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Egypt: Deaths in police custody, once a spark for revolt, now met by shrugs

Louisa LoveluckThe Christian Science Monitor

Ahmed Ibrahim’s last words to his family crackled down the phone line at 1 a.m. on June 15. “I’m dying, father,” he said. 

His body was found in a Cairo morgue the next day. According to a medical report, Mr. Ibrahim’s body was covered in cuts and bruises when it reached the hospital. “They hurt him, and then threw him out like garbage,” says Mohamed Ibrahim, his father, tracing a finger along the hurried script on his son’s medical certificate. His son had been in police custody.

With little public outcry, more than 80 people have died in custody over the past year, according to independent monitor Wikithawra. In June 2010, photos of the shattered face of Khaled Said, a young man killed in police custody, laid the groundwork for mass protests in Egypt against longtime strongman Hosni Mubarak. His downfall in February 2011 was a landmark in the so-called Arab Spring, which still has aftershocks roiling the region. 

Last July, Egypt's military ousted the country's first elected president, Mohamed Morsi, and launched an aggressive crackdown against dissidents. Egypt's police are back to the most brutal practices of the Mubarak era, and deaths in custody have surged once again. But this time popular anger is muted, as many swing behind a repressive security state as a bulwark against the chaos and sectarianism that came in Mubarak's wake, particularly after police retreated from the streets. 

Rights groups fear that many more people will die in custody. They point to a deep-rooted culture of prisoner abuse and neglect that was barely touched by the reforms enacted under Mubarak's successors.

Ahmed was one of at least four men to die inside east Cairo’s Matareya police station in three months. Neighborhood residents say they know of more deaths, but that other families choose to bury the bodies without a fuss, wary of provoking Egypt's interior ministry.

Inside detention facilities, torture, once again commonplace, is now accompanied by extraordinary overcrowding and routine denial of medical care. An estimated 41,000 people have been arrested since July 3, 2013, the day Morsi was ousted. Most detainees are held inside police stations, riot police barracks, and formal prisons. Up to 400 people are also being held inside an army base in the city of Ismailia. 

Dangerous overcrowding

Over a dozen former prisoners speaking to The Christian Science Monitor described the impact that squalid prison conditions and poor ventilation had on inmates’ health. Karim Taha, a young revolutionary activist, was held in four detention facilities during his six-month incarceration. He recalls dangerous levels of overcrowding in every cell.

“When we entered, we would quickly realize that they had no room for us anymore. We had to sleep in shifts and hang all our belongings on the wall,” Mr. Taha says.

Inside one of Taha’s cells in a Cairo central security forces camp, he counted 74 people. In cells intended for one person, there were as many as 10. Cellphone photographs from one prison in Cairo show at least 43 inmates sleeping within a single cell. There is not a hand’s width between them.

Three detainees from the same cell say they had been held there for 14 days without the legally required exercise period.

“The air was still,” says Taha. “There was a hole on the door of the cell – we used to take it in turns to sit next to the vent in order to breathe the fresh oxygen. People fainted often.”

During this two-week period, one of their cellmates suffered a heart attack. They knocked on the cell door for four hours before a guard answered their call. The man would later die when riot police quashed a prisoners’ demonstration with high pressure water hoses.

All the former prisoners describe a routine lack of medical care. One showed a photo of an old man slumped against a wall, his white robe stained with blood he had vomited, due to a pre-existing health condition. Two others recalled how an imprisoned Syrian doctor removed shrapnel from an inmate's leg, using plastic spoons and Dettol. 

'Rampant' torture

Torture, a staple of Egyptian detention, continues unabated.

Amnesty International has described the practice as "rampant," and its researchers report an upsurge since April for reasons that remain unclear. Methods include electrocution and hanging. Former detainees from police stations and prisons across Egypt say heavy beatings and sexual abuse are commonplace.

In May, middle-aged Ezzat Abdel-Fattah died inside the Matareya police station. A forensic report released last week revealed the tax collector had sustained nine broken ribs, gashes, hemorrhaging, and a concussion, among other injuries, before his death.

A family friend learned of his death after hearing that he had been transferred to a local hospital. She found his body there. “They tortured him for three days inside that station, and at the end, they didn’t even tell me he was dead,” says his son, Ahmed.

Emam Fouad, an activist in the April 6th Youth Movement, recalls one incident at the Wadi Natroun prison in May when dozens of prisoners were stripped naked and beaten, then forced to sing nationalist songs. He says he watched as several detainees were subjected to forced anal examinations in front of the rest of the prisoners.

Video footage from inside Egypt’s prison walls show a detainee being tortured until he falls still. The guards panic. In another clip, apparently shot on a cellphone through the window of a cell door, a second man can be seen lying prone on the stone floor of a dark corridor. “The guy is dying,” shouts a voice in the background. There is no immediate police response. 

Impunity for cops

Rights groups say the deaths will continue as long as Egypt’s security forces are able to operate with impunity. The only police officer jailed for his part in the deaths of protesters since the overthrow of Mohamed Morsi last summer had his conviction quashed on appeal.

“The rise in deaths in custody takes us back to the darkest hours of Mubarak rule,” says Mohamed Elmessiry, Amnesty International’s Egypt researcher. “This will continue as long as police officers are not held responsible for these deaths.”

Egypt’s interior ministry could not be reached for comment. In an interview on July 2, a senior ministry official, Maj. Gen. Abdelfattah Othman, denied that torture was taking place. He said Egypt’s prisons were “like hotels."