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Update: On the morning of October 6, Prosecutor General Hamada al-Sawi said in an official statement that he ordered journalist Basma Mostafa released pending investigation. Lawyers said she was ordered to pay bail of 2,000 EGP (US$128). Her release has yet to be confirmed. 

(Beirut) – Egyptian authorities should conduct a credible investigation into the death of 26-year-old Islam al-Australi in police custody and make the results public, Human Rights Watch said today. The police arrested neighbors and family members protesting the death and a journalist reporting about it.

Islam al-Australi, 26, who died in police custody.  © Private

On September 4, 2020, police in Giza’s al-Muneeb district south of Cairo arrested al-Australi after he got into a fight with a policeman, a neighbor told Human Rights Watch. According to a complaint by the family to the public prosecution, two policemen beat al-Australi to death. On September 13, local media reported that prosecutors ordered one officer detained in the case released on a bail of 5,000 EGP (US$317) while four omana` shorta (low-ranking officers) remained in custody pending investigation.

“The Egyptian police try to cover up their abuses by detaining and threatening anyone who tries to bring the abuses to light,” said Amr Magdi, Middle East and North Africa researcher at Human Rights Watch. “The Egyptian authorities should hold accountable those responsible for Islam al-Australi’s death as well as those responsible for detaining and abusing the people who expose police wrongdoing.”

Authorities reported al-Australi’s death to his family on September 6, roughly two days after his arrest. Media reports citing the public prosecution investigation said that an ambulance arrived at the Muneeb Police Center the day following al-Australi’s arrest to transfer him to hospital and that CCTV recordings inspected by prosecutors showed al-Australi entering the police station alive.

On September 7, dozens of neighbors gathered at the police station to protest al-Australi’s killing. Videos on social media showed angry crowds chanting against the Interior Ministry. The independent al-Manassa website reported that the protests started when police arrested al-Australi’s mother to force her to drop her complaint about his death.

The police released her shortly afterward but arrested her later that day as they dispersed the protest and arrested over 50 people, including a cousin of al-Australi. A knowledgeable source told Human Rights Watch that police released al-Australi’s mother the following day after she withdrew the complaint against the officers.

Local newspapers on September 8 published a statement attributed to an unnamed Interior Ministry source denying that there had been any protests and claiming that al-Australi died from a “heart attack” at the hospital following a fight between two groups of men over a financial dispute.

Al-Manassa reported on September 8 that there was a heavy police presence around the family’s house and that the officers intimidated anyone who tried to enter to intimidate them from communicating with lawyers and journalists. The source told Human Rights Watch that security forces were still surrounding the family’s home on September 30.

On September 9, police arrested Islam al-Kalhi, a journalist who was covering the events outside al-Muneeb Police Center for Daarb, an independent news site. Daarb reported that the police detained him overnight in an unidentified place. The next morning the Supreme State Security Prosecution sent him for 15 days of pretrial detention after adding him to an existing case that includes other journalists accused of “spreading false news” and “misusing social media platforms.” The prosecutors renewed al-Kalhi’s detention on September 21 for 15 more days.

At around 3 a.m. on September 17, plainclothes police broke into Mohamed Mahmoud Abdelal’s house and arrested him. Abdelal is a neighbor of al-Australi who witnessed his arrest and whom police had briefly arrested on September 8, a source close to the family told Human Rights Watch.

The security forces kept Abdelal in an unidentified location, where he was beaten while blindfolded and threatened not to testify against the police. At around 9 p.m. on September 17, nearly 18 hours after his arrest, Abdelal’s captors left him on a desert road near Giza. A passing driver drove him home. The source said that Abdelal had injuries to his head and bruises all over his body.

The al-Manassa website on September 17 published a copy of a telegram Abdelal’s family sent to the prosecutors accusing the Interior Ministry of abducting him.

Mona Mahmoud, Abdelal’s sister, told al-Manassa that she witnessed his arrest. She said the security forces did not identify themselves, beat him during his arrest, and dragged him into the street. She said that her brother was al-Australi’s close friend and that he had witnessed al-Australi’s beating during his arrest and saw al-Australi’s body at Umm al-Masryeen Hospital.

Police use of torture in Egypt is widespread and officers are rarely questioned or, if prosecuted, found guilty.

In a separate incident on September 30, protests erupted in al-Awamiya village, in Luxor, after police reportedly killed a 38-year-old nurse, Owais al-Rawi, during a dawn house raid to arrest a relative. According to the independent news site Mada Masr and two journalists who separately spoke with al-Rawi’s neighbors and family, the officer shot and killed al-Rawi after the two got into an altercation during the raid. Videos on social media showed angry crowds denouncing the Interior Ministry and President al-Sisi during al-Rawi’s funeral that night. The journalists said that security forces fired tear gas and violently dispersed the funeral goers. On October 2 there was still a heavy security presence in the town, they said. On October 3, journalist Basma Mostafa, who had been covering the incident for al-Manassa, went missing in Luxor. Al-Manassa said that 24 hours later she appeared before Supreme State Security Prosecutors in Cairo who interrogated her without her lawyers present and ordered her detained for 15 days pending investigation on charges of terrorism and spreading false news.

The Prosecutor General should immediately order the two journalists, Mostafa and al-Kalhi, released, and oversee a credible investigation into the deaths of al-Rawi and al-Australi and make the results public, Human Rights Watch said.

“Going after perpetrators and criminals doesn’t seem to be in the job description of Egyptian police,” Magdi said. “The authorities need to hold accountable those responsible for the death of Islam al-Australi and stop persecuting those trying to uncover the truth.”

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