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“Work on Him Until He Confesses”

February 4, 2011
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Human Rights Watch, 30 Jan 2011: Throughout June and July 2010 hundreds of Egyptians took to the streets in a rare wave of protests to voice their anger at the police, whom witnesses accused of publicly beating to death Khaled Said, a 28-year-old from Alexandria. Some of these protests were loud and angry, with demonstrators demanding a full investigation into Said’s death on June 6, and the prosecution of all those they held responsible, including the interior minister. In one particular event, hundreds of mourners dressed in black lined the Alexandrian coast in Said’s memory, staring silently out to sea.

The Khaled Said case-including gruesome pictures of Said’s battered body that soon appeared on social networking websites-shook and outraged many in Egypt, where an emergency law grants wide powers to police and security force. Some citizens could identify with Said as victims of police brutality, while many young people could understand the experience of being randomly accosted by police in an internet café – public internet cafés are subject to surveillance and require a national ID to enter. An initial attempt by authorities to cover up police culpability only fueled public anger.

According to Egyptian lawyers and domestic and international human rights groups, which have extensively documented the practice of torture in Egypt, law enforcement officials have used torture and ill-treatment on a widespread, deliberate, and systematic basis over the past two decades to glean confessions and information, or to punish detainees. The United Nations Committee Against Torture has confirmed the systematic nature of torture in Egypt. Criminal Investigations officers and State Security Investigations (SSI) officers, under the authority of the minister of interior, are most often responsible for such abuse. This includes beatings, electric shocks, suspension in painful positions, forced standing for long periods, water-boarding, as well as rape and threatening to rape victims and their family. Since 2004, the ombudsman office of the quasi-official National Council for Human Rights (NCHR) has sent the Ministry of Interior and Office of the Public Prosecutor (niyabain Arabic)-which is responsible for investigating and prosecuting crime-over 50 complaints on torture and deaths in custody.

Over the past 10 years, Egypt’s torture record received increased international attention as abusive practices carried out by the United States and European Union (EU) countries such as Sweden in the name of counterterrorism were gradually exposed.

This report focuses solely on torture and death in custody cases in which victims or their families instituted legal proceedings by filing a complaint. It examines how Egypt’s government discharges its obligation to investigate and prosecute cases of torture and ill-treatment. It also assesses the government’s commitment to confronting torture by law enforcement officers and to the rule of law.

The report finds that the government is failing miserably to provide victims of torture and ill-treatment effective remedy, or to deter such abuses from occurring in the future. Impunity prevails with regard to torture and ill-treatment, since those guilty of such abuses having little expectation or reason to fear they will be held to account. The result is an epidemic of habitual, widespread, and deliberate torture perpetrated on a regular basis by security forces against political dissidents, Islamists allegedly engaged in terrorist activity, and ordinary citizens suspected of links to criminal activity or who simply look suspicious.

The government no longer denies that torture occurs, as it once did. However, it maintains that incidents of torture are isolated-despite regular reports to the contrary in the media and by domestic and international human rights groups. In addition, the Ministry of Interior tends to respond to accusations of torture by denying the facts, discrediting the complainant, and pointing to training programs and internal disciplinary measures as evidence that it takes human rights seriously. While prosecutors do open investigation files on each formal complaint of torture, most complaints do not go reach court due to an inadequate legal framework, police intimidation of victims who then withdraw complaints, and ineffective and delayed investigations.

As a result, there is a significant gap between the number of torture incidents that victims or their families document or file with prosecutors, and the very small number of complaints that prosecutors transfer to court and result in convictions. According to statistics the government made public in 2009, Egyptian criminal courts convicted and issued final sentences to only six police officers between 2006 and 2009. Moreover, prosecutors-who have the right to make regular unannounced visits to detention sites in their jurisdiction-do not appear to actively perform this role and lack access to SSI detention facilities where detainees are frequently disappeared.

A number of factors impede torture victims gaining redress for abuses, and contribute to abusers enjoying impunity for torture and ill-treatment. One such factor is the absolute discretion prosecutors have to close a torture investigation or transfer it to court, which relates to how the offices of the Public Prosecutor function. The Public Prosecution (niyaba) is a hierarchical, centralized institution under the minister of justice that investigates crimes and prosecutes alleged perpetrators. Despite its formal independence as a judicial body, theniyaba operates very much as an instrument of the executive. Moreover, its dual power of investigation and prosecution creates structural tensions that can impact the impartiality of investigations. For this reason, many Egyptian human rights lawyers have called for reinstatement of the now-defunct Office of the Investigative Judge so that investigations are conducted by a party fully independent of the executive.

Another factor that contributes to impunity is Egypt’s legal framework, which fails to fully criminalize torture in line with the international standard articulated in the UN Convention against Torture, to which Egypt is party. Article 126 of the penal code limits torture to cases of physical abuse, when the victim is “an accused,” and when officials employ torture in order to coerce a confession. While confessions are frequently the object of torture, security forces sometimes appear to use it to punish or intimidate a suspect. Moreover, this narrow definition excludes cases of mental or psychological abuse, and cases where the torture victim is someone other than “an accused,” such as individuals who are not suspects themselves but are being questioned about a crime, or are being held in administrative detention without charge. In the event that officers are convicted of ill-treatment, the law does not provide meaningful penalties that might represent a deterrent.

Other provisions of the penal code, such as article 129, fail to provide punishments that are commensurate with the seriousness of the crime, and so are therefore too lenient to be a deterrent. In addition, courts frequently use article 17 of the penal code to reduce the sentence of an officer convicted of torture or ill-treatment, citing concern for his or her professional career. The Police Law gives the Ministry of Interior discretion to reinstate the officers to their previous positions once they finish their sentences. In November 2009 the government pledged in its national report to the UN Human Rights Council that it would amend the definition of torture in line with international law, but a People’s Assembly legislative committee, dominated by the ruling National Democratic Party, rejected such a proposal submitted by a Muslim Brotherhood MP in February 2010, a few days before Egypt’s Universal Periodic Review.

Another factor contributing to impunity is the clear conflict of interest that arises when police are involved in investigating allegations of abuse within their own ranks. Prosecutors rely on criminal investigation divisions in police stations where abuse allegedly occurred to investigate, collect evidence, and produce witnesses related to the complaint. Prosecutors often lack time or the political will to properly assess and scrutinize the evidence that police produce, or the quality of their investigation. Police often delay implementing a prosecutor’s order to bring the complainant to a forensic medical doctor for examination so that physical marks of abuse fade. Police also routinely intimidate and threaten victims, their families, and witnesses so that they withdraw a complaint or agree to an out-of-court financial settlement.

The problem of impunity is especially acute when it comes to allegations of torture by State Security Investigations (SSI) officers. A division of the ministry of interior, the SSI is Egypt’s primary domestic intelligence agency, entrusted with monitoring and controlling opposition forces, both peaceful and otherwise. The SSI routinely subjects individuals to enforced disappearance in its facilities for extended periods, during which detainees are denied contact with third parties, including lawyers or doctors. SSI facilities are not lawful places of detention: Egyptian law prohibits detention in facilities other than recognized prisons and police stations. The government denies the SSI detains suspects at its sites-where suspects often face torture-despite considerable testimony to the contrary. Detaining an individual followed by denying or refusing to acknowledge their detention constitutes an enforced disappearance that, like torture, is a serious crime under international law.

SSI detainees normally face trial before emergency state security courts created under Egypt’s emergency law. These courts try cases related to security, political dissidents, and other politically-motivated issues. State security court trials are notorious for relying on confessions allegedly obtained by SSI officers using torture during periods of enforced disappearance. Suspects tried before these courts have often been disappeared for up to several months, and are returned to SSI custody afterwards. As a result, they are almost always too intimidated and scared of retaliation to complain to a prosecutor about torture. The courageous few who do often find the subsequent forensic medical examination provides no conclusive indications of abuse since too much time has passed. SSI interrogators also usually blindfold suspects and use false names, making it difficult for victims to identify their torturers. In Egypt, a victim’s inability to identify his or her torturer is a barrier to pursuing legal remedies.

International law, in addition to including a strict, absolute prohibition on torture, obliges states to prevent, investigate, prosecute, and punish acts of torture and other ill-treatment. For example, the UN Principles on the Effective Investigation and Documentation of Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (2001) provide that “[e]ven in the absence of an express complaint, an investigation should be undertaken if there are other reasons to believe that torture or ill-treatment might have occurred.” The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), to which Egypt is a party, also obligates states to provide victims of human rights violations with an effective remedy that must be accessible and prompt. The obligation to prosecute persons allegedly responsible for acts of torture includes those who both directly and indirectly participate in torture. This includes those in the chain of command who knew or should have known that such acts were perpetrated. International standards on investigations state that these investigations must be prompt, thorough, and impartial.

Human Rights Watch urges the Egyptian government to take concrete steps towards ending torture and ensuring effective investigations and serious prosecutions. Officials at the highest levels, including the president and minister of interior, should publicly acknowledge the scope of torture in Egypt and declare that they will tolerate neither torture nor ill-treatment. The ministry of interior should immediately end the illegal practice of enforced disappearance and detention in SSI offices, and allow prosecutors to conduct unannounced visits to such sites to verify compliance. The ministry should also announce it will cooperate fully with prosecutors in investigating and prosecuting those allegedly responsible for torture and ill-treatment. The government should also amend the penal code to bring the definition of torture in line with international law, and make penalties for torture and ill-treatment commensurate with the seriousness of the crime.

The Office of the Public Prosecutor should order all prosecutors to investigate credible allegations of torture and ill-treatment, even in the absence of a formal complaint. Prosecutors should conduct these investigations promptly, impartially, and thoroughly, ensuring that all those allegedly responsible, including superiors, are investigated. Forensic medical examinations should occur as soon as possible. The government should also amend the Code of Criminal Procedure to allow victims of police abuse to file criminal suits against those responsible. It is vital that an independent body be established to accept, investigate, and pursue complaints of abuse by law enforcement officers. Reinstating the Office of the Investigative Judge with a mandate to investigate abuse complaints would give the system greater independence, as would establishing a judicial police force to gather relevant material evidence and work with police. Alleged abusers should not gather evidence, or interact with complainants and witnesses.

Taking meaningful steps to investigate, prosecute and punish torturers would demonstrate the government’s political will to end the practice and thus comply with its obligations under Egyptian and international law.

The European Union (EU) and United States, which have publicly declared their committment to upholding human rights in their foreign relations, should speak out publicly against torture in Egypt, as well as the government’s failure to prohibit and suppress these practices and punish those responsible.

Human Rights Watch reiterates that governments are strictly obligated by law not to return anyone to countries where there is a risk of torture or inhuman or degrading treatment. It also calls upon governments to make clear to the Egyptian government that torture decreases Egypt’s value as a partner in counterterrorism because the information it obtains through torture is both unreliable and inadmissible in a court of law.

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