.”
Aida Seif El Dawla is a founder and chairperson of the Egyptian Association Against Torture. The Association uniquely combines networking with nongovernmental organizations providing legal, medical, and social services to ensure that victims of torture and their families receive necessary support. The Association also monitors and reports on cases of torture, and lobbies both for prosecutions and legal and social change.
In August 2003 the government rejected the Egyptian Association Against Torture’s application for nongovernmental organization (NGO) status, asserting it violated Egypt’s highly restrictive NGO law without saying why.
The vaguely worded NGO law gives the government unprecedented powers to dissolve NGOs and imprison and fine those who operate unauthorized associations.
“Dr. Seif El Dawla’s steadfast commitment to combating torture and other human rights abuses is an inspiration to her fellow activists in Egypt and abroad,” said Bencomo. “Their resolve to continue to challenge repressive legislation is keeping alive hope for civil society in Egypt.”
This is not the first time Dr. Seif El Dawla has put herself at risk in defense of human rights in Egypt. She stood out as a whirlwind of energy as activists rallied to protest mass arrests and torture of anti-war demonstrators in March and April 2003. She documented victims’ injuries, arranged for their legal defense, and even demonstrated in front of Egypt’s Prosecutor General’s office demanding medical care for those still in prison. In 1999 Dr. Seif El Dawla was part of a nationwide campaign against an earlier version of the current NGO law, and held a one-week hunger strike to lobby the government-dominated parliament to reconsider the law.
“Successive Egyptian governments have become accustomed to using the threat of arrest and torture to stifle peaceful dissent,” said Bencomo. “We hope that honoring Aida Seif El Dawla’s passion for justice will give courage to others to join in calling for an end to torture and impunity.”
Background on Dr. Aida Seif El Dawla:
For three decades, Dr. Aida Seif El Dawla has actively fought for human rights in Egypt and the Middle East. Born into a politically active family in the 1950s, she came of age at a time when the Egyptian government was pursuing limited economic and social reforms while severely restricting civil and political rights. “Before I had entered university I had seen my father arrested twice, and two other family members arrested as well, all for the unforgivable ‘crime’ of thinking differently and expressing what they thought and believed,” she says. These experiences encouraged Dr. Seif El Dawla to become involved in Egypt’s student movement in the 1970s, when she and others organized to address social, political and gender-based injustices.
As a founding member in 1984 of the New Woman Research Center, Dr. Seif El Dawla played a key role in the development of strategies challenging the obstacles to women’s liberation posed by weak government policies. She also fought religious fundamentalists’ efforts to force women back into a—literally and figuratively—veiled position in society. Dr. Seif El Dawla is also an active advocate against female genital mutilation, a practice that in the early 1990s affected an estimated 97 percent of married Egyptian women between the ages of 15 and 45.
In 1993 Dr. Seif El Dawla helped form the El Nadim Center for the Psychological Rehabilitation of Victims of Violence. The first and only organization of its kind in Egypt, El Nadim initially focused primarily on services for victims of state violence—men, women, and children tortured by Egyptian police and security forces—but later developed an independent program for the treatment of female victims of all forms of violence. That program is almost completely based on the work of women volunteers, and operates in several of Cairo’s poorest districts and in four other governorates in Egypt.