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Monday
Sep182017

Egypt guilty of kidnap, torture and abuse, says former detainee

Human rights lawyer Tarek Hussein tells of his experiences inside Egypt's security apparatus after being snatched and unlawfully incarcerated for five weeks

It was Tito’s mother that answered the door. Dawn was still hours away, and not much stirred in the small settlement of Kafr Hamza – which lies north of the Cairo ring road, out on the banks of an agricultural canal that leads off from the Nile, in the cross-hatched land where the edges of the city slowly give way to fields of green.

More than fifty police officers with heavy weapons stood waiting in the darkness of the street, alongside three armoured vehicles. Tito, a 24 year old human rights lawyer, rubbed the sleep out of his eyes and asked to see the arrest warrant. An officer shook his head. “You know that’s not how things work now,” he replied.

So began a 42-day journey into the underbelly of Egypt’s violent security apparatus, described earlier this month by Human Rights Watch as being responsible for a ‘torture epidemic’, the extent of which ‘probably amounts to a crime against humanity’. Egypt’s dictatorship, representatives of which have been in London over recent days as guests of a UK government-sponsored arms fair, has rejected such criticisms and denied that acts of torture are widespread in its prisons and police cells. Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, the former military general who is now the country’s president, has previously insisted that, “There is no torture in Egyptian prisons”.

But in a rare interview with a survivor of Egypt’s unprecedented crackdown on political dissidents, the Guardian has obtained testimony which directly supports many of the observations made by Human Rights Watch, including claims that police officers routinely deny detainees basic legal rights, hold prisoners in inhumane and dangerous conditions, and attempt to extract false confessions through the use of psychological intimidation, physical beatings and electrocution – in contravention of both the Egyptian constitution and international law.

Tarek Hussein, widely known as ‘Tito’, works as a lawyer with the Egyptian Centre for Economic and Social Rights, an NGO that addresses human rights issues. His political activism has brought him to the attention of the authorities in the past, not least when his teenage brother Mahmoud was arrested and detained without trial for more than two years for wearing a t-shirt reading ‘Nation without torture’; Mahmoud was only released last year. “If you have a dream of changing Egypt for the better, of living in a country where the rule of law is upheld and lawless violence by the state is rejected, then there is a price to pay,” Tito told the Guardian. “This regime believes fighting for your rights is a crime, but the real crime is what’s happening inside Egypt’s prisons.”

The five weeks in which Tito was forcibly disappeared and incarcerated across June and July this year offered him a new insight into that ‘crime’, and unlike many of its victims – who fear further reprisals from the security forces if they go public with their experiences – he has decided to speak out about what he saw. His story is one of relentless, everyday brutality on the part of police officers and officials from Egypt’s notorious Interior Ministry, and of a Kafkaesque maze of legal bureaucracy seemingly designed to imprison dissidents for as long as the state wishes to, regardless of the lack of evidence against them.

Tito’s first days behind bars were spent at al-Khankah police station in Qalyubia governorate, just north of the capital, where he says he was initially blindfolded and interrogated on a wide range of subjects including his thoughts on the country’s 2011 revolution, his relationship with prominent opposition figures, and articles he had previously written for international human rights organisations. During this period he claims he was never told what crime he was suspected of, and never offered access to a lawyer or contact with his family. He says he was also placed in solitary confinement, and denied food for three days.

When Tito was eventually brought before a prosecutor, he was informed that he had been charged with membership of a banned organisation – the Muslim Brotherhood – and of incitement against the state. The first allegation is particularly absurd because during the former presidency of the Muslim Brotherhood’s Mohamed Morsi, Tito was a prominent opponent of the Islamist group and was accused by the authorities of participating in attacks on its headquarters (accusations that Tito denies). A judge ordered Tito to be released on bail, but rather than doing so security officers declared that there were several outstanding legal cases against him in towns across the country and that he would continue to be held in jail until they were resolved.

Tito later discovered that many of these charges were for incidences of cheque fraud or illegal building construction, supposedly committed many years ago when he was still a young child and in far-off regions in which he had never lived. “One of the officers had already told me that even if there was a legal order for my release, I wasn’t getting out,” observed Tito. “It was at this point I realised he was right.”

Over the following weeks, Tito says he was transferred between police stations, prisons and courthouses all over northern Egypt, sometimes crammed into police trucks with fellow prisoners for so long in the summer heat that he began to vomit blood. He was not offered any medical assistance, and was pressured to sign a false confession. For much of this period, in which there was no legal basis for his detention, Tito’s fate and whereabouts were unknown to his family and lawyers who were conducting an increasingly desperate search. In one particularly agonising moment, at a prison in Giza, Tito looked through a one-way mirror and caught sight of a fellow lawyer enquiring about him at reception; his colleague couldn’t see him through the glass, however, and officers bundled Tito away and into a car before he had any chance to indicate his presence.

Tito's worst experiences took place in a detention site known as the ‘Work Camp Prison’ in Badr el-Beheira, a town west of the Nile Delta that lies equidistant between Cairo and the Mediterranean coastline. “From the moment I got there, it was clear that the procedures in this prison were particularly harsh and cruel,” he recalled. Tito says new arrivals were made to strip naked and face the wall while officers whipped them from behind with plastic hoses. They were then placed in a special cell, overcrowded with approximately 150 prisoners. One shared bucket, stored next to the drinking water, was provided as a toilet; detainees were forced to urinate and defecate under the gaze of an officer. Prison administrators told Tito he had been found guilty and condemned to a year in this jail, but refused to tell him what the sentence was for.

“After four days, they took me in the night to be interrogated by a senior security figure,” he says. “37 of us were taken from the cell, and we were made to undress down to our underwear. Along the corridor we could hear the screams of people being tortured and the zap of electric shocks; coming past us the other way were prisoners covered in blood.” Tito was the last to be admitted into the interrogation room, where he claims two officers were seated opposite one another on chairs.

According to Tito, prisoners were made to get down on their hands and knees and prostrate themselves between the officers; one shocked detainees with an electric stun gun, while the other beat them with his hands. Tito, possibly on account of being a political prisoner rather than an ordinary criminal, was not electrocuted himself but says he witnessed shocks being applied to others and was made, like his fellow detainees, to crouch submissively at the feet of his interrogators while they humiliated him and rattled off questions.

Tito’s voice is soft but he speaks quickly, and methodically – as a lawyer, he tends to shun emotive language and concentrate on factual details. This was the only point in our interview where his memories almost overwhelmed him. “I’m a human rights lawyer, and my work is supposed to be defending people from this kind of brutality,” he said quietly, after a long silence. “Yet here I was seeing it first-hand and I could do nothing. It was the moment in my life when I truly understood what it means to be broken.”

The use of violent practices in Egyptian prisons of the sort that Tito describes has been well documented by both local and international human rights groups. As well as electrocution, Human Rights Watch has collected testimony from former detainees alleging that the use of extreme stress positions – including the suspension of prisoners in the air while their hands are tied via a hook in the wall – is commonplace, and that both the removal of fingernails and anal rape by officers can also occur during interrogations. Last week Egypt’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs described the claims made by Human Rights Watch as ‘flimsy’ and an act of ‘deliberate defamation’. The Guardian invited the ministry to respond to Tito’s specific claims of mistreatment, but had not received any answer by the time of publication.

Hussein Baoumi, Egypt campaigner for Amnesty International, told the Guardian that Tito’s ordeal echoes the larger human rights crisis engulfing the country today, where a state of emergency is in place, unsanctioned protests are outlawed, and a major crackdown on free expression has seen several journalists jailed and hundreds of websites censored. “The Egyptian authorities have targeted Tarek because he dares to defend victims of state violations, and because he dares to voice his opinions peacefully,” Baoumi said. “The degree of mistreatment and torture that he details is extremely alarming.”

Last year Amnesty released a report which estimated that the rate of forced disappearances in Egypt had grown so rapidly an average of four citizens a day were now being kidnapped and held incommunicado by the security forces. The latest notable victim is one of Tito’s legal colleagues: Ibrahim Metwally Hegazy, founder of the Association of the Families of the Disappeared, who was snatched a week ago while en route to a UN conference in Geneva on enforced disappearances.

He has since been charged with managing an illegal group, spreading false news and cooperating with foreign organisations, crimes which could be met with a prison sentence of five years. Hegazy was one of the lawyers investigating the disappearance and murder last year of Giulio Regeni, an Italian PhD student from Cambridge University, who was found dead on the outskirts of Cairo with multiple signs of torture on his body that experts say are consistent with techniques known to be used by the Egyptian security forces.

Hegazy’s persecution, along with the testimony provided by Tito, will increase pressure on the British government to stop selling weaponry to Egypt. In recent days Egypt’s government was an invited guest at the huge state-sponsored DSEI arms fair held in London’s Docklands, despite the fact that polling conducted by Opinium and commissioned by the Campaign Against The Arms Trade has found that two-thirds of Britain’s population oppose arms exports to Egypt. Last month Alastair Burt, foreign office minister for the Middle East, wrote an article in Egypt’s state-controlled al-Ahram newspaper praising the Egyptian regime’s counter-terrorism efforts but making no mention of widespread human rights abuses by the country’s security forces.

Tito is now out of prison. After a flurry of final transfers between detention sites and repeated delays to his release due to claims by security officers that they had lost key legal papers relating to his case, he was eventually let go – but not, according to Tito, before being warned by an officer that the security forces, “decide which papers are important and which papers to lose, and we can always do that again in the future.” Four criminal cases are still open against him with hearings scheduled for next month; the original political charge of being a member of a banned organisation also remains unresolved, and Tito knows that there could be another knock on the door at any time. In the meantime, he will continue his human rights work.

“It sounds romantic,” he concluded, “but carrying on is what gives the whole experience meaning. Egypt deserves more than this.”

-This is an extended version of a news report published in The Guardian
-Photograph by David Degner
-September 2017