Saturday, March 19, 2011

Egypt: Abuse & Torture in Army Custody

The New York Times
Complaints of Abuse in Army Custody

March 17, 2011


CAIRO, Egypt — Ragy el-Kashef was relieved when Egypt’s military took power last month and pledged to steer the country from dictatorship to democracy. But after he spent four days in army custody, during which he says he was arrested, tortured and hastily tried before a military judge, anxiety and dread now cloud his hope for the future.

Mr. Kashef, 24, was detained by the military police on March 9, when soldiers and armed men in plainclothes known as baltageyya (“thugs”) violently broke up a small protest camp in Tahrir Square.

Soldiers brought him and his brother Raif to an entrance of the nearby Egyptian Museum. For six hours, Mr. Kashef said, soldiers beat, whipped and electrically stunned them and scores of other blindfolded prisoners as they lay face down on the pavement. The prisoners were later taken to a military base, and Mr. Kashef said the people in his group were stripped and beaten. Eventually, he said, he was given a military trial that lasted just 30 minutes.

“I was happy when the army took over,” he said. “I felt safe with the army because I thought they were responsible. Now I hate the army.”

When the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces took over as the transitional government after the resignation of President Hosni Mubarak on Feb. 11, it was greeted by many protesters as a protector of the revolution, whose demands for democracy it vowed to uphold. But since then, allegations of torture and the prosecution of civilians in closed-door military trials have tarnished its reputation and raised questions about its commitment to democratic rule.

The military, said Heba Morayef, a researcher on Egypt for Human Rights Watch, is routinely abusing human rights by “arbitrarily arresting people and then subjecting those it has arbitrarily arrested to military trials.” She said this was “not indicative of a shift to the rule of law.”

Ms. Morayef said the organization had received more and more “serious reports” of military torture in recent weeks, with a surge of new cases after March 9, the day 190 protesters, including Mr. Kashef and his brother, were arrested. The protesters had remained in Tahrir Square to press for a number of demands of the revolution that had not been fulfilled.

Ragia Omrane, a lawyer with the Front for the Defense of Egyptian Protesters, said the detainees were beaten and subjected to electric shocks, and later tried behind closed doors, in proceedings that sometimes lasted only 10 minutes. She said one of the detainees was 15 years old. Ultimately, 148 of the detainees were convicted and are serving sentences in military prisons.

The crimes they are charged with range from obstructing traffic to possession of explosives, Ms. Omrane said. She added that lawyers had not been given access to either the detainees or their trials, nor had they been informed of the specific convictions or sentences of individual detainees, although military judges told Ms. Omrane that sentences ranged from one to seven years.

Since then, 37 more people have been arrested after being taken into custody either on the streets of downtown Cairo or at an anti-torture protest held outside the museum on March 16, Ms. Omrane said. Eleven of them have been sent to appear before military prosecutors, she said.

The chief of the military police, Maj. Gen. Hamdi Bedeen, denied that the army was engaging in torture or using the museum as a detention center. In an interview published on Thursday by Egypt’s El Shorouk newspaper, he called the accusations “totally false” and said the testimony about torture was “fabricated.”

“Not one complaint has reached me until now,” General Bedeen said.

Under the harsh, autocratic regime of Mr. Mubarak torture by the police was “routine and systemic,” according to Human Rights Watch.

The military does not make public information about detentions and military prosecutions, Ms. Morayef said. Former prisoners and the family of one detained man said that three detainees died in army custody on Saturday, while as many as 150 others began a hunger strike against the ill treatment on Monday. Neither reporters nor lawyers can verify those claims.

Human-rights activists have expressed concern about the apparent cooperation between army and the plainclothes enforcers who attacked the protesters on March 9, because Mr. Mubarak’s government regularly deployed them to beat and intimidate people.

People detained that day said in interviews that they were tied up and blindfolded, beaten with metal clubs and whips and repeatedly shocked with electric stun devices.

Rami Essam, a well-known singer, said he had been beaten with clubs and bricks by soldiers who cut his hair. Rasha Azab, a journalist, said she had been beaten while handcuffed to a wall around a manicured museum garden.

Sherif Abdel Moneim said he had been beaten inside the grand entrance hall of the main museum building by soldiers who struck him across a scar from cancer surgery. That earlier mark is now crisscrossed by lines that are fresher and redder.

“The soldiers were yelling, ‘Raise your head up high, you son of a dog, you’re Egyptian!’ ” Mr. Kashef said. The taunt twists the meaning of a chant from the uprising that overthrew Mr. Mubarak, which encouraged Egyptians to hold their heads high and be proud.

Mr. Kashef said he and his brother were in a group taken to a military prison the day after their arrest. There, they were strip searched, held in a cell and beaten by a soldier who showered them with curses while accusing them of having Facebook accounts.

That night he and 30 others were herded into the base’s long rectangular kitchen for their trial. A military judge presided from behind the kitchen table while a pot of stewed potatoes and peas bubbled on the stove behind the accused, he recalled. A military lawyer who did not speak to them served as their defense, and they were fed from the pot before filing back to their cramped cell.

Two days after that episode, Mr. Kashef was told he could go free. All of men tried in the kitchen were found innocent, but inexplicably only Mr. Kashef and a handful of others were let go. Some of the co-defendants, including his brother, remain jailed. “We ask the soldiers and we ask the courts, but no one has a logical answer,” he said.

This week, Mr. Kashef, whose body remains bruised, visited Raif in jail with their parents. Walking the halls of the military base, he saw soldiers and officers he recognized and was gripped with fear that they would take him back to his cell. A filmmaker, he passed the room where he and the other detainees were strip searched and said he “saw it like it was a scene in a movie.”

He is worried about his brother and what comes next for Egypt.

“I am afraid for the future because maybe the army and the old system and the thugs will work together to kill our revolution,” he said.

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