Beirut – Egyptian security forces allegedly tortured a group of 20 people, eight of them children, in February 2016, after an arrest sweep in Alexandria, Human Rights Watch said today. Relatives and lawyers said the authorities refused to acknowledge holding them or to tell their families their whereabouts for more than a week and tortured them to make them confess to crimes or provide the names of other suspects.
Human Rights Watch spoke to family members and lawyers of three boys, ages 16 and 17, and three young men, ages 18 to 21, detained during the sweep for demonstrating without permission, committing vandalism and arson, and joining a banned organization. Although relatives said that all the arrests occurred on February 4 and 5, the Interior Ministry’s National Security Agency claimed in reports submitted to the prosecutor that the arrests were on February 12, the day before the detainees first appeared before a prosecutor. Egyptian law requires warrants for arrests and for prosecutors to see any detainee within 24 hours of arrest.
“Some Egyptian officials have disappeared children and apparently tortured them, then faked arrest records to cover it up,” said Zama Coursen-Neff, children’s rights director at Human Rights Watch. “The authorities have turned a blind eye to the reports of abuse and refused to investigate.”
Six of the detainees described to relatives how they were tortured and subjected to other ill-treatment at the Security Directorate, according to their relatives. The mistreatment included being punched and given electric shocks in the genitals, having their arms tied and being suspended from their arms, being handcuffed in painful positions for long periods, having water thrown on them, and being forced to sleep on the floor in the cold. The arrests occurred after a reported arson attack on a garage and a traffic police vehicle in the early morning of February 4, in Alexandria’s al-Asafra neighborhood, for which some of the detainees were charged. Other crimes allegedly committed by detainees occurred at various other times.
The arrests fit a wider pattern of abuse and violations by officers of the Interior Ministry’s National Security Agency. Since 2014, Human Rights Watch has documented National Security officers’ frequent use of enforced disappearance and torture, as well as a failure by prosecutors and judges to investigate these violations when defense lawyers raise them. Between December 1, 2015, and March 31, 2016, the independent Egyptian Commission for Rights and Freedoms documented 204 cases of enforced disappearance by Egyptian security services.
Family members told Human Rights Watch that they went each day to the prosecutor’s office in Alexandria but first learned of the detainees’ whereabouts on February 13, when they spotted them being taken to the office in cars. Before then, National Security officers held the detainees on the fourth floor of the Alexandria Security Directorate, an administrative building that is not an official detention site, and tortured them, the detainees told their families.
In one case, men in plain clothes who identified themselves as National Security forces arrested N., 16, on February 4, while he was sleeping in his bed at home and did not allow him to put on his shoes before taking him away barefoot, a relative told Human Rights Watch. When the family finally saw him, a week later, a relative said, “I tried to hug him, he couldn’t stand my hand on his back, it was so sore.”
Human Rights Watch obtained the names of the 20 detainees.
“They were electrocuted,” said a lawyer representing several of those arrested, including two children. “They were suspended from their wrists, not allowed to sleep, and stripped of their clothes.”
The lawyer said the children told the prosecutor what happened, but that the prosecutor did not order any investigations, because by the time they appeared, there were no substantial marks left on the victims’ bodies.
Security forces arrested three more people in the same case in the days following the initial arrest sweep. Of these 23 detainees, officials released five detainees, including two children, without charge after they appeared on February 13. Judges released another nine in separate hearings on bail of 5,000 Egyptian pounds (US$560) each in March, and another five people, including one child, on bail on April 19. A lawyer said that four people remain in detention.
In addition to the arrests and disappearances on February 4 and 5, local media, activists, and rights groups reported the enforced disappearances of more than 25 other people, including children, in Alexandria in March and April, and allegations that some of the detainees were taken to the Security Directorate and a National Security building in Alexandria and tortured. The family of a detainee who was arrested in another case, and a former defense lawyer from Alexandria, separately told Human Rights Watch that detainees had been held and tortured on the fourth floor of the Alexandria Security Directorate.
Egypt’s 2014 constitution prohibits torture and coercion, as well as arrest without a judicial order, and provides that all detainees “shall be immediately enabled to contact [their] relatives and lawyer, and shall be brought before the investigation authority within 24 hours” of arrest. The constitution and Egypt’s Child Law of 1996, as revised in 2008, define a child as anyone under 18 and require providing any detained child with legal assistance and detention “in appropriate locations separate from […] adults.”
Egypt has also pledged to uphold international laws that protect children’s rights and prohibit, without exception, torture and enforced disappearances, defined as a state’s refusal to acknowledge the deprivation of a person’s liberty by state agents or concealment of the person’s fate or whereabouts. Torture is defined as state agents deliberately inflicting severe pain or suffering, whether physical or mental, on a person for a specific purpose such as extracting information or a confession. Egypt is required to investigate credible allegations of torture and other crimes and prosecute those responsible.
Human Rights Watch, Egyptian human rights groups, and the National Council for Human Rights have all documented enforced disappearances and torture of detainees, including children, and virtual impunity for the security services responsible.
“Egypt’s security services are disappearing and torturing children on flimsy suspicion of property crimes or even just taking part in protests,” Coursen-Neff said. “Egyptian families deserve safety for their children and accountability for the security officials who’ve cruelly abused them.”
Disappearances and Torture of Children
Human Rights Watch interviewed relatives of six of the detainees who said the detainees told them how security officers tortured and ill-treated them at the Security Directorate. They said the ill-treatment included being punched and given electric shocks in the genitals, having their arms tied and being suspended from them, being handcuffed in painful positions for long periods, having water thrown on them, and being forced to sleep on the floor in the cold. The average temperature in Alexandria in February is around 13 degrees Celsius (55 degrees Fahrenheit).
A relative of two brothers, 16 and 18, told Human Rights Watch that they “were in the same clothes for the whole ten days of their disappearance, so when I got to see them [on February 13] they were in miserable shape.”
The lawyers and relatives said that officials from the National Security agency told the prosecutor that one group of the detainees was accused of vandalizing an ATM and committing acts of arson, and another was accused of participating in illegal protests and “joining a banned organization,” an apparent reference to the Muslim Brotherhood.
N., a 16-year-old who was in the third year of preparatory school – the equivalent of grade 9 – was in bed sleeping when more than a dozen men in plain clothes arrested him at 8 a.m. on February 4, a relative said.
Human Rights Watch spoke with two of his relatives on February 10, when N.’s whereabouts were still unknown, and on February 13, when he first appeared in court. The authorities did not present a search warrant or state the reason for the arrest, but identified themselves as National Security officers “on their way out the door, after they took him and searched his room and took his mobile [phone], two USB drives, and a scarf that had ‘Palestine’ written on it,” a relative said.
“They took some empty bottles, a tube, and a container with some benzene that we used for household cleaning that we kept outside in the stairway,” possibly as evidence that N. had thrown Molotov cocktails, an issue about which he was subsequently interrogated. “They didn’t even let him put his shoes on, they took him away barefoot.”
N.’s relative said the family searched for him, filed complaints, and requested help from state officials, without result, similar to the process described by the families of other missing detainees:
We started asking in all the police stations where he was. We sent a telegraph to the prosecutor general in Alexandria, and filled out a complaint at the police station. It was almost twenty people who’d been arrested the same day, and all the families filled out separate complaints plus one joint complaint. [N.’s] father went to Muntazah Second Police Station, but they denied they had him, and they even kept his father there for two hours before they let him go.
We asked for [N.] in other police stations, but they said the same. Then a few families went to the head of the public prosecution section in Alexandria, but he denied that he knew anything about the arrests. He promised to visit some detention places to see if he could find them.
Each day, relatives of the missing detainees went to the court complex in the Manshiyya neighborhood in hopes that they would be able to see the detainees if they were transported to the prosecutor’s office there. On February 13, “we saw a lot of police and soldiers were there, and the kids were brought in different cars to be sent to the prosecutor,” N.’s relative said.
The family asked three lawyers to take N.’s case but they refused “because they thought it was too risky.” A fourth lawyer agreed, his relative said. The lawyer declined to speak with Human Rights Watch out of concern for his security.
The prosecutor allowed the lawyer to attend N.’s questioning, and the lawyer told the family that the police report claimed that N. was arrested on the street on February 12, the relative said. Human Rights Watch was unable to obtain a copy of N.’s police report, but relatives and lawyers for other children and adults charged in the same case, interviewed separately, all said that police had submitted reports with the same false arrest date. His lawyer told the family that N. was accused of vandalizing an ATM and taking part in a group that tried to set a police vehicle on fire.
N.’s relative said he was eventually able to speak to his family for about five minutes, and said that security officials had tortured him on the fourth floor of the Alexandria Security Directorate:
There were bruises around his neck. When I tried to hug him, he couldn’t stand my hand on his back, it was so sore. He was always rubbing his eyes. I asked why, he said they were blindfolded all the time in detention. He lost a lot of weight.
The relative said that after being questioned by the prosecutor, N. was transferred to the Muntazah police station, where he was detained in a cell with adults for three days before the prosecutor ordered his continued pretrial detention for another 15 days and he was moved to a cell for children in the same police station.
N. described the cell as 2 meters by 1.5 meters with 15 people in it, his relative said: “They can’t sleep properly or even sit down. I wanted to give him a bottle of water but he said he doesn’t want food because there’s no bathroom [in the cell].” He was released on bail on March 10.
I. and M.
Two brothers, I. and M., ages 16 and 18, were arrested in the same case and subjected to enforced disappearance, torture, and other ill-treatment, a relative said in a phone call with Human Rights Watch on March 30. At the Alexandria Security Directorate, the brothers told their family:
They were hung from their wrists, electrocuted, hit in sensitive places, had water poured on them, and were stripped down to their boxers. They were sleeping on the floor, and were in the same clothes for the whole period of ten days’ disappearance, so when I got to see them, they were in miserable shape. They were tortured to obtain confessions or at least to name other people.
The younger brother, I., said he was detained for two days at the Muntazah police station, then transferred to a National Security office in the Smouha neighborhood, and then taken to the fourth floor of the Security Directorate, his relative said. “He didn’t know what to tell them, or what he was being charged with,” the relative said. “They were threatening that they would bring his mother and sister and arrest them and beat them.”
The brothers were both arrested in the early morning of February 5, at the younger brother’s workplace, where he was working the night shift, 6 p.m. to 4 a.m. The family last heard from I. in a 1 a.m. phone call, when I. said he would return home at the end of his shift. When he did not return, a relative went to visit his workplace at 7 a.m. I.’s employer told the relative that men in civilian clothes had arrested him, his older brother M., and another friend who were both visiting him at work and put them a police car waiting outside. Police at the Montazah station denied having the brothers in custody, as did other police stations and Interior Ministry offices, the relative said.
That night, a group of 30 police officers, men in plain clothes, some wearing balaclavas, and a man who identified himself as a National Security officer searched the brothers’ home without showing a warrant, the relative said. “They broke the metal door downstairs,” the relative said. “The only reason they didn’t break the house door was because I woke up and was waiting for them to come up. When I asked about [I. and M.] they said they didn’t know about them.”
I. was released without charge on February 13; M. remains in Borg al-Arab Prison, near Alexandria.
The relative said that I., but not M., had previously been arrested three times, the first when he was 14, in each case on similar charges of protesting without permission, blocking roads, and joining a banned organization. After being detained for 20 days in February 2014, I. was released with a disciplinary action as a minor. In May 2014, police arrested him and a judge sentenced him to several years in jail for charges similar to those in the current case, a relative said, but he was acquitted upon appeal and released after 10 months in jail, in January 2015. He was arrested again in November 2015, detained for 45 days, and then released shortly before plainclothes officers forcibly disappeared him on February 4. “The day he was disappeared was the final court hearing of the [November] case,” his relative said. Judges acquitted him in that case at a hearing on February 24, even though he was not in court.
A. and E.
Security forces including green-uniformed soldiers, black-uniformed Central Security Forces, police, and men in civilian clothes arrested A., 17, and his brother E., 20, at their home in Alexandria’s al-Asafra neighborhood on February 4, a relative told Human Rights Watch. “They destroyed things in the house, went to the kids’ room and shut the door, then came out with the boys tied up with a rope and took them without saying where they were going,” the relative said. “But the police report claims they were arrested in a tuk-tuk [a three-wheeled taxi] and had Molotovs on them.” They were subsequently charged with acts of vandalism and arson, the relative said.
The relative said that the brothers disappeared after their arrest and that no authorities would acknowledge that they were in detention or their whereabouts until the two appeared at the prosecutor’s office on February 13, when E. had bruises on his face. The brothers were then detained together at the Montazah police station for several days.
On the night of February 13, the relative said, “The boys managed to get a cell phone at the police station and called us, crying, saying they had been accused in a serious case.” They said they had been on the fourth floor of the Alexandria Security Directorate, where their arms had been handcuffed painfully behind their backs and their legs chained. E. was transferred to Borg al-Arab Prison, and A. remained at the police station in a cell with other children. They were both released on bail on April 19.
Both had been enrolled in secondary school, “but the school dismissed them for long absences,” the relative said on March 18. “It took three days for us to get a permission from the prosecution to deliver school books and materials to them in prison, and [a family member] spent the last 10 days trying to get the proper papers to have them registered in school again.”
The relative and the family’s lawyer, interviewed separately, said that a judge, without explanation, rejected their appeal to release the youths. “The kids told the prosecutor they were subject to enforced disappearance and torture but the prosecutor didn’t order an investigation into that,” the lawyer said.
M., a 21-year-old business student, was arrested at his home at 7 a.m. on February 4, by men who refused to identify themselves and who did not present a warrant, said a relative who spoke to Human Rights Watch on February 18 and again on March 18. M. also told his family he had been detained and tortured on the fourth floor of the Alexandria Security Directorate. M.’s relative said his family also complained to the prosecutor that he had been disappeared, and that the prosecutor responded by promising to search for him, but that they heard nothing until he appeared at the prosecutor’s office on February 13. His relative was later able to speak briefly with M., who described what happened to detainees at the Security Directorate building, the relative said:
When I first saw him I was shocked by his condition. He had to be supported to stand up. They had kept him on the bare floor, and they threw water on him. He said he had been electrocuted, and that they blindfolded and whipped the detainees and said they were recording their confessions.
M. is accused of vandalizing the same ATM machine as in the other cases, setting a garage on fire in the al-Asafra neighborhood, and setting a bus station on fire in the Montazah neighborhood, a lawyer familiar with his case said. “There is another police report on the ATM machine that accused different people of doing it, but the prosecutor just relied on the state security investigations file.”
After the hearing at the prosecutor’s office, M. was detained for five days at the Montazah police station, then transferred to Borg al-Arab Prison. A judge ordered him released on bail of 5,000 Egyptian pounds (US$560) on March 7, and the Interior Ministry transferred him from the prison to a National Security agency building in Ibees, an area in Alexandria, where officials “beat and kicked him” before releasing him on March 10, his relative said.