February 13, 2015


Sisi's Way (Tom Stevenson, 2/19/15, London Review of Books)

Mohammed B., a 28-year-old postgraduate student, was arrested on 6 October 2013. He was taking part in one of the many anti-coup marches held across Cairo that day. The intended destination was Tahrir Square, but as the march reached the neighbourhood of Dokki, it was attacked by various branches of the security services: dozens of demonstrators were killed and scores arrested. Along with hundreds of others Mohammed tried to flee by taking a series of side streets, but was surrounded and arrested. He was taken to a police station and held, along with two doctors, an engineer and two academics from Cairo University, for seven or eight hours without water. At midnight they were moved, but not - as they had expected - to one of Cairo's many prisons.

The prison system in Egypt is the legacy of a long period of British control, followed by the successive autocracies of Nasser, Sadat and Mubarak. It was in a British prison during the Second World War that some of the torture techniques now employed by Egyptian intelligence were refined. The Combined Services Detailed Interrogation Centre was annexed to a British army camp in the Cairo suburb of Maadi. The camp had a cinema, boxing ring and ice-cream parlour for the soldiers, but a few hundred metres away British interrogators were experimenting on as many as sixty prisoners at a time, attempting to induce hallucinations with thyroxine, or trying to break them psychologically by forcing them to dig their own graves.

The Interior Ministry operates 42 official prisons authorised to house civilian detainees. Information about them is relatively easy to come by and they are sometimes even inspected. Yet abuse and torture are rife, encouraged by a legal system which in many cases relies on confessions. Some of the worst prisons are well known: Wadi Natrun, Abu Zaabal and Tora Liman, believed to have been one of the earliest CIA black sites under Mubarak. There is also the Borg al-Arab, where Mohamed Morsi is still being held, and the Sign al-Aqrab, or 'Scorpion Prison', the most famous maximum security prison in Egypt.

The law requires that the police refer a case to a prosecutor and begin an investigation within 24 hours of an arrest. Detainees must then be transferred to one of the 42 registered institutions while awaiting trial. But that isn't what is happening today. There is overwhelming evidence that military and paramilitary police forces are operating a parallel system of detention outside official channels, and outside the law, partly in order to deal with the sheer number of people arrested since the coup. Egypt has experienced a spike in the number of citizens in detention unlike any in its history. At the beginning of 2013 Egypt's official prison population stood at somewhere between 60,000 and 66,000. According to the Interior Ministry's own figures 16,000 Egyptians were arrested in the nine months following Morsi's removal in July 2013. A more plausible independent estimate by the Egyptian Centre for Economic and Social Rights put the number for the same period at more than 41,000. Sisi has waved away such figures: the official prisons do not, he claims, have the space to accommodate tens of thousands of people. He may be right. Yet imprisoned they have been. So where are they?

Having interviewed lawyers, psychologists and former detainees, I have learned the names of sites where torture and ill-treatment are far worse than anything in the official prisons. Inside facilities like Maskar Zaqaziq, a base in Sharqiyah run by Amn al-Markezi, the central security forces, there are unacknowledged prisons which make the official jails look humane. In Interior Ministry buildings in Lazoughli Square and Gabar ibn Hayan, suspected political dissidents are tortured and interrogated at length by the national intelligence service. And in the Al-Azouly and Agroot military prisons in Ismailia and Suez, prisoners are held incommunicado, sometimes blindfolded, for months on end.

Mohammed B. and his cellmates were transferred from their police station to Maskar Ashra-Nus, also known as Camp 10.5, a barracks outside Cairo belongingto Amn al-Markezi. His account of their reception at the camp is like many others I've heard from former detainees in Egypt. They were beaten relentlessly by groups of officers, verbally humiliated, stamped on with boots with metal heels and lashed with leather straps. They were then stripped, hung from the ceiling, beaten with sticks, subjected to stress positions, and beaten on the soles of their feet; some were given electric shocks. Mohammed was stripped and forced to crawl on the floor on his forearms and stomach for more than an hour in a method of torture that appears to have been inspired by military training exercises. Eventually, and without any attempt to extract information from them, the men were bundled into makeshift cells inside the barracks. Mohammed's measured three metres by six and contained 59 other men: so crowded that he had to stand on one leg for periods of up to two hours. There was no toilet, and no one left the room save for short rounds of recreational torture at the hands of the guards.

Crammed into a concrete box, the inmates tried to devise a system that would allow them to sleep. They divided themselves into groups of four on rotating shifts - standing and sleeping - with each group assigned a certain number of floor tiles. This soon failed. Then they tried lying on their sides, head to tail. That didn't work either. A third system, which involved pairing the men up in lines, one standing with his legs apart as the other crouched between them, proved the least onerous. Mohammed said that the guards would mock their thirst and the stench of the cell from the other side of an iron door. He was held in Camp 10.5 for four days before being removed to a registered prison. Others, he learned, remained locked in the cell for weeks.

The cells in Wadi Natrun prison, where he spent the next six months, were bigger - five by ten metres for thirty prisoners - and in comparison with Camp 10.5 the conditions were bearable. Crucially, the cell had what could be loosely described as a toilet. But detainees were still regularly taken out of their cells, stripped naked and tortured. Mohammed was twice put in solitary confinement. 'The room had no windows and inside there was nothing,' he told me, 'except thousands of cockroaches - they crawled all over me for hours.' The people he met there had come into the official detention system by a variety of routes. Some had been held in police stations for weeks; others had been in the custody of Amn al-Markezi, as he had been; one claimed to have been taken first to a secret prison in the Sinai peninsula, where he said he'd been held in an underground dungeon for seventy days. Mohammed was eventually tried before a court and cleared on every fantastic charge the state had laid against him. Most were not so lucky. Of the 125 men tried on the same day just seven were released.

There is nothing out of the way about Mohammed's case. Letters smuggled out of prison by the Egyptian journalist Ahmed Ziada, who was arrested while covering protests at Al-Azhar university in December 2013, describe his time in Nasr City Two police station, where he was beaten and given electric shocks before being taken to Abu Zaabal prison. In another letter, dated 19 February 2014, a detainee named Kareem al-Beheiry details the unbearable conditions of an Amn al-Markezi base where officers assault, mock and humiliate detainees as a way of alleviating boredom. Descriptions of improvised cells packed with inmates are frequent. The Egyptian climate adds to the horrors of overcrowding. In a letter smuggled out of Helwan police station in July 2014 the authors, who refer to themselves as 'the prisoners in cell number three', describe temperatures of 50°C in a room four metres by six containing sixty people. According to standards set by the European Committee for the Prevention of Torture, prison authorities should plan for seven square metres of cell space per detainee and observe an absolute minimum of four square metres. In cell number three, sixty detainees were held in a space suitable for between three and six people; in Mohammed B.'s case, a space suitable for between two and four people.

Islam A., a digital marketing professional, was pulled from an anti-government demonstration in late 2013 by baltagiya (civilians hired, and armed, by the state and most often deployed against protesters), who dragged him into a nearby block of flats. 'I tried to reason with them,' he said. 'I told them you support the government and I don't, but we have brains in our heads and tongues in our mouths and we can discuss this like human beings. They didn't even reply, they just beat me.' Islam was beaten and cut about with a long knife until he fainted - he has extensive scarring on his shoulders and chest. He was semi-conscious when a plainclothes officer arrived to make a formal arrest. 'A sea' of Amn al-Markezi officers was waiting for him outside the flats. He, too, ended up in Camp 10.5 - 'living hell', he called it - and held for five weeks in a cell of four metres by six with 61 other prisoners. He was repeatedly interrogated by intelligence staff from Amn al-Watany, the national security agency, who appeared to believe he was one of the leaders of the protest he had attended. On one occasion he was questioned by a senior officer while eight other Amn al-Markezi men formed a circle around him and beat him. On another he was stripped and laid face down on the floor with a dozen other inmates while officers threw freezing water over them. Sometimes detainees were taken out of the cells and subjected to a stress position known as the falaka, in which the victim's feet are tied to a wooden pole and the soles beaten. Again, Islam's experiences are far from unusual. Dozens of detainees have described police and Amn al-Markezi officers bursting into cells and beating them with clubs, or burning their blankets and clothes in front of them. Others describe having a rope put around their necks and being dragged from their cells to be given electric shocks.

That's the sort of repression required by opponents of democracy.
Posted by at February 13, 2015 4:59 PM

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