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Egypt: Investigate Arrests of Activists, Journalists

Military's Arbitrary Arrests, Beatings Are Trademark of Interior Ministry Repression

(Cairo) - The Egyptian government should order military police, army officers, and State Security Investigations officers to cease arresting journalists, activists, and protesters arbitrarily, Human Rights Watch said today. Army officers and military police arbitrarily detained at least 119 people since the army took up positions in Egyptian cities and towns on the night of January 28, 2011, and in at least five cases tortured them. The government needs to ensure the investigation and prosecution of those responsible for the illegal detentions and torture and ill-treatment which have occurred, Human Rights Watch said.

In the cases Human Rights Watch has documented, those detained, who have since been released, said that they were held incommunicado, did not have access to a lawyer, and could not inform their families about their detention.

"Arrests by military police of journalists, human rights defenders, and youth activists since January 31 appear intended to intimidate reporting and undermine support for the Tahrir protest," said Joe Stork, deputy director of the Middle East and North Africa division of Human Rights Watch. "These arrests and reports of abuse in detention are exactly the types of practices that sparked the demonstrations in the first place."

Egyptian army forces deployed on the streets of Egyptian cities and towns late on January 28, after the police withdrew. Since then, military police and army officers arrested or detained at least 97 journalists, activists, and protesters, according to the Front for the Defense of Egyptian Protesters (FDP), a coalition of Egyptian human rights organizations. The group has documented a list of 69 people arrested so far and has confirmed the release of only 29 to date.  Most of these arrests have been short-term, lasting under 24 hours; some have lasted as long as two days.

Arrests of Protesters

Since January 31, Human Rights Watch has documented the arbitrary arrest by military police of at least 20 protesters who were leaving or heading to Tahrir Square. Most of these arrests occurred in the vicinity of the square or in other parts of Cairo from where protesters were taking supplies to the square.

One protester told Human Rights Watch that on January 31, he and a friend bought some blankets to take to protesters who were spending the night in the square. They said they put the blankets in their car and were driving through the Boulak area, not far from Tahrir. An informal neighborhood patrol of civilians set up when the police withdrew from the streets of Cairo on January 28, stopped them at 9.30 p.m. and summoned nearby military police when they saw the blankets.  The military police arrested the two men and took them to the military camp in Abbasiyya, in Cairo, they said, where they detained them for two days, along with 20 other detainees, who were not detained in connection with the protest. The two said they were not ill-treated but one of them told Human Rights Watch that he saw military officers beating and using electroshocks on at least 12 other detainees on February 1. All 20 were held in the same room and one detainee told Human Rights Watch that when they spoke to each other, they found that the military had not given any of them an official reason for their detention and beyond some initial questioning, did not formally charge them.

In another case, four protesters were arrested apparently because they appeared to be foreign or accompanying a foreigner. On February 4, three Egyptian young men accompanied by a young European woman were walking from Tahrir Square to their home in nearby Garden City, one of them told Human Rights Watch. A neighborhood patrol stopped them, he said, asked for their IDs, refused to believe that they lived in the area, and voiced suspicion of the foreigner in the group. The patrol handed the group over to the military, he said, who detained the four in a room near a military checkpoint on Kasr Aini Street for 12 hours. The military blindfolded them and made them sit on the floor, he said. Another one of the group told Human Rights Watch that there were at least 10 other people detained in the same room and that he saw a military officer kick and hit several of them, although the four were not beaten themselves. The military officers told them that the group had broken the curfew, although they initially did not give this as a reason for their detention.

Torture and Ill-treatment

Human Rights Watch and the FDP have documented five cases in which persons say that military police tortured them in detention. One protester and civil society activist told Human Rights Watch that he was walking to Tahrir Square along Talaat Harb Street at 3:30 p.m. on February 4 when he encountered a gang of pro-Mubarak young men who took him to a police station off Maa'rouf Street, in downtown Cairo. There, he said, the police beat and interrogated him for around an hour about his political affiliations, why he was protesting and who had recruited him. Uniformed and plainclothes military officers then walked him over to a military post next to the Ramses Hilton for further interrogation before releasing him, he said.

When he went back out on to the street another military officer stopped him, checked his bag, and found some notes and activist documents, he told Human Rights Watch. The protester told the soldiers that he had just been interrogated and released, but they surrounded him, pushing and kicking him, he said, and then took him to a building near the Ramses Hilton. He said that they tied his hands behind his back, slapped him, beat him with sticks and rifle butts, kicked him, and threatened to torture him, accusing him of wasting the time of the military with "useless protest tactics" that were "destroying the country." The soldiers interrogated him yet again about his political affiliations, demanding to know which country was "sponsoring" him and the other protesters.

At this point a higher-ranking army officer said they would take him to a hospital, he said, and then two soldiers put him in an ambulance with his hands tied behind his back, continued to slap him and drove him to the Egyptian Museum grounds. He said that a different officer there ordered him to lie on his stomach and kicked him, along with two other soldiers. They threatened to torture him with electro-shocks and by sticking bottles up his anus as they continued to interrogate him. He said there were five others detained with him - an American journalist, an Egyptian photographer, and three Sudanese nationals. He told Human Rights Watch that the interrogation had lasted for around two hours, focusing on leaflets and documents he had collected in Tahrir Square. The military finally released him later in the evening, and called friends to pick him up and take him to a hospital.

Another protester told Human Rights Watch:

At about 2 a.m. on Friday, February 4, as I was going to my friend's apartment, I was stopped by a soldier in his neighborhood. He first asked to check my ID card, and then opened my bag. Inside, he found a political flyer from the protest and my laptop, which had pictures of the protest. Political flyers, manshura, are banned in Egypt. So the soldiers started shouting at me, ‘You traitor!' and ‘You are the ones who are ruining our country! You are destroying Egypt!' They started beating me up in the street, with their rubber batons and an electric device, shocking me. Then they took me to Abdin Police Station. By the time I arrived at Abdin station, the soldiers and officers there had been informed that a ‘spy' was coming, and so when I arrived they gave me a ‘welcome beating' that lasted some 30 minutes. Then I was put in a cell and given a blanket and some juice and told to stay quiet until the interrogator came.

When the interrogator came, he took me to a room and told me to undress. Then he started whipping me with an electric cable, and brought out an electric shock machine. He shocked me all over my body, leaving no place untouched. It wasn't a real interrogation; he didn't ask that many questions. He tortured me twice like this on Friday, and one more time on Saturday.

Targeting of Activists and Human Rights Defenders

Military police arrested at least 37 human rights defenders and activists since January 31 and held them from periods ranging from 12 to 48 hours. On the afternoon of February 3, military police, accompanied by a uniformed policeman and plainclothes security officers, raided the Hisham Mubarak Law Center (HMLC), a human rights organization, and arrested 28 Egyptian and international human rights researchers, lawyers, and journalists. The HMLC also houses the FDP, which provides legal support to arrested protesters and documents the violations against them. The coalition set up emergency telephone numbers ahead of the planned January 25 demonstration so that they could dispatch lawyers when people called in to report that they had been arrested. The HMLC premises were also used for meetings by the April 6 Youth Movement.

Those arrested included Human Rights Watch researcher Daniel Williams, HMLC founder and prominent lawyer Ahmed Seif al-Islam, two researchers from Amnesty International, and two journalists from a French agency. The military detained and interrogated the group at Camp 75, a military base, before releasing the foreigners around midnight on February 4 and the Egyptians on the morning of February 5.  The group was detained incommunicado and did not have access to lawyers.

Later on February 3, military police accompanied by a State Security Investigations officer arrested nine young activists who were on their way back from a meeting with opposition figure Mohamed El Baradei, on Faisal Street, in Giza. The nine included Amr Salah, a researcher at the Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies, Ahmad Douma, and Shadi Ghazali Harb, all of whom have been previously arrested for peaceful activism. One of the nine told Human Rights Watch that the officers walked the group through the crowded street, held a gun to the head of one of the group, and told the crowd that they were "spies," prompting some in the crowd start hitting them and shouting at them. He said that the officers then held the group in a military van for more than 10 hours and then drove them to military intelligence headquarters for interrogation before releasing them at around 7 pm on February 4.

Targeting Foreign and Egyptian Journalists

Human Rights Watch has compiled a list of 62 Egyptian and international journalists arrested by the military police since February 2, drawing on cases documented directly by Human Rights Watch and by the Committee to Protect Journalists and Reporters Without Borders.  Many of these arrests were short-term and all related to their status as journalists; all have since been released.

One Egyptian journalist told Human Rights Watch that at 6 p.m. on February 1, as she was leaving Tahrir Square, she explained to officers at an army checkpoint that she did not have her national ID with her because her wallet had been stolen and that she was a journalist. The army officers arrested her and took her to a room in a building outside the Egyptian Museum for interrogation, she said. They asked her about her involvement in the protest and whether she was connected to Israeli journalists they said they had arrested at the same place, she said.  They detained her for 12 hours before releasing her the next morning.

Most of these arrests occurred at points of exit and entrance to Tahrir square, but there are also cases of people arrested from their homes. A group of two journalists and three protesters told Human Rights Watch that at 9:00 p.m. on February 4 military police, accompanied by ministry of interior officers, arrested them at their apartment in Giza and questioned them about their participation in the protests. They said that an officer took them to Haram police station, handcuffed and blindfolded them, and interrogated them for seven hours about their political affiliations and whether they were funded by foreign governments.

The officers detained them in police cells for 13 hours and then moved them to military police custody, traveling in the back of a jeep, they said. They told Human Rights Watch that the soldiers slapped them and hit them with the butts of their rifles while in the car. At one point, one of those arrested told Human Rights Watch that the officer asked all of the soldiers to prepare their rifles (as if preparing to shoot) and told the blindfolded, handcuffed captives to keep their heads down between their legs, or they would be shot.

"Protesters initially greeted the military as their protector from the abuses of the interior ministry," said Stork. "While the military may have promised not to shoot protesters, it must also respect their right to freedom of assembly and their right not to be arbitrarily detained."

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