Torture widely used against criminals, Islamist detainees, opposition activists and bloggers, embassy cables suggest.
Police brutality in Egypt is “routine and pervasive” and the use of torture so widespread that the Egyptian government has stopped denying it exists, according to leaked cables released today by WikiLeaks.
The batch of US embassy cables paint a despairing portrait of a police force and security service in Egypt wholly out of control. They suggest torture is routinely used against ordinary criminals, Islamist detainees, opposition activists and bloggers.
“The police use brutal methods mostly against common criminals to extract confessions, but also against demonstrators, certain political prisoners and unfortunate bystanders. One human rights lawyer told us there is evidence of torture in Egypt dating back to the time of the pharoahs. NGO contacts estimate there are literally hundreds of torture incidents every day in Cairo police stations alone,” one cable said.
Under Hosni Mubarak’s presidency there had been “no serious effort to transform the police from an instrument of regime power into a public service institution”, it said. The police’s ubiquitous use of force had pervaded Egyptian culture to such an extent that one popular TV soap opera recently featured a police detective hero who beat up suspects to collect evidence.
Some middle-class Egyptians did not report thefts from their apartment blocks because they knew the police would immediately go and torture “all of the doormen”, the cable added. It cited one source who said the police would use routinely electric shocks against suspected criminals, and would beat up human rights lawyers who enter police stations to defend their clients. Women detainees allegedly faced sexual abuse. Demoralised officers felt solving crimes justified brutal interrogation methods, with some believing that Islamic law also sanctioned torture, the cable said.
Another cable, from March 2009, said Egypt’s bloggers were playing an “increasingly important role” in society and “in broadening the scope of acceptable political and social discourse”. There had been a significant change over the past five years, it said, with bloggers able to discuss sensitive issues such as sexual harassment, sectarian tensions, the military and even abortion.
At the same time, a clampdown by the Egyptian government and other repressive measures meant bloggers were no longer a “cohesive activist movement”. In 2009, an estimated 160,000 bloggers were active in Egypt, writing in Arabic and sometimes English. Most were 20-35 years old.
Bloggers now appear to be at the vanguard of this week’s anti-Mubarak demonstrations, which led to the government switching off internet access. One woman had told the Americans, presciently, that the blogging community was bereft of “compelling and achievable political causes” but would play a crucial role “during the eventual succession”.
The WikiLeaks cables also shed intriguing light on the US’s staunch relationship with Egypt, its closest Arab ally. They show US diplomats concerned about the country’s woeful human rights record and keen to promote an agenda of democratic reform and greater political pluralism. There appears to have been little progress on these goals.
Police Torture In Egypt
US State cable 2002-02-17 10CAIRO213 documents a communication from a human rights activist (name redacted) to the US government discussing torture in Egypt and how best to address it.
On February 10, XXXXXXXXXXXX urged the U.S. to focus on quiet diplomatic approaches to the GOE on combating torture as our top human rights priority. XXXXXXXXXXXX believed such diplomacy would be more successful than efforts on other human rights issues. XXXXXXXXXXXXX advised that a series of discreet diplomatic approaches, as opposed to public statements, would be most effective in securing GOE agreement to combat torture. He said he has been in contact with diplomats from EU countries to encourage them to make similar approaches to the GOE.
XXXXXXXXXXX was pessimistic that the GOE would pass significant political legislation, other than the human trafficking law, before the 2011 residential elections. GOE discussions about lifting the State of emergency and passing a counterterrorism law “are just a distraction,” he maintained. XXXXXXXXXXX asserted that MFA and NDP fficials, as well as some journalists in the pro-government press, are embarrassed over the extensive use of torture, and want to see improvements. He believed that a discreet order from the Interior Ministry to stop torture would have a powerful effect, and would be more effective than the passage of legislation expanding the definition of torture and increasing penalties, which the quasi-government National Council for Human Rights and independent NGOs have urged. (Note: A contact confirmed that on February 15 a parliamentary committee rejected legislation proposed by a Muslim Brotherhood-affiliated MP to increase prison terms for torture from the current 3-10 years to 25 years, and extend the definition to cover senior officers who order torture. End note.)
According to XXXXXXXXXXXX, the worst police torture takes place during urder investigations. He said that his brother-in-law who is a police officer in the Delta Governorate of Kafr El-Sheikh described “unrelenting pressure” from superiors to solve murder cases by any means necessary. XXXXXXXXXXX said human rights lawyers and XXXXXXXXXXX have told him that to conduct murder investigations, police will round up 40 to 50 suspects from a neighborhood and hang them by their arms from the ceiling for weeks until someone confesses.
XXXXXXXXXXXX believed that a GOE political decision to stop pressuring police officers to solve crimes quickly by using torture if necessary would have far-reaching effects. XXXXXXXXXXXX speculated that such a policy change could have a broad positive impact on the rule of law, the police’s role in society and even political participation. If the public’s fear of the police waned, he noted, citizens would not be as afraid to enter police stations to report crimes, tell the police about their neighborhoods, or procure voter registration cards for the coming elections. He said the current pervasive nature of torture began in the 1990’s when the security forces were fighting Islamic extremists, and would be possible to reverse. XXXXXXXXXXX recalled that the public respected the police in the 980’s, and he expected that with a policy change the GOE could restore a positive relationship between the public and the police.
Police Brutality and Poor Prison Conditions in Europe
US State cable 2010-01-31 10CAIRO147 from one year ago, outlines Egyptian police brutality and prison conditions as discussed in meetings between A/S Posner and “senior GOE officials”.
Credible human rights lawyers believe police brutality continues to be a pervasive, daily occurrence in GOE detention centers, and that SSIS has adapted to increased media and blogger focus on police brutality by hiding the abuse and pressuring victims not to bring cases. NGOs assess prison conditions to be poor, due to overcrowding and lack of medical care, food, clean water, and proper ventilation. Per ref E, following a landmark 2007 sentencing of police officers for assaulting and sodomizing a bus driver, courts have continued to sentence officers to prison terms for brutality.
In a January 12 meeting with Interior Ministry State Security Director Rahman, A/S Posner asked what measures the GOE takes to address police brutality and difficult prison conditions, and what the U.S. could do to help. Rahman said “in the past ten years” there has been “no abuse of prisoners at all.” He acknowledged there may have been “some violations” against “terrorists” in prison in the 1970’s and 1980’s. Posner raised the case of XXXXXXXXXXXXX who was abused by police in XXXXXXXXXXX according to multiple NGO reports (refs C, D). (Note: The Ambassador raised this case with the Interior Minister in XXXXXXXX, per ref D. End note.) Rahman responded that when citizens do not “get what they want from the police, they become angry.” He asserted that XXXXXXXXXXXXhusband is a “criminal,” and beat her in the midst of a family dispute. Rahman said the MOI punishes any officer who commits violations. Rahman also said the Interior Ministry treats all prisoners well. More than 1,500 prisoners pursue university studies, he claimed, and he noted that the government is focused on prisoners’ health and their rehabilitation.
A/S Posner also raised police brutality with MFA Deputy Assistant Minister for Human Rights Wael Aboulmagd who responded that the GOE takes the issue seriously. Aboulmagd said that since 2005, the Interior Ministry stopped paying fines for police officers found to have abused detainees. He noted increased prosecutions against police officers for torture and abuse. Aboulmagd said the Interior Ministry is participating in human rights training through the UN Development Program, and internal courses. He opined that it would take a “generation of training” before the police accepted the concept of human rights.
Rahman asserted that the U.S. funds NGOs and human rights organizations dominated by “communists and extremists.” He claimed these “communists” do not care about democracy, and want to weaken the GOE in response to Egypt’s movement away from the Soviet Union and toward the U.S. in the 1970’s. The Ambassador pushed back, saying that the U.S. does not fund NGOs connected to the Muslim Brotherhood or extremists. She noted the U.S. funds NGOs to promote civic education, human rights training and election monitoring. She urged SSIS to allow increased registration of NGOs. A/S Posner urged Rahman to allow NGOs to register even if they are critical of the GOE.
Related Link: Egyptian Police Torture