Police brutality in Egypt back in the spotlight | World| Breakings news and perspectives from around the globe | DW | 18.12.2013
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Police brutality in Egypt back in the spotlight

As the third anniversary of Egypt's revolution approaches, key reforms have yet to be implemented. One demand was to rein in the security forces, but there is little sign of that as the crackdown on protesters continues.

In a hazy video posted online, a man lays blindfolded on the floor, shirtless, and shrieking in pain. His bare back and arms are beaten red.

"I was arrested by mistake, by God I swear I am innocent," he screams as he contorts his body while he is whipped multiple times with a leather belt. The abuser, whose face is not shown, demands the man admit he is a woman.

Purportedly the beating of a suspect in custody inside a police station in Egypt's Minya province, the video which has circulated on social media in the past weeks has once again brought the brutality of the country's police back into the spotlight.

Nearly three years after Egyptians took to the streets on January 25, 2011, activists say Egypt's security forces remain unreformed. And now, with increased public support for the security forces amid a crackdown on protests, many fear police are working with a blank check.

Police reform was one of the key demands of the Egyptian revolution, which began on Police Day, January 25th, 2011, and with the election of the country's first democratically elected president Mohamed Morsi, many hoped reform would take place. But as his term progressed, the former Islamist president failed to undertake comprehensive reform, and opponents continued to take to the streets.

In March, following public outcry over a violent response from security forces to anti-government protests, Morsi further enraged activists when he praised police and warned officers who were also protesting his rule against breaking ranks.

"This country loves you, hugs you and protects you, and always expects from you courage and sacrifice," he said, as Interior Minister Mohamed Ibrahim, whose ministry controls all of the country's police forces including state security and riot police, stood by his side, adding that the police "were at the heart" of the January 25 revolution. "Almighty God willed that January 25 also be Police Day, a day of remembering the sacrifices of the police," he said.

In speeches made in the final days before his ouster, Morsi continued to praise security forces and his interior minister. Now, as a bloody security crackdown on his supporters has taken hold, Islamists have condemned their tactics.

Key demand

man on street Copyright: DW/ Kristen McTighe, Kairo, Dez. 2013

Samy says nothing has been done to rein in the police

"It's the first demand of the revolution, the first one for us," Mohamed Samy, an activist who was recently released from jail, told DW as he sat with a friend on a break from his work at a mobile store in Cairo.

"When Morsi came, he didn't try to reform the police, he only tried to make them work for his group, for the Muslim Brotherhood, so it got worse," he said.

Samy, who fought against Mubarak, the military, and then against Morsi, was arrested last month in one of the first implementations of a controversial new protest law that requires protesters to obtain permission from the interior ministry to stage demonstrations.

Protesters had gathered to voice their outrage against a clause in the draft constitution that allows for military trials for civilians in front of the Shura Council, Egypt's parliament. Police fired water cannons and began beating and arresting protesters.

Hearing and then seeing that women protesters had been beaten, arrested and sexually assaulted by police, Samy says he ran to help friends but was picked up by plain-clothes police, beaten, thrown into a van, and taken to a police station where protesters were again beaten.

Samy and 22 other protesters spent a week in jail before they were released on bail last Thursday pending trial. Another detainee, who was not protesting, but was caught up in the violence while attempting to go to work, remains in jail. According to the women who were arrested and multiple eye-witnesses, the female detainees were released that night by being dumped in the desert outside of Cairo, although the interior ministry has denied it.

"The police don't like the results of what the revolution has done to activists and to the people, so they are back stronger than before," said Samy, whose cousin Gaber "Gika" Saleh, a member of the April 6 Youth movement, was the first protester to die during the rule of Morsi after he was shot by police in November 2012. The morning before Samy's arrest during the protests at the Shura Council, he was at a memorial for his cousin, who just one week earlier had been declared a martyr of the revolution by the government. That memorial was also violently dispersed by police.

Different day, same treatment

people on rooftop Copyright: DW/ Kristen McTighe, Kairo, Dez. 2013

Activists have little hope that their treatment at the hands of the police will improve

"There is not any kind of new way of treating us. This is the usual, it's all the same," said Amr Adel, a 25 year old activist who was also beaten and arrested last month at the protest in front of the Shura Council. Adel was held for 15 hours before being released.

"One of the officers arresting me said 'I'm going to kill you,'" Adel told DW. "They are acting with a vengeance and I don't know how they are going to treat us in the future."

Now activists like Adel say police reform under the new military-backed regime is even more unlikely.

And analysts too say articles in the new draft constitution that is set to go to a vote in January will make any future attempt to rein in security forces difficult.

One clause sets up a Supreme Police Council, which analysts say will likely be dominated by senior officers, and must be consulted on any law affecting the police, ensuring that security reform will run through existing police institutions. Another article stipulates that general intelligence officers will be subject to military courts, not civilian courts, effectively providing them with immunity from civilian oversight or prosecution.

But officials say they are working to improve security forces. In an interview with Egyptian television CBC at the end of August, Interior MInister Mohamed Ibrahim, who was appointed by Morsi but retained his position following the former president's ouster, said he hoped to be able to "transform the Ministry of Interior into a foundational entity that does not change according to the political regime by any means." He also said that no political activists would be pursued unless they break the law.

No accountability

Beyond reform, many activists complain that no one has been held accountable for past abuses and police continue their crackdown with impunity. In the few cases where police have been put on trial for killings and torture, nearly all have resulted in acquittals or lenient sentences.

Policeman hitting protester

Beaten, but not cowed

Last week, 13 Egyptian and international organizations called on the authorities to acknowledge and investigate the killings of up to 1,000 people by security forces during the dispersal of the Rabaa al-Adawiya and al-Nahda square pro-Morsi sit-ins on August 14.

The military-backed government has yet to publically document the events, the bloodiest in decades, and the office of the public prosecutor has never investigated or held any members of security forces to account for what the rights groups called excessive and unjustified use of lethal force.

"I can assure you, we have never, as police, pointed a firearm at the chest of any protester," said Mohamed Ibrahim, after 95 protesters and one police officer died on July 27 on a street near the Rabaa al-Adawiya pro-Morsi protest camp. And in a news conference on August 14, the day the Rabaa al-Adawiya and al-Nahda protest camps were cleared, he said that his ministry had successfully dispersed the two sit-ins "without losses."

While fears that police brutality is increasing and now spreading beyond Islamists to any critic of the military-backed regime, activists say it is happening with the consent of the general public, stoked by pro-regime state and private media. When Morsi was ousted on July 3, protesters were seen hoisting police officers on their shoulders, carrying them into Tahrir square in celebration. Activists say it has invigorated the security forces and given them a blank check.

"They were afraid of us before, but now, they have support from the people because the media is saying there is a war against terrorism," said Samy. "They are stronger than before the revolution and regular people will do nothing."

Despite everything, Samy and others say police tactics will not silence them or deter them from taking to the streets to achieve the revolution's goal and get justice for those killed.

"I won't stop. I will continue for my country, I will continue for Gika," he said.

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