(New York) – Egyptian judicial authorities should investigate allegations that police tortured an economics professor and his brother. Abdallah Shehata, a former Finance Ministry advisor, and his brother As’ad have been held since they were detained on November 28, 2014.
A lawyer told Human Rights Watch in December that interrogators subjected Shehata, who once led Egypt’s negotiations with the International Monetary Fund, and his brother to electrocution and other mistreatment to force Shehata to confess to weapons possession and other charges related to violence. Attempts by the lawyer to file a complaint for torture were reportedly dismissed by the prosecutor.
“Government silence over reports that police electrocuted a university professor shows how far off course Egypt has drifted since the Arab Spring,” said Nadim Houry, deputy Middle East and North Africa director. “While Egypt faces real security threats, the authorities are responding with methods that aggravate people’s grievances. The 2011 uprising was triggered in part by pervasive police brutality.”
Around two weeks after Shehata’s arrest, an Interior Ministry spokesman made a video statement posted to the ministry’s YouTube page that featured a video clip of Shehata admitting to manufacturing explosives and supplying them to Muslim Brotherhood protesters.
Many similar incidents of abuse in custody have been reported in the past two years, according to a January 2015 report by the United Group, an independent Egyptian human rights law firm. The report, which covered October 2013 to August 2014, said that United Group lawyers had interviewed 465 alleged victims of police torture and ill treatment and had filed 163 complaints to prosecutors, of which only seven reached the courts. Of the other cases, 69 remain under investigation and 87 were rejected by prosecutors, the report said.
Shehata’s arrest was simultaneous with wider security raids to counter protests planned by the conservative Islamist group Salafi Front, which organizers dubbed a “Muslim Youth Revolution” on Facebook. On November 28, police arrested tens of protesters in Friday confrontations with security forces which turned violent in Matarya district, northeast of Cairo, leading to the death of two civilians and one army officer. Two army officers were also killed that day in separate shooting incidents in Alexandria and Suez, according to media reports.
“They destroyed everything in the house, took Abdallah, his wife, and his 17-year-old mentally-disabled kid, but then dumped the wife and the kid on the way to the detention center, saying they didn’t need them anymore,” Shehata’s lawyer, Ezzat Ghoniem, told Human Rights Watch.
Shehata had led the economic committee of the Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party (FJP) until the military removed President Mohamed Morsy, an FJP leader, from office in July 2013. The new government subsequently banned the Brotherhood. Shehata and his brother deny any connection to the protests or to violent groups, Ghoniem said.
According to Ghoniem and relatives of Shehata, National Security officers abused and electrocuted Shehata and his brother for four days in a National Security building in Sheikh Zaid city, southwest of Cairo, before sending them to prosecutors in the Supreme State Security division of the Prosecutor General. The prosecutor ordered them jailed pending investigations into charges that included belonging to a terrorist group – the Muslim Brotherhood – and possessing weapons.
“They wanted to videotape [Shehata] saying dictated confessions...every time he refused, they electrocuted him again,” Ghoniem said. “They also tortured his brother As’ad in front of him to abuse him psychologically.”
Ghoniem met Shehata at the prosecution’s office four days after his detention, during the prosecution’s first questioning session. Prosecutors did not inform Ghoniem of the date of the session beforehand, so he asked colleagues to tell him when authorities brought Shehata to the prosecutor’s office.
Ghoniem said he saw apparent torture wounds on Shehata’s body when they met in the prosecutor’s office and Shehata told him what had happened. They asked the prosecutor to file a complaint against the officers who tortured him and order a forensic examination to prove the torture. The prosecutor responded that he knew “everything” that had happened to Shehata since he had been arrested, Ghoniem said, and refused to take any action. Prosecutors have renewed Shehata’s original 15-day pretrial detention order three times.
On December 18, 2014, Shehata appeared in part of a video statement by Interior Ministry spokesman General Hany Abd al-Latif posted on the ministry’s YouTube channel under the title: “102 members of the terrorist Muslim Brotherhood organization arrested in 5 governorates for terrorist actions.” Abd al-Latif said that Shehata was one of a nine-man special operations cell arrested in the Giza governorate. He spoke as footage of Shehata played silently and claimed that police had confiscated 150 bullets and four bottles stuffed with explosives from Shehata’s house. Shehata then spoke, admitting his role in manufacturing and supplying explosives.
Ghoniem said he has never seen any of the allegedly confiscated materials and that they were not presented during the prosecutor’s questioning session.
“Only a hard disk, two CDs, two USB sticks, and his passport were the materials actually confiscated and present at prosecutor’s office,” Ghoniem said.
According to Shehata’s youngest brother, Mohamed, the authorities held Shehata in an isolation cell with one other inmate in the high-security Scorpion section of Tora Prison in Cairo. The two men said they slept on the floor with no bed. In late January 2015, authorities transferred Shehata from the political ward to the criminal ward. The prison authorities have denied him any medical help for lung and skin infections he developed in the prison, according to Ghoniem. His family has managed to visit him only once for 10 minutes, speaking to him through a glass barrier. Prison authorities did not allow them to deliver food, blankets, or Shehata’s medicine for high blood cholesterol. His brother is also held in Tora Prison but is allowed regular visits, Mohamed told Human Rights Watch.
Shehata returned to Egypt after completing a PhD in England and became an assistant professor of economics at Cairo University. Since 2007, he has served as a consultant to finance ministers. After the 2011 revolution, he supervised the FJP’s economic committee. Morsy’s prime minister, Hisham Qandil, appointed him to lead Egypt’s talks with the IMF.
A colleague of Shehata’s at Cairo University, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said that his colleagues tried to enlist the help of the quasi-governmental National Council for Human Rights to visit him in prison but that “no one [at the council] is able to intervene”.
During his January 20 speech celebrating Egypt’s Police Day, January 25, President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi acknowledged that police have committed human rights abuses in recent months but said those abuses were expected at a time when the country was in an “exceptional condition.” Al-Sisi said: “There will be trespasses but do we approve them? We don’t.”
Egypt is a party to the Convention Against Torture as well as the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which prohibit any form of torture or ill-treatment and oblige the authorities to take positive measures to protect victims by carrying out thorough, impartial, and prompt investigations into allegations of torture and filing criminal charges where appropriate.
The new Egyptian constitution considers torture a punishable crime as stated in article 52. Article 55 gives the defendant “the right to remain silent” and drops any statement given under physical or mental pressure. Article 54 of Egypt’s constitution stipulates that “every person whose freedom is restricted shall be immediately enabled to contact his/her relatives and lawyer. ... Investigation may not start with the person unless his/her lawyer is present.”
“Torture of detainees in Egypt is not a simple ‘trespass’ or an exception but one of many human rights abuses in a climate of impunity,” Houry said. “Sisi should end rampant impunity of police, not make weak statements of disapproval that actually reinforce the sense that abuses are justified or tolerated.”