On 6 June, 2010, Khaled Saeed, a doe-eyed 28 year-old man walked into an internet café he frequented on a daily basis in Sidi Gaber, Alexandria. He said hello to his friends, and sat engaged in the innocuous atmosphere of gamers, web surfers, paper-writing students, online chat fanatics, digital Don Juans, and the occasional—but rare—political activists.
Two plain-clothes detectives who had staked out the café entered and demanded to see Saeed’s ID, just as they would in a drug bust. They then wrapped his hands behind his head and dragged him outside and into the entrance of a neighboring building. They smashed his head repeatedly amid desperate cries from Saeed, “leave me, I’m dying!” To which their only response was, “it doesn’t matter, you’re dead anyway.”
When he stopped moving, and stopped screaming, the detectives only got more aggravated and yelled while kicking his corpse, “you’re pretending to be dead?” It was only when yellow puss began oozing out of the now deformed mouth of his shattered skull that the beating stopped and one of the detectives took out his cell phone, “Basha, we have a case here.”
In analyzing the history of emergency laws and the near impunity that police in Egypt has been operating under, 2010 will be remembered as the year of the Khaled Saeed case.
“These cases happen all too often, sadly. Khaled’s horrific case was just able to attract more media attention and public sympathy,” director of the Nadeem Center for Rehabilitation of Victims of Violence and Torture, Magda Adly, said.
Saeed put a face to torture in Egypt, one that the activist middle class can identify.
“Young kids with access to the internet saw themselves in him. He was known in his community, and people could no longer hide behind the mental veil of thinking, ‘maybe he was an actual criminal and deserved it.’ There was no mistake in this one. So the story was bound to resonate,” said Ahmed Seif al-Islam, a human rights lawyer and co-founder of the Hisham Mubarak Law Center.
Most cases of torture happen to those of the lower socio-economic class who Seif al-Islam says are “less able to get justice for themselves and so they just are not as visible.”
But in aggregate, Seif al-Islam believes that torture cases have slightly decreased in Egypt very recently.
Individuals and the media are speaking out on torture more openly. At the same time “regular police officers are not feeling this absolute sense of being above the law,” he said.
“Some are being tried and sentenced. At the same time you can’t compare the 1980s and 1990s to now. Back then when they detained opposition members during elections or any other time, they’d be gone for years. This year the longest anyone was detained for was one month or two.”
The current perceived decrease is, Seif al-Islam believes, tempered in the context of the government being unsure where its power lies. "They know that their main source of power lies with the police, but do not know where the people are," he said.
"The authorities act on a day-to-day basis. Today they find that they are better served politically doing one thing, tomorrow it may be different," he said.
Using legal instruments to combat torture has been a lingering challenge.
“The problem with torture legally, is that the law defines it extremely narrowly. It is considered torture only in the case of trying to extract confessions,” said Mohamed Zarei, director of the Human Rights Center for the Rights of Prisoners. “The law doesn’t encourage torture, but it doesn’t condemn it either.”
Torture is generally accepted among Egypt’s law enforcement and not punished severely enough by the judiciary, said Zarei. According to him, policemen generally believe that they are above the law.
Underscoring that point, a 19 year-old man’s body was found near the Mahmoudiya canal, where his lawyers allege he was dumped after being tortured in Sidi Gaber police station—the same one that Saeed’s murderers work in.
The young man was Ahmed Mohamed Shaaban, who reportedly refused to be searched at a checkpoint and was taken away and found dead days later. Police claim that Shaaban could have fallen and drowned in the canal while he was escaping.
In another case, Mohamed Salah from the Nile delta town of Bani Ebeid was tortured by policemen for challenging them when they refused to pay their rickshaw fare before throwing himself off of his third floor window, according to his family.
“In Alexandria especially, I sensed that there was a definite increase of torture cases leading to death this year,” said Mostafa Hussein, a psychiatrist at the Nadeem Center. Many analysts believe that torture and police brutality is used as part of a security curriculum to assert authority.
“They rarely ever torture to get confessions, which also would be unacceptable. The effects on individuals are great. It instills a sense of psychological—as well as physical, of course—handicap. People become afraid and paranoid with everything, and even with neighbors, start to think that maybe the people being tortured somehow did something to deserve it, causing them to be ostracized instead of sympathized with,” Hussein said.
A look at the Nadeem Center’s daily Diaries of Torture provides a chilling account of these everyday occurrences. According to Hussein, these reported cases represent only “the tip of the iceberg.”
Adly, who at 55 years old was herself a victim of police brutality, thinks that the positive outlook for 2011 stems mainly from people starting to speak out.
“This problem will only be solved through popular resistance," she said.
"We’re less than a day away from the New Year; I don’t think anything will happen from now until then to show that the authorities will all of a sudden loosen their grip to better this situation in 2011.”