Egyptians demand secret police give up torture secrets
- 8 March 2011
- From the section Middle East
The headquarters of the Egyptian State Security Services in Cairo is an impenetrable concrete fortress of thick walls and turrets, its main building menacing and imposing.
People used to be intimidated just walking past it, but the myth and mystery of the horrors committed within are now out in the open - the latest stage of Egypt's continuing revolution.
The army has tanks and armoured cars outside after taking custody of the building and the thousands of documents inside which many people believe will reveal the truth behind the activities of the state security service.
After driving out a president and a prime minister, the protesters who have spent much of the past six weeks out on the streets, have now turned their attention to the feared secret police.
Its buildings have been raided across the country and the main headquarters in Cairo's Nasr City was no exception.
Hundreds of people gathered outside - many of them former prisoners who were held here on spurious charges and tortured before being imprisoned for many years.
They pounded the doors, surging forward and the army relented, letting them into the vast grounds and the buildings inside.
"It was extremely creepy," said Hossam Hamalawy, who was one of the first inside. He and others filmed their extraordinary raid on one of the most feared buildings in Egypt.
"We managed to find tonnes of documents inside and also underground prison cells. It was like a maze going down eight floors."
The demonstrations had focused on state security buildings in Alexandria on Friday as rumours spread the police were burning and shredding documents.
Inside the Cairo headquarters that's just what they found - destroyed papers seen as an attempt to destroy evidence of human rights abuses and corruption.
"Mubarak's base of support and his main tool and weapon against dissidents and the Egyptian people in general had been state security police over the past 30 years," Hossam Hamalawy said.
"We wanted to storm those facilities to assure everybody we are in control, not the regime's figures anymore."
There was an emotional scene as a torture device of metal poles and electricity transformers was brought out of the building. From his own experience one of the protesters demonstrated how it was used.
It is not difficult to find people who were tortured by the enforcers of President Hosni Mubarak's state.
They are now able to talk about their experiences - both victims and perpetrators.
Three serving secret policemen spoke to the BBC - now willing to speak, if not identified.
"I witnessed torture while serving in a police station in southern Egypt," one said.
"I heard screaming on an upper floor. When I went to check, I found a naked girl standing in front of an investigator who was using electric charges on sensitive areas of her body to force her to admit to charges against her.
"She said she would admit anything as long as he stopped."
They said they had been told to intimidate people during the election and to stop them voting for the opposition.
"There were many methods of torture," one of the policemen said. "Beating and whipping, hanging in the air for long periods of time, cuffing up their hands and legs, using electric sticks and burning their bodies with cigarettes and depriving them of sleep or food."
At a small office in downtown Cairo, Dr Mona Hamed, a psychiatrist, nodded and said yes, she had heard many terrible stories.
The El Nadim Centre is an organisation which provides treatment and rehabilitation of the victims of violence and torture.
"Torture is a widespread, systematic, routine policy in Egypt through the last 30 years. It is everywhere and in every place in Egypt," said Dr Hamed.
She introduced me to one of her clients - an Imam jailed twice in the past 10 years and tortured incessantly every day for a month.
He described how he was stripped, had his hands and legs tied to a chair, how he was beaten and given electric shocks all over his body, especially his genitals.
They accused him of being a terrorist, but after a month released him, only to re-arrest him two years later and to do it all over again.
"This is revenge from Allah," he said. "They thought they were Gods no-one could touch. Now we can live without fear."
People want an end to the State Security Services because they symbolise the worst human rights abuses of the former regime.
The new interim government has to decide what concessions it gives the protesters and where it draws the line.
Reconciling with and breaking from the past is just one of the challenges in post-revolution Egypt.