Last week, Amnesty International researchers gathered testimonies alleging that supporters of deposed President Mohamed Morsi had tortured members of a rival political camp at a sit-in.
This week, my colleague Mohamed Elmessiry and I were shown around the pro-Morsi sit-in at Rabaa al-Adaweya in Cairo – one of the places the alleged torture took place.
We were given access to the stage, normally barred by security guards and restricted to speakers and sit-in leaders. A few days ago, a young man told us he had been tortured underneath this stage in July. Unsurprisingly, we found no torture chambers or captives underneath, just wooden poles supporting the two-metre high stage. Several men, including a prominent member of the Muslim Brotherhood, lay there on the ground in its shadow.
Our visit was by no means an “inspection”, nor would it provide us with evidence of torture at the sit-in. It was rather an opportunity to safely ask questions to guards and other participants of the sit-in, as well as medical staff and doormen from nearby buildings, and to discuss Amnesty International’s work with the sit-in leaders.
In the company of our guide, the former Minister of Manpower and Immigration himself, we were able to speak to security guards – usually wearing orange bibs and a helmet and carrying a rod.
Impromptu questions such as “Where do you do take the thugs?” and “You must have caught spies, who are they?” were awkwardly and hesitantly answered:
“We send them to the stage.”
“We look at their identity cards, question them and let them go.”
“Sometimes protesters beat them and we have to stop that; look at this finger wound.”
We persisted: “So you question them for an hour, two, three?”
“They don’t stay over do they?”
“We record who they are, so we know them if they come again.”
Doctors from the pro-Morsi sit-in’s field hospital said they hadn’t treated anyone bearing marks of torture. However, they did reveal that in July they received the body of a man with marks of burns and cuts. According to them, he had been dumped nearby by the police.
Doormen in the adjacent residential blocks denied witnessing any trouble or violence from the protesters. Some said they had made new friendships with protesters, while others openly said they are fed up with the sit-in and can’t wait for it to end. Some residents have temporarily moved out because of the noise coming from the stage and the streets obstructed by the sit-in. Amnesty International believes that violence by individuals in the sit-in does not justify denying the right to peaceful assembly for the majority in the sit-in.
At Ramadan breakfast time (iftar), we hurried to a tent decorated with photos of the Morsi supporters killed by armed forces and police in recent clashes. It had been erected at the edge of the sit-in, as close as possible to to the Unknown Soldier Mausoleum, where at least 80 Morsi supporters died in the early hours of 27 July, according to official figures.
At the tent we sat on the floor and ate together, prayed, then spoke with several Muslim Brotherhood figures, including a former governor, a media advisor for the Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party, a Muslim Brotherhood lawyer, some young members of the group and journalists.
We discussed Amnesty International’s press release containing testimonies of torture at the hands of Morsi supporters. Our hosts regretted that we did not show them the information we collected so they could give a reaction. They said it gave ammunition to state and private media who have been demonizing the Muslim Brotherhood and using any justification to break their sit-ins.
Our hosts said they reject torture, as they fight for freedom, and want to see an international investigation into all human rights violations during this crisis. They simply don’t trust investigations by the public prosecution, as their leadership remains in prison on charges of incitement of violence.
We asked our hosts to instruct guards at the sit-in not to use violence against any people they had suspicions about, and to regularly check tents at the sit-in and scrutinize hidden corners to prevent anybody being held there or brutalized, which they promised to do.
Torture has been widespread in Egypt for years, under successive governments. Amnesty International and human rights groups in Egypt have been reporting and combating it, not only when it has occurred in detention centres operated by the police and army, but also when it has been committed by individuals.
In December 2012, while President Morsi was still in power, some of his supporters used torture against opposition protesters calling for his fall by the gates of the Ittihadeya presidential palace.
The Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party has also previously failed to address Amnesty International’s human rights concerns. The party failed to respond to questions raised in our 10-point manifesto – including pledges on combating torture – ahead of parliamentary elections in November 2011.
Letters sent this year to deposed President Mohamed Morsi urging him to protect women from sexual assaults during protests also went unanswered.