Egypt police ‘inflict pain like it’s an art’

MINYA, Egypt — Inside a police station in Upper Egypt, Mohamed Farouk writhes in pain on the floor. As a plain-clothed officer whips his torso, a colleague films the screams.

What the grainy footage reveals is not an isolated incident, according to lawyers and human rights groups. They say that Mohamed Farouk’s ordeal is just one example of escalating levels of abuse in police custody.

The Upper Egyptian city of Minya has witnessed a handful of well-publicized cases in the space of a month, spotlighting abuses that usually stay behind closed doors.

Almost three years after Egypt’s 2011 revolution, during which police were notoriously abusive, brutality in custody is reaching levels not seen since the years of Hosni Mubarak.

“My client was beaten for three continuous days,” says Farouk’s lawyer, Mohamed el Hambouly. “The police are the masters of this. They inflict pain like an it’s art. First, they used the belt, then electric shocks, then the grill.”

Grilling, a torture method for which Egypt’s police have won notoriety, involves strapping a prisoner’s hands and feet to wooden planks, then rotating them slowly as they are beaten.

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“We thought our [2011] revolution could put an end to the abuse of police power. But it couldn’t,” says Hambouly. “We saw barely any torture cases in Minya for the first six months. But when Morsi was elected, everything changed. And now, since his fall, I’ve dealt with three cases in one month alone.”

Since former president Mohamed Morsi was ousted in a popular coup on July 3, Egypt’s interior ministry has enjoyed an unprecedented popular mandate to crackdown on the former president’s supporters.

Morsi’s disastrous year in office left the country dangerously polarized. Many now conflate his Muslim Brotherhood with a more radical jihadist movement which engages in almost daily attacks on Egyptian security installations, and are therefore backing an aggressive crackdown on both the Brotherhood and the jihadists.

Five mass killings of predominantly pro-Morsi demonstrators have left over a thousand people dead, according to Human Rights Watch.

On Aug. 14, the bloodiest day in Egypt’s modern history, 41 people were killed in Minya and its surrounding governorate. The destruction was led by supporters of the former president, and Christian properties were the focal points of many attacks.

Many of the attackers blamed the governorate’s sizeable Coptic Christian population for the bloodshed in Cairo; others used the upheaval as a cover to settle old scores with Coptic neighbors.

Initially condemned for failing to intervene in the violence, Minya’s police force are now winning popular support in their attempts to restore order, despite the brutality involved.

Interior ministry officials speak of a renewed sense of purpose and popularity.

“June 30 was the day that the people came back to the police,” says Minya’s police chief, Major Gen. Osama Metwaly. “The people wanted change after a year of suffering and humiliation at the hands of Mohamed Morsi. When the army and the police responded to the people’s demands, people realized once again that we are there to keep them safe, and that we do our job well.”

Sitting at a giant mahogany desk, the major general fields calls throughout the interview with GlobalPost, discussing possible options for 19 students who have been arrested in demonstrations earlier in the day.

It is determined that parents of the four female detainees will be asked to collect them. The teenage boys will have their records scoured for prior misdemeanors, and a minor injury suffered by one of the on-duty police officers will be filed in a medical report, in case this is of use for a future prosecution of one of the boys.

Increased confidence, combined with new legislation permitting interior ministry officials to forcibly disperse demonstrations, has resulted in a level of arrogance unseen since the Mubarak years.

“The attitude now is very different,” says Karim Ennarah, a justice researcher at the Cairo-based Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights. “The police believe they are no longer the main public enemy, and that’s had a big impact on their psyche. Before [Morsi’s fall], they knew there was little pressure from the government to behave, there was still public pressure to do so.”

Ennarah says the interior ministry now operates with greater levels of impunity: “The police have become extremely violent, not just in dealing with the Brotherhood, but also in their day-to-day policing. The use of torture increased systematically under Morsi, and now it’s reached another level since June 30.”

On Oct. 31, Minya’s police would make this point painfully clear to local journalist Aslam Fathi. Detained after a minor altercation with a police officer, he suffered almost 24 hours of beatings and abuse inside the police station.

“As they hit me, I was screaming apologies at them, asking them what they wanted. They told me they were teaching me a lesson: I must never push a police officer about. They are the masters of this country,” he recalls.

His testimony contains horrifying similarities to that of Omar Farouk: first his limbs were cuffed, then he was hung across traffic barricades and beaten.

“And all the while they insulted me, cursed my family and told me I was not a man,” he says. “When I told them I was a journalist, they just laughed. They said they didn’t care about the reports; they thought they were untouchable.”

As police brutality increases, questions remain over the effect it might have on future support.

“They certainly have a popular mandate right now, but that could change very quickly,” says Ennarah. “we’ve already seen a number of cases where they’ve been responsible for violence at the local level which has caused their support there to ebb away.

Yet Ennarah says he does not believe waning popular support would provide the catalyst for police reform.

Neither does Fathi. “Egypt’s police are rabid, and they do not change,” he says. “I used to be an optimist, I’d always say that reform was possible if we pushed for it hard enough. But then they tortured me. I have no hope left.” 

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