Egypt police brutality 'unchecked'

By Orla Guerin
BBC News, Cairo

Media caption,
Amateur video apparently shows a man being tortured in police custody in Minya

A grainy video circulating widely on social media has heightened concerns that police in the new Egypt are relying on old ways.

A blindfolded man lies on the floor, naked from the waist up. The skin on his shoulders and upper back is an angry red.

In the course of 30 seconds he appears to be whipped six times with a leather belt. His screams become high-pitched, like a wounded animal.

"I was arrested by mistake," he cries. "By Allah I didn't do that."

His tormentor keeps taunting him, telling him to say he is a woman.

The abuser's face is never seen and his identity is unclear, but police admit the man was arrested in the southern province of Minya. They say he was involved in a deadly attack on a police station.

The public prosecutor there ordered an inquiry after he was found to have visible injuries on his body. The security chief for the province is promising that the guilty will be punished.

"Assaulting any person is unacceptable," said Major Gen Usama Metawally.

"When I saw this regrettable video it made me so sad. If investigations prove that he was injured at a police station, no-one will escape punishment," he told the BBC.

'Elaborate torment'

Local journalist Aslam Fathi might be forgiven for having some doubts.

He had his own brush with the police in Minya on 31 October. When the BBC filmed him afterwards, he still had bruises under his eyes, and deep scratches on his forearms.

Image caption,
Journalist Aslam Fathi says he was tortured at a police station

The reporter, for Egypt's MBC Channel, got into a row with an officer manning a cordon at the site of a collapsed building.

Police claim he attacked the officer. Aslam says he is the one who was attacked, and dragged away to a night of torture at a nearby police station.

"I was being beaten from all directions, even with batons. Whoever entered the room to do anything was told I had fought with an officer. They started beating me as well.

"I said I was ready to kiss the leg of the officer. I kept begging and begging for them to stop."

Far from stopping he says the assault intensified. He claims he was beaten and kicked for about two hours, before a more elaborate torment began.

"Someone put my hands behind my back, with shackles, and did the same with my legs," he said.

"They tied them together and hung me upside down from a log. My hands and legs couldn't stand the weight of my body. They kept beating me and saying that I would not leave the place alive."

Aslam was released the next day, and says he is mounting a case against the police, in spite of warnings about the risks.

"People told me the police would target my family, and there will be trouble," he said.

"Many people tried to frighten me, but I will proceed. Even if I made a mistake, why should I be tortured?"

Accounts of abuse are not limited to the provinces.

We met Muhammed Reda Othman, a marketing manager, outside the Cairo stadium. For him, the popular sporting venue now has sinister connotations.

Image caption,
Muhammad Reda Othman detained with supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood during a sit-in

He says he was held there overnight in August after being detained with supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood during a sit-in. The next stop, he says, was a brutal reception at a police station.

"While we were being searched, they were beating us about the face and the chest," he said.

"Five plain-clothes officers were around us, grabbing us, intimidating us. All those beating us were saying we are going to kill you. It lasted about an hour."

'More self-control'

Reform of the police was one of the key demands of the 2011 revolution that overthrew the long-time military ruler, Hosni Mubarak. (The uprising against him began on National Police Day).

Almost three years after his removal, a military-installed government is ruling Egypt, and critics say the security forces remain completely unaccountable.

It is not a case of the return of the police state, according to human rights campaigner Karim Enarrah, because it never went away.

"The Egyptian police were always notorious for being unprofessional," says Mr Enarrah of the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights (EIPR).

"They remain completely unreformed and unaccountable."

And on the rare occasions when police are put on trial for abuses, he says, cases tend to result in acquittals.

There has been plenty of talk of reforming the security forces in recent years but that's all it is, says Tamarra Alrifai, of the New York based Human Rights Watch.

"It's the same police, committing the same abuses, with the same impunity," she said.

The Interior Ministry, which is responsible for the police, now has a human rights division.

We asked the official in charge, Hussein Fekry, for a response to allegations of police brutality. We showed him the footage from Minya, and a second recording that appears to show a suspect being beaten all the way to a police van.

Image caption,
Amateur video said to have been filmed in Alexandria appears to show a suspect being beaten while being moved to police van

Both videos have been on social media for weeks. It was the first time he had seen them.

"In the first video (in Minya) there is nothing saying it was filmed at a police station," he said, after watching the footage in silence.

"The faces in the video are not clear. Who are these officers that you are asking me to bring to account?"

Mr Fekry told us police are being trained to be more sensitive, and are showing more self-control. But he said many employees of the Interior Ministry absorbed a culture of abuse.

"Torture and cruelty are part of human behaviour that doesn't stop by pushing a certain button," he said.

"We are trying to end it but most claims of ill-treatment during arrest are untrue. Many prisoners say they have been very well treated."

Muhammed Reda Othman is not one of them. What he recalls after his arrest are beatings, threats, abuse, and fearing for his life.

And he vividly remembers the words spoken by the officer who put him in the police van: "Forget the past two years."