Friday, July 29, 2011

Torture still rampant in post-revolution Egypt, activists say

McClatchy Washington Bureau

Posted on Wed, Jul. 27, 2011

Torture still rampant in post-revolution Egypt, activists say

Mohannad Sabry | McClatchy Newspapers

last updated: July 27, 2011 07:33:41 PM

CAIRO — Egyptian human rights activists say they've documented hundreds of cases of civilians tortured by police and army forces since the revolution that toppled Hosni Mubarak, but that none have yet gone to trial.

Under former President Mubarak, the security services were notorious for abuses, but since he left office in February dozens of cases have been filed to the general prosecutor's office accusing police and military authorities of torture and other crimes against anti-government protesters.

For activists, that's a sign that the interim military government hasn't reined in the security forces, which were all-powerful during the Mubarak era. The only difference in post-revolution Egypt, they say, is that victims empowered by the uprising are speaking publicly of their brutal experiences.

Hossam Bahgat, the executive director of the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights, offered a grim list of the torture methods that authorities are accused of using: "kicking and punching; beating using batons, rifle butts, whips; electrocuting (shocking) victims; hanging in painful positions; sleep and food deprivation; and sexual assault."

Bahgat, who's run the advocacy group since 2002, said that until the revolution, torture victims "were unable to speak. At times there was an informant watching the victim's house. If they see activists making contact they either harassed them or threatened the victim not to speak."

Since the revolution, he said, "People are eager to fight back and claim their rights." But the allegations against the military police are worrisome.

"The faces change but the torture policy remains," Bahgat said.

On March 9, army troops raided Cairo's central Tahrir Square to disperse a sit-in. Scores of people, including 17 women, were detained and taken to the adjacent Egyptian Museum.

What happened next came to be known among activists as the Museum Torture Party.

"Officers were beating people with metal rods and batons," said Khalid Sadeq, 21, a student who went to look for his friends in Tahrir Square after hearing news of the raids on protesters. He was detained and led to the museum soon after he arrived at the square.

"They forced everyone to take their clothes off and stand in their underwear, and every time I tried to ask, 'Why am I here?' they beat me up more."

Sadeq said an officer dragged him and others out of the museum, took them outside and resumed the beatings — at one point even using Tasers. After Sadeq was released, his family filmed him in a hospital, his back, neck, arms and legs covered with bruises.

The 17 women were released, but not until they underwent widely publicized "virginity tests" that military officials said were necessary so that the women wouldn't accuse authorities of raping them. Amnesty International and other human rights groups decried the tests. The women were sentenced to a year of probation.

Another 173 detainees faced military trials that concluded within hours and, according to activists, were held without thorough investigations. Fifty people were acquitted or released on probation and 123 were sentenced to from three to five years in jail.

The ruling Supreme Council of the Armed Forces and Interior Ministry officials continue to deny any acts of torture. Human rights activists who attended a meeting in June with military officials said that Gen. Hassan El-Roweini, a member of the military council, denied torture by the military police.

"When handed pictures, videos and other material proving torture acts, he promised to investigate the incidents, but he never admitted any wrongdoing by the military police," said Ragiah Omran, a member of the Egyptian human rights group No Military Trials who attended the meeting.

A few days later, journalist Rasha Azab was summoned to the military prosecutor's office for questioning about an article she wrote alleging torture by military authorities. After three hours of questioning by the prosecutor, Azab was charged with spreading false rumors and disrupting national stability.

Activists and journalists acknowledge that they have greater freedom to discuss such violations by Egyptian authorities, but reforms haven't taken place. While the military council is expected to hand power to a civilian government after elections that are due to be announced in September, the Interior Ministry and its police departments remain a concern for rights groups because many police officials from the Mubarak era remain in their posts.

"The government did change its tone since the revolution, but it's not a matter of conferences and dialogue," said Heba Morayef, the Human Rights Watch representative in Egypt. "There should be real reform measures, and the Interior Ministry should admit that torture is systematic within the police force."

Morayef said that transparency was the only way to guarantee real reform. "We have no way of knowing if police officers are even being questioned or punished for such violations," she said.

(Sabry is a McClatchy special correspondent.)

For more international news visit McClatchy's World page.

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