Egypt: Rampant torture, arbitrary arrests and detentions signal catastrophic decline in human rights one year after ousting of Morsi

A surge in arbitrary arrests, detentions and harrowing incidents of torture and deaths in police custody recorded by Amnesty International provide strong evidence of the sharp deterioration in human rights in Egypt in the year since President Mohamed Morsi was ousted.

Thousands of people have been detained, with figures varying. According to official estimates published by the Associated Press in March, at least 16,000 people have been detained over the past year as part of a sweeping crackdown against Mohamed Morsi’s supporters and other groups and activists that have expressed dissent.

According to WikiThawra, an initiative run by the Egyptian Center for Economic and Social rights, at least 80 people died in custody over the past year and more than 40,000 people were detained or indicted between July 2013 and mid-May 2014.

Reports of torture and enforced disappearances in police and military detention facilities are also widespread.

“Egypt’s notorious state security forces –currently known as National Security- are back and operating at full capacity, employing the same methods of torture and other ill-treatment used during the darkest hours of the Mubarak era,” said Hassiba Hadj Sahraoui, Deputy Director of the Middle East and North Africa Programme at Amnesty International.

“Despite repeated promises by current and former presidents to respect the rule of law, over the past year flagrant violations have continued at an astonishing rate, with security forces effectively granted a free rein to commit human rights violations with impunity.”

Torture and other ill-treatment

Amnesty International has gathered damning evidence indicating that torture is routine in police stations and unofficial places of detention, with members of the Muslim Brotherhood and their supporters particularly targeted. It is carried out by both the Egyptian military and police including in premises belonging to the National Security Agency, in many cases with the objective of obtaining confessions or to force detainees to implicate others.

Among the methods of torture employed are techniques previously used by state security during Mubarak’s rule. These include the use of electric shocks, rape, handcuffing detainees and suspending them from open doors. Another hanging method, known as “the grill”, involves handcuffing the detainee’s hands and legs to an iron rod and suspending the rod between two opposite chairs until the detainee’s legs go numb. Security forces then start using electric shocks on the person’s legs.

One of the most shocking cases documented by Amnesty International was that of M.R.S , 23, a student arrested in February 2014  near Nasr City in Cairo. He said he was held for 47 days and was tortured and raped during his interrogation. He is currently out of prison but the case is still pending.

“They cut my shirt, blindfolded me with it and handcuffed me from behind…they beat me with batons all over my body, particularly on the chest, back and face…Then they put two wires in my left and right little fingers and gave me electric shocks four or five times,” he said.

He also gave a horrifying account of how he was sexually assaulted and raped.

“The national security officer caught my testicle and started to squeeze it… I was screaming from the pain and bent my legs to protect my testicles then he inserted his fingers in my anus… he was wearing something plastic on his fingers… he repeated this five times,” he said.

He also reported being beaten on the penis with a stick. He was then raped repeatedly by one or more security guards before being forced to sing a song in support of the Egyptian army “Teslam Al Ayadi”.

In another case, Mahmoud Mohamed Ahmed Hussein, an 18-year-old student, was arrested on his way home on the third anniversary of the 2011 uprising in El Mareg, Cairo at noon. He believes he was singled out for wearing a shirt bearing a logo of the “25 January Revolution” and a scarf with a slogan of the “Nation without Torture” campaign. He was blindfolded and forced into “confessing” to possessing explosives and belonging to the Muslim Brotherhood after hours of being beaten, subjected to electric shocks, including on the testicles, and being interrogated by national security officers. Mahmoud Mohamed Ahmed Hussein remains in prison.

“Day after day harrowing accounts of torture are emerging while the authorities flat out deny any abuse and go as far as labelling Egyptian prisons as hotels,” said Hassiba Hadj Sahraoui.

“If the Egyptian authorities wish to salvage any credibility, such horrendous practices must be stopped immediately.”

Deaths in police custody

At least 80 detainees have died in custody since 3 July 2013, according to WikiThawra.

“The death at the hands of the police of Khaled Said in 2010, a young man from Alexandria, was one of the driving forces behind Egypt’s uprising. It is tragic that four years after his killing, deaths in police custody in Egypt continue to occur on an alarming scale,” said Hassiba Hadj Sahraoui.

Ahmed Ibrahim was among four people who have died in Mattereya Police station since April 2014. He had been due for early release after serving most of a three-year prison term. After Ahmed Ibrahim’s transfer to Mattereya Police Station in preparation for his release, he repeatedly complained about his poor detention conditions and said he was having difficulty breathing due to poor ventilation in his overcrowded police cell. He was denied medical care.

In a phone call to his father at 1am on 15 June he pleaded for help saying: “I am dying, father”. His father tried to call an ambulance but later realised the request had to come from the police station in order for them to gain access to the cell. By the time he made it to the police station to ask about his son later on that morning, he was told he had died. Upon examining his son’s body he found blue bruises on the upper parts of his body and cuts on the neck suggesting he may have been tortured. The report of an initial post-mortem medical examination seen by Amnesty International stated there were blue bruises and cuts found on the body. Forensic doctors told Amnesty International that the reason for his death is still not clear.

Arbitrary arrest and detention

Amnesty International has spoken to dozens of former detainees and the families of detainees who were arbitrarily arrested and unlawfully held in complete deprivation of their rights. In many cases people were rounded up from the street or arrested after security forces entered their homes by force. Many were beaten upon arrest, unlawfully held for extended periods without charge, without being given the chance to challenge the lawfulness of their detention before a court or a prosecutor or being informed of the reason for their detention. Some have been held without charge or trial for nearly a year.

One detainee interviewed by Amnesty International said he had been detained for 96 days at Al Galaaa military camp in Al-Azouly Prison after security forces burst into his home to arrest him. He was not allowed to contact lawyers or families to inform them about his whereabouts. He was arbitrarily held in administrative detention for 11 years during Hosni Mubarak’s rule. He told Amnesty International: “Mubarak’s security forces at least knew who they were targeting but now they arrest people randomly.”

Hatem Mohie Eldin, a 17-year-old student in Alexandria, was arrested by the police randomly on 27 May in Alexandria as he returned home after school. Security forces beat him and held him for five days in an unknown location. He was not allowed to contact his family or lawyers and was not referred to the prosecution or a court during his detention. Hatem was released on 1 June after the security forces found he was not involved in violence or riots, he told Amnesty International.

In some cases, security forces seized family members or friends at random if the wanted person was not present. The friends and families would face trumped-up charges or accusations. The family of Salah and Adel, two brothers told Amnesty International they were beaten and arrested in August 2013 by security forces who were looking for the third brother of the men.   

Unfair trials

Egypt’s criminal justice system has suffered huge setbacks over the past year with several politically motivated verdicts being issued. A series of mass death sentences after grossly unfair trials against detainees accused of violence last August have exposed deep flaws in the criminal justice system. In many cases defendants were not brought to their trials and lawyers have repeatedly been barred from presenting their defence, or questioning witnesses.

Courts sentenced boys under the age of 18 to death in violation of Egypt’s obligations under domestic and international law, most notably the Convention on the Rights of the Child.

In other instances, defendants were sentenced to death after only one hearing and without giving lawyers an opportunity to present their defence or to examine witnesses.

According to information gathered by Amnesty International, since January 2014 Egypt’s criminal justice system has recommended the death penalty for 1,247 men, pending the Grand Mufti’s religious opinion, and upheld death sentences against 247 individuals. The decisions to sentence individuals to death came after grossly unfair trials.

Defence lawyers also told Amnesty International of instances where they were not allowed to attend investigations by prosecutors and stated that “confessions” extracted under torture had been used in judicial proceedings.

“Egypt’s criminal justice system has demonstrated that it is unable or unwilling to deliver justice with disastrous consequences,” said Hassiba Hadj Sahraoui.

“On every level Egypt is failing in terms of human rights, it is up to the new government led by President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi to turn the tide by launching independent, impartial investigations into all allegations of human rights violations and send a strong message that flouting human rights will not be tolerated and will no longer go unpunished.”