Fighting Torture with Mobile Phones and Weblogs

Despite the fact that Egypt has signed the international convention against torture, torture incidents are still prevalent. Nelly Youssef takes a look at the most recent torture scandals and some of the reasons behind them

photo: AP
An anti-insurgent task force attacks demonstrators in Cairo - human rights abuses are often commited with the endorsement and sometimes open support of the authorities, human rights groups say

​​In a dirty room, a middle-aged man is bent over, his face a mask of pain. He is being beaten repeatedly on the neck and face by a policeman, who is insulting him all the while. Other police officers are sitting around making jokes and encouraging their colleague.

Someone is lying on the floor, stripped to the waist, his legs in the air. We hear the voice of a police officer threatening and insulting the man. Then the policeman takes a stick and inserts it into the man's anus. He laughs and threatens to broadcast the video made on his mobile telephone, to humiliate him even more. The man screams louder, begging for mercy.

Ignored by the official press

These video clips can currently be seen on several Egyptian blogs and on many young Egyptians' mobile phones. These two modern products of information technology have led to a public condemnation of torture carried out in Egyptian prisons. This type of incident is ignored by the official press, and only addressed in opposition newspapers and the few reports available from human rights organisations.

Human rights organisations have brought official charges against the torturers and are calling for an investigation into the "torture videos". The first case came to court, with one of the officers in the first video recently sentenced to a year's imprisonment. The officer in the second video has also been arrested under charges of sexual assault.

The video was used as evidence against the accused, particularly as their voices are clearly audible. The court will pass its sentence in the next few weeks. If the officer and his helpers are found guilty, they face imprisonment for between three and ten years.

Assaults electronically registered

Modern means of communication beyond the bounds of state control mean that the incidents have become well known in the public arena, and a topic of discussion across Egypt. A weblog has been set up to publicise torture in Egypt and register incidents.

Various torture methods are classified on the blog, and all assaults by police officers in Egyptian police stations are logged. Readers can also subscribe to a weekly newsletter listing the incidents.

The blog encourages anyone who has been tortured or found out about torture to report their experiences. The site passes victims on to special centres that take in torture victims for psychological care and legal advice.

Bureaucracy as incentive for use of violence

Muhammad Zari, a lawyer and a member of the Egyptian prisoners' aid association, considers that torture is used to a wide extent in Egypt, with the endorsement and sometimes open support of the authorities. One reason for the prevalence of torture in Egypt, he says, is the fact that the police do not have sufficient technical resources for proper investigations. Officers therefore use violence to gain confessions, even for minor crimes.

Police forces in Cairo, Egypt (photo: AP)
The police force has organised training on human rights for its employees, but this is only the result of international pressure on human rights issues

​​The number of reports an officer writes and the number of confessions he gains determine his career prospects. That encourages individual officers to falsify cases and force confessions by means of torture.

Another factor, according to Muhammad Zari, is that many Egyptians don't know their rights and regard torture as a standard part of police work.

Training on human rights for officers

The police force has organised training on human rights for its employees, but this is only the result of international pressure on human rights issues. Their effect is limited as long as politicians and the authorities make use of torture as a basic means of protecting the regime.

Egypt is one of the states that have signed the international convention against torture. Paragraph 42 of the Egyptian constitution states that anyone put into prison "must be treated with respect for their inherent value as a human being and may not be subjected to physical or mental injury." Egyptian criminal law regards torture as a crime.

Nevertheless, Muhammad Zari sees the current court cases as the tip of the iceberg. The number of people exposed to physical violence or humiliated by police is extremely high, he states. The court cases have also taken a long time to go through, and the compensation awarded by the courts is very low. Nor is it encouraging, says Zari, that the officers under accusation frequently avoid punishment, for instance by placing an appeal or threatening the victims' friends and family to withdraw their case, or even by preventing execution of the sentence after the ruling.

A dangerous new weapon of information technology

But can the web campaigns really do anything against torture? Wael Abbas, who runs the weblog "The Egyptian Consciousness" featuring many clips from torture videos, is certainly convinced.

The police, Wael comments, have come to fear this dangerous new weapon of information technology, particularly since the blogs made details of the most recent sexual torture of an Egyptian taxi driver public.

As the video was first available on the Internet and then via mobile phones, the newspapers also reported on the incident. Then the Egyptian state prosecution and international organisations picked up on the subject, until finally several of the police officers involved ended up in court.

But Wael is also worried about the consequences the torture scandal might have for Internet users. Nobody knows whether things will change for the better or the worse: "We can't rule out that the government might now begin to fear our work and decide to combat us through a new law banning all activities on the Internet."

The Egyptian interior ministry states that there is no systematic torture in Egypt, but there have been violations on the ban by some police officers. According to the ministry, these are isolated cases and those responsible have been punished. Most of the video clips on show on the weblogs are also fake, the ministry states.

Nelly Youssef

Translated from the German by Katy Derbyshire

© 2007

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  • Website "Torture in Egypt" (in Arabic)
  • Website Misr Digital (in Arabic)