(Cairo) - Torture is an endemic problem in Egypt and ending police abuse has been a driving element behind the massive popular demonstrations that swept Egypt over the past week, Human Rights Watch said in a report released today. Prosecuting torture and ending the emergency laws that enable a culture of impunity for the security forces should be a priority for the Egyptian government, Human Rights Watch said.
The 95-page report, "‘Work on Him Until He Confesses': Impunity for Torture in Egypt," documents how President Hosni Mubarak's government implicitly condones police abuse by failing to ensure that law enforcement officials accused of torture are investigated and criminally prosecuted, leaving victims without a remedy.
"Egyptians deserve a clean break from the incredibly entrenched practice of torture," said Joe Stork, deputy director of the Middle East and North Africa Division at Human Rights Watch. "The Egyptian government's foul record on this issue is a huge part of what is still bringing crowds onto the streets today."
The case of Khaled Said, a 28-year-old man beaten to death by two undercover police officers on an Alexandria street in June, dominated headlines and set off demonstrations across the country. The local prosecutor initially closed an investigation and ordered Said's burial, but escalating public protests prompted the Public Prosecutor to reopen the investigation and refer it to court. "We Are All Khaled Said" is the name of the Facebook group that helped initiate the mass demonstrations on January 25, 2011.
The report urges officials to undertake immediate legal, structural, and political reforms to ensure that the judicial system holds perpetrators of torture accountable and deters future abuse. It examines dozens of cases of torture and death in custody for which victims or their families instituted legal proceedings by filing a complaint.
The vast majority of torture complaints never reach court because of police intimidation of victims and witnesses who file complaints, an inadequate legal framework, and delays in referring victims for medical examination, Human Rights Watch said. Another factor is that police from the same unit as the alleged torturer are responsible for gathering evidence and summoning witnesses.
Said's case was an exception, one of very few in which media coverage and public outrage prompted senior members of the Public Prosecutor's office to become involved, which ensures a speedy and full investigation. In November 2009 the government published statistics showing that between 2006 and 2009, Egyptian courts had sentenced only six police officers for torture and inhumane treatment, despite hundreds of complaints about torture and deaths in custody. In July 2010 an Alexandria appeals court confirmed a five-year sentence against a seventh officer.
"In a country where torture remains a serious and systemic problem, the conviction of a mere seven police officers over four years reflects a huge disconnect from reality and leaves hundreds of victims and families without justice," Stork said.
Human Rights Watch found that law enforcement officers routinely and deliberately use torture and ill-treatment - in ordinary criminal cases as well as with political dissidents and security detainees - to coerce confessions, extract other information, or simply to punish detainees.
Ahmad Abd al-Mo'ez Basha, a 22-year-old driver in Imbaba, Cairo, told Human Rights Watch how officers arrested him at his home in July 2010:
They took me to Imbaba police station and put me in a room by myself. Two officers came in and told me to confess. I asked, "What to?" They answered, "Confess to the theft." The head of the Criminal Investigations unit said, "Work on him until he confesses." They handcuffed my hands in front of me and hung me from the door for more than two hours. They had whips and hit me on the legs, on the bottom of my feet, and on my back. When they took me down, they brought a black electric device and applied electro-shocks four or five times to my arms until they started smoking. All of this time they kept saying, "You have to confess." The next morning they beat me again and whipped me with the cable on my back and on my shoulders. I fainted after three hours of the beating.
Impunity for torture is especially acute with State Security Investigations (SSI), the Interior Ministry department responsible for monitoring political dissidents, Human Rights Watch said. The SSI routinely engages in enforced disappearances, detaining suspects in its facilities for extended periods, concealing the fact that it is holding them or refusing to provide their whereabouts and denying detainees contact with lawyers, family, or doctors.
SSI facilities are not lawful places of detention: Egyptian law prohibits detention in facilities other than recognized prisons and police stations. The government denies that the SSI detains suspects at its sites - where suspects often face torture - despite considerable testimony to the contrary. Detaining an individual followed by a denial or refusal to acknowledge the detention, so that the person is deprived the protection of law, constitutes an enforced disappearance that, like torture, is a serious crime under international law.
No SSI officer has ever been convicted for torture, although in at least three cases officers have appeared before a court. One former SSI detainee and Muslim Brotherhood member, Nasr al-Sayed Hassan Nasr, told Human Rights Watch of his 60-day detention by SSI in 2010, during which he says he was blindfolded the entire time:
They beat me with a shoe across the face. They kicked me in the testicles so that I'd fall to the ground. Once on the floor they used electro-shocks to make me stand up and then would kick me again in the testicles. At one point the officer tried to strangle me. The officer would call the guards and say, "By four o'clock I want you to bring Nasr's wife and daughters here and strip them in front of him." They took photographs of me while I was naked and being tortured and threatened to publish them.
Victims and families of victims who had made complaints of torture consistently told Human Rights Watch that police officials tried to intimidate them to withdraw their complaint or to settle out of court. The fact that the police unit accused of ill-treatment is involved in gathering evidence and summoning witnesses during the prosecutor's preliminary investigation is a major factor preventing an impartial investigation, Human Rights Watch said. Prosecutors - whether due to lack of time or political will - do not properly assess the evidence that police produce, or the quality of their investigation. Police often delay in carrying out a prosecutor's order to bring the complainant to a forensic medical doctor for examination until after physical evidence of abuse fades.
"Victims of abuse need to feel that the judiciary will protect their rights and that they can take complaints to prosecutors without fear of reprisal," Stork said.
Egypt's legal framework fails to criminalize torture fully in line with international law, another factor contributing to impunity, Human Rights Watch said. The definition of torture in article 126 of the penal code excludes acts of torture for reasons other than the extraction of a confession, such as punishment or intimidation. Egyptian law provides only for sentences ranging from three to five years - penalties not commensurate with the seriousness of the crime of torture. The penal code further gives judges discretion to exercise clemency and reduce sentences, which they frequently do. In November 2009 and again in February 2010, the government pledged to the United Nations Human Rights Council during its Universal Periodic Review that it would amend the definition of torture in line with international law, but more than a year later there has been no progress on this commitment, Human Rights Watch said.
Human Rights Watch urged the Egyptian government to investigate all credible allegations of torture and ill-treatment, even in the absence of a formal complaint. Prosecutors should conduct these inquiries promptly, impartially, and thoroughly, ensuring that they investigate all those allegedly responsible, including superiors. Forensic medical examinations should occur promptly. Alleged abusers should not gather evidence, or interact with complainants and witnesses. The government should end the illegal detention of suspects in SSI offices and allow prosecutors to conduct unannounced visits to such sites to verify compliance.
Human Rights Watch called on the European Union and United States to speak out publicly against torture in Egypt, as well as about the government's failure to suppress these practices and punish those responsible.
"Police abuse becomes commonplace when there is effective impunity for law enforcement officers and their superiors," Stork said. "That's one reason why so many people took to the streets this past week demanding an end to police abuses. Egypt needs to seriously confront the crime of torture, starting with the faulty investigation process, to send a strong signal that torturers will be held accountable."