Egypt Gags Torture Report; Censors Criticism of Its Human Rights Abuses
September 17, 2017 Jason Ditz / AntiWar.com & Nadine Awadalla / Reuters & Human Rights Watch
Egypt's military junta has continued its growing media censorship Thursday with a ban on the Human Rights Watch website. This ban appears to have been related to a report released the day before, which the junta was furious about. The report, titled "We Do Unreasonable Things Here," details torture, arbitrary detentions, and disappearances since Egypt's summer 2013 military coup. It tells the story through the accounts of several different detainees.
Under President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, Egypt's regular police and National Security officers routinely torture political detainees with techniques including beatings, electric shocks, stress positions, and sometimes rape.
Egypt Blocks Human Rights Watch Website Over
Torture Report: The Latest Casualty of Egypt's Mounting Censorship Jason Ditz / AntiWar.com
(September 8, 2017) -- Egypt's military junta has continued its growing media censorship Thursday with a ban on the Human Rights Watch website. This ban appears to have been related to a report released the day before, which the junta was furious about.
The report, titled "We Do Unreasonable Things Here," details torture, arbitrary detentions, and disappearances since Egypt's summer 2013 military coup. It tells the story through the accounts of several different detainees.
Egypt's Foreign Ministry said the report amounted to "deliberate defamation." They added it was unfair, and ignored the "progress" the junta had made on human rights since the massacre-heavy days of 2013.
Egyptian NGO the Association for Freedom of Thought and Expression says that some 424 different websites, mostly media with some human rights groups, are now subject to junta censorship, This has included effectively ban all the private media that existed in Egypt itself before the coup.
CAIRO (September 7, 2017) -- Egypt has blocked the website of Human Rights Watch just one day after the organization released a report on systematic torture in the country's jails.
Reuters attempted to access the website late on Thursday but was unsuccessful.
"Egyptian authorities keep insisting that any incidents of torture are isolated crimes by bad officers acting alone, but the Human Rights Watch report proves otherwise," Joe Stork, deputy Middle East director at Human Rights Watch, said on Thursday.
The report titled "We Do Unreasonable Things Here", based on the accounts of 19 former detainees and the family of another, claimed Egyptian authorities used arbitrary arrests, enforced disappearances, and torture.
"Rather than address the torture crisis in Egypt, the authorities have blocked access to a report that documents what many Egyptians and others living there already know."
Egypt's foreign ministry lambasted the report in a statement on Wednesday, saying it defamed the country and ignored progress made on human rights in recent years.
"The report . . . is a new episode in a series of deliberate defamation by such organization, whose politicized agenda and biases are well known and reflect the interests of the entities and countries sponsoring it," said Foreign Ministry spokesman Ahmed Abu Zeid.
Egypt first blocked access to a number of news websites including Al Jazeera and Huffington Post Arabic in May after similar actions by its Gulf allies Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.
But since, hundreds of other news sites and blogs have been wiped from Egyptian screens with the most recent count according to the Association for Freedom of Thought and Expression, a non-government organization tracking the affected sites through software that monitors outages, at 424.
Journalists see the campaign against them as a step toward banning all but the most state-aligned media, effectively reversing the private media boom that flourished in the final decade of former president Hosni Mubarak's rule and which they say helped push him from power in 2011.
The government has offered no comment on the reason behind the blockages. "We Do Unreasonable Things Here"
Torture and National Security in al-Sisi's Egypt Human Rights Watch
Since July 2013, when Egypt's military overthrew the country's first freely elected president, torture has returned as the calling card of the security services, and the lack of punishment for its routine practice has helped define the authoritarianism of President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi's administration.
Al-Sisi's pursuit of political stability at any cost has granted the country's chief domestic security institution, the Interior Ministry, a free hand, perpetuating the same abuses that fueled the 2011 uprising.
The Interior Ministry's regular police and its National Security Agency have used widespread arbitrary arrests, enforced disappearances, and torture against perceived dissidents, many of them alleged members or sympathizers of the Muslim Brotherhood, al-Sisi's primary political opposition.
The Egyptian Coordination for Rights and Freedoms (ECRF), an independent human rights group, has identified 30 people who died from torture while being held in police stations and other Interior Ministry detention sites between August 2013 and December 2015. In 2016, the ECRF reported that its lawyers received 830 torture complaints, and that another 14 people had died from torture in custody.
This report, based on interviews with 19 former detainees and the family of a 20th detainee who were tortured between 2014 and 2016, shows how police and officers of the National Security Agency regularly use torture during their investigations to force perceived dissidents to confess or divulge information, or to punish them.
The former detainees interviewed for this report described what amounted to an assembly line of abuse aimed at preparing fabricated cases against suspected dissidents, beginning at the point of arbitrary arrest, progressing to torture and interrogation during periods of enforced disappearance, and concluding with presentation before prosecutors, who often pressure detainees to confirm their confessions and take no measures to investigate the violations against them.
In several cases documented by Human Rights Watch, prosecutors abetted abuse by affirming fraudulent arrest dates provided by National Security officers who falsely claimed to have arrested suspects the day before their presentation to the prosecutor, effectively erasing the official record of the enforced disappearance.
One prosecutor threatened to return a detainee to torture. Two participated in beatings themselves, according to former detainees and their families.
Each of these steps violated the Egyptian constitution, which clearly prohibits warrantless arrests and interrogations without a lawyer present and requires that detainees be allowed to remain silent, be presented to a prosecutor within 24 hours, and be immediately informed of the reason for their arrest and allowed to contact a lawyer and family member.
The constitution prohibits the torture, intimidation, coercion, and "physical or moral harming" of detainees and specifies that torture is a crime without statute of limitations. It provides that any statement made under torture or threat of torture should be disregarded.
These standards reflect Egypt's commitments under the most basic rules of international human rights law, which strictly prohibit torture in all circumstances. But Egypt has failed to meet them.
The former detainees interviewed for this report said that their experiences typically began with a dawn raid on their home or a targeted arrest from the street near a place they were known to frequent, such as their home, university, or place of work.
In none of the cases documented by Human Rights Watch did police or National Security officers show suspects a warrant or tell them why they were being arrested. In some cases, they arrested family members at the same time. The officers then transported the suspects to police stations or National Security offices.
Of the 20 cases documented by Human Rights Watch, 13 detainees were tortured in National Security offices, five in police stations, and two in both places. Six men were tortured at the National Security Agency headquarters inside the Interior Ministry near Cairo's Lazoghly Square, a place where detainees have alleged torture for decades.
In five cases, security officers used torture to force suspects to read prewritten confessions on video, which the Interior Ministry then sometimes published on social media channels.
The accounts presented this report represent only some of the many torture cases Human Rights Watch has documented during the al-Sisi administration, cases which have included children tortured in Alexandria after being arrested for protesting; men tortured by National Security and Military Intelligence agents after a bombing in Kafr al-Sheikh; and a former Finance Ministry advisor and his brother, whom National Security officers tortured with electric shocks to force the advisor to confess to being a Muslim Brotherhood member.
Journalists and other nongovernmental groups have recorded scores of additional cases since 2013.
According to detainees, a typical torture session begins with security officers shocking a blindfolded, stripped, and handcuffed suspect with a handheld electric stun gun, often in sensitive places such as the ears or head. At the same time, they slap or punch the suspect or beat him with sticks and metal bars.
If detainees do not provide satisfactory answers to their initial questions, officers increase the duration of electric shocks and use a stun gun on other parts of the suspect's body, almost always including his genitals. Sometimes, interrogators use electrified wires as well.
After electric shocks, officers use two basic types of stress positions to inflict severe pain on suspects. In one position, officers handcuff suspects' arms behind their back, pull up their arms, place their handcuffs over the top edge of a door, and hang them above the floor, an unnatural position that causes excruciating pain in the back and shoulders, sometimes dislocating them. Some officers pull on suspects' legs to increase the pain.
A variation of this position sometimes involves hanging suspects by their handcuffs, again raised unnaturally from behind, from a hook in the ceiling. The second stress position, called the "chicken" or "grill," involves laying suspects on their back, placing their knees over a stick or bar, wrapping their arms around the bar from the other side so that the bar lays between the crook of their elbows and the back of their knees, and tying their hands together above their shins to secure the position.
When the officers lift the bar and suspend suspects in the air, resembling a chicken on a rotisserie spit, the suspects' weight causes excruciating pain in their shoulders, knees, and arms.
Officers keep suspects in these stress positions for periods of time that range from minutes to hours and often beat and shock them with electricity while they are hanging and defenseless.
In several cases, security officers went beyond even these standard methods of torture. One former detainee told Human Rights Watch that police officers in a Cairo police station repeatedly raped him by inserting a stick into his anus. Another said that National Security officers at the Interior Ministry threatened to rape him.
A former detainee held by National Security officers in a facility in Giza governorate said they pulled out one of his fingernails and bit off part of another. Another detainee held in the Interior Ministry said that a National Security officer there penetrated his arm with a metal nail wrapped in an electrified wire to increase the pain of the electric shocks.
A lawyer held by National Security officers in a facility in Gharbiya governorate said that they wrapped a wire around his penis to shock him with electricity. Three former detainees told Human Rights Watch that security officers threatened to torture their family members if they did not confess.
In most cases, police and National Security officers stopped using torture once they obtained confessions or the names of suspects' friends and acquaintances. But this did not mean that their ordeal had come to an end. In nearly every case, the torture and interrogations served as prelude to prosecutorial proceedings, some of which ended in trial.
Only one of the 19 former detainees interviewed by Human Rights Watch, a student who police officers beat, electrocuted, hung from the ceiling, and anally raped with a stick, said that officers took him to a prosecutor within 24 hours of his arrest, as Egyptian law requires.
Ten detainees said that officers illegally detained them for more than a week before presenting them to a prosecutor. Eight of these men waited at least a month to see a prosecutor. None were allowed to contact lawyers or relatives beforehand. Among the ten detainees who saw a prosecutor within a week of their arrest, the majority were not allowed to have a lawyer present even during their questioning.
International law requires that detainees be brought speedily before a judge, usually within 48 hours, to review their detention, but Egyptian law provides no such protection.
Egypt's criminal procedure code gives prosecutors, not judges, the power to renew pretrial detention in nearly all serious cases involving political or national security offenses, allowing prosecutors to hold detainees in such temporary detention for up to 18 months and, if the crime is punishable with a sentence of death or life in prison, for up to two years. Though judges eventually must review a suspect's detention during this time, the decision to renew the detention is made by a prosecutor.
All but one of the former detainees interviewed by Human Rights Watch said that they told prosecutors about their torture and, in each case, saw no evidence that prosecutors took any action to investigate their allegations, as required by international law. This contradicts claims repeatedly made by Egypt in international forums that prosecutors investigate all claims of abuse.
The regularity of torture and impunity for its practice has created a climate in which those who are abused see no chance to hold their abusers to account. Most of the detainees interviewed by Human Rights Watch made no attempt to seek accountability after prosecutors ignored their claims of torture.
Most also found themselves wanted by National Security officers in new cases after their release and believed that any further contact with the criminal justice system would ensnare them in another months-long ordeal of abuse and disappearance.
The specific practices documented in this report are far from new, and Human Rights Watch first recorded their use as early as 1992, writing at the time that the Interior Ministry's State Security Investigations Service (SSI), renamed the National Security Agency in 2011, appeared to have a "a system . . . in place to train SSI personnel in torture techniques."
In 1996, the United Nations Committee against Torture concluded that "torture is systematically practiced by the security forces in Egypt, in particular by State Security Intelligence."
A second inquiry into Egypt by the Committee against Torture, published in June 2017, found that "perpetrators of torture almost universally enjoy impunity," and that the facts gathered by the committee "lead to the inescapable conclusion that torture is a systematic practice in Egypt."
This report, along with others published over the past 25 years by various nongovernmental organizations, shows that police and National Security officers have for decades committed essentially identical types of torture in police stations, security directorates, and National Security offices across the country, indicating that the practice was then and remains now systematic and widespread.
Under international law, torture can be considered a crime against humanity, prosecutable at the International Criminal Court when that court has jurisdiction, if it is "committed as part of a widespread or systematic attack directed against any civilian population, with knowledge of the attack." Human Rights Watch believes that the torture epidemic in Egypt likely constitutes a crime against humanity.
Despite a nationwide uprising in 2011 fueled in large part by the brutality of the security forces, torture has persisted through four successive changes in government. This outcome was not foreordained. After the uprising, security sector reform stood near the top of nearly every political group and protest movement's agenda.
The time seemed ripe for the reconstruction of the Interior Ministry, the institution that represented the heart of state terror for thousands of Egyptians. Yet from the beginning, both military and civilian governments stifled reform and failed to launch a comprehensive investigation into the years of Interior Ministry abuses that preceded and triggered the uprising.
Since the military unseated former President Mohamed Morsy in 2013, the authorities have reconstituted and expanded the repressive instruments that defined the nearly 30-year rule of President Hosni Mubarak that preceded the uprising.
Enforced disappearances, mistreatment in prison, torture, and extrajudicial killings notably increased after March 2015, when al-Sisi appointed Interior Minister Magdy Abd al-Ghaffar, a three-decade veteran of the SSI and National Security Agency.
On April 9, 2017, following Islamic State (also known as ISIS) suicide bombings at two churches that killed 45 people, al-Sisi declared a state of emergency, cementing in law the already unrestrained powers of arrest, surveillance, and detention exercised by police and National Security officers. This state of emergency was still in place at the time this report was being prepared.
Even before the state of emergency, the security forces operated with near total impunity. In a review of publicly available information, Human Rights Watch found only six cases in which prosecutors won guilty verdicts against Interior Ministry officers charged with torturing detainees since July 2013, out of hundreds of such allegations.
None of these verdicts appeared to have been confirmed by an appeals court at the time this report was being prepared for publication. To date, no court in modern Egyptian history has issued a final guilty verdict against an SSI or National Security officer for committing abuse.
In an environment defined by emergency rule, law enforcement officers enjoy a free hand, and their actions are almost never questioned by the judges and prosecutors empowered to do so.
At the same time, the authorities have actively stifled efforts within Egypt to counter torture, by shutting down the Nadeem Center for the Rehabilitation of Victims of Violence and Torture, the country's most prominent organization dedicated to documenting and treating victims, and by opening investigations against judges and lawyers who have drafted anti-torture legislation.
The effects of a July 3, 2017, ruling by the Supreme Administrative Court ordering the Interior Ministry to investigate and disclose the whereabouts of all citizens reported missing, including those alleged to be forcibly disappeared, remain to be seen. In the past, the Interior Ministry has repeatedly and flagrantly ignored such rulings.
Meanwhile, government officials at the highest level continue to deny the seriousness of the torture epidemic, mimicking the Mubarak administration's position that torture is perpetrated occasionally and only by lone officers.
Al-Sisi and Abd al-Ghaffar, when asked about torture in Egypt, have made specifically worded denials that torture does not take place in prisons, a seeming attempt to avoid discussing the rampant torture committed elsewhere, in police stations and National Security offices.
Despite the overwhelming evidence to the contrary, Egypt's delegation to the UN Human Rights Council stated during the country's Universal Periodic Review in late 2014 that "all allegations of torture and ill-treatment are investigated, and perpetrators are brought to justice," and that "the Office of the Public Prosecutor investigates all cases brought to its attention on claims of torture or harsh treatment."
This report makes it clear that these statements are not true. It also reiterates the findings of years of work by Human Rights Watch and other organizations that the legal framework criminalizing torture in Egypt remains inadequate and falls far short of Egypt's basic obligations under international law, allowing abusive officers to escape justice.
It further documents how members of the public prosecution -- the authority specifically empowered to investigate the abuses of the Interior Ministry -- regularly ignore complaints of torture, explicitly or implicitly endorse its use by police or National Security agents, rarely exercise their lawful power to make unannounced inspection visits to police stations, and never make such visits to National Security offices.
The National Council for Human Rights, the only other body authorized by law to make detention visits, can do so only after obtaining permission from the relevant police or National Security officials, rendering that authority effectively meaningless.
Human Rights Watch recommends that President al-Sisi immediately direct the Justice Ministry to create a special prosecutor or inspector general's office to investigate complaints of abuse by Interior Ministry officers, prosecute these complaints in court, and maintain a publicly available record of complaints received and the outcome of investigations.
Meanwhile, we urge parliament to amend the definition of torture in article 126 of the penal code to bring it in line with the UN Convention against Torture and other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment, increase the penalties in article 129 regarding the use of cruelty by officials, and increase the penalties in article 282 regarding torture used during illegal detentions in order to make these penalties commensurate with the seriousness of the offenses.
Under international law, torture is treated as a crime of universal jurisdiction, meaning it can be prosecuted anywhere. States are required to arrest and investigate anyone on their territory suspected of involvement in torture and to prosecute them if there is sufficient evidence of their culpability.
Though it is preferable for victims of torture to hold their abusers accountable in the country where the torture occurred, universal jurisdiction can act as a safety net when states, such as Egypt, are unwilling or unable to properly investigate and try torture suspects.
Failing a serious effort by the Sisi administration to confront the torture epidemic, we urge UN member states to investigate and, if appropriate, prosecute in their own courts Egyptian security officers and other officials accused of committing torture or allowing it to occur, under the principle of universal jurisdiction.