Egypt’s Revolution – not yet complete

April 26, 2011 2:06 pm1 commentViews: 5

“Forget about the law! If they want to say that someone is a terrorist or a drug dealer, they say so and the person is detained, as simple as that.”

(A lawyer who dealt with cases concerning the dissolved State Security Investigations service, speaking to Amnesty in Dec 2010)

In Egypt, a vicious system of administrative detentions without charge or trial, where detainees are routinely tortured, has been the hallmark of 30 years of repression under the Emergency Law. Under the lid of a state of emergency, Egyptian State Security forces, in particular the State Security Investigations service (SSI), committed countless human rights violations for which they have yet to be held to account.

Egypt may have had a revolution, so to speak, but it is not a true revolution unless the decades of human rights violations under the rule of Hosni Mubarak are addressed, measures are taken to ensure the truth is spoken, and justice is served to victims stripped of their human rights.

Holding SSI officers to account is an essential initial step towards realising the calls to end impunity that was one of the main triggers of the recent uprising in Egypt. Massed ranks of Egyptians defied decades of repression on 25 January 2011 by taking to the streets to protest against the 30-year-old state of emergency, poverty, corruption and police brutality, an act which was forbidden under the emergency law.

Rapidly, protests grew and civilians in their hundreds and thousands spilled into the now historic Tahir Square, demanding the end to a corrupt and defected system. Their cries and blood evolved into one clear message – for Hosni Mubarak to leave his throne. Three weeks later, having endured vicious attacks by Mubarak’s thugs and government supporters, the spiralling ranks of protesters achieved their first aim – the fall of the tyrant from his office.

Their victory came at a heavy cost. Some 840 people were killed by the security forces and 6467 more were injured, according to officials from the Ministry of Health and Population. Many hundreds of protesters and bystanders were seized and held in secret locations or detention centres. Many say they were tortured and abused. One of the many sparks for the dissent was the killing of 28-year-old Khaled Said in Alexandria on 6 June 2010. Two police officers from Sidi Gaber police station reportedly dragged him out of an Internet café and beat him relentlessly in public until he died. Shocking pictures of his barely recognizable face taken in the morgue were widely circulated on the Internet. In fury, activists marched through Alexandria and Cairo demanding justice for Khaled Said, whom they called “the martyr of the state of emergency”, and an end to police impunity. The case became a rallying cry for civilians of the repressive state, and the campaign for justice and accountability was named “We are all Khaled Said”.

The brutal murder happened just weeks after the government renewed for a further two years the state of emergency, which had been continuously in force since Hosni Mubarak became President, limiting it to cases relating to drugs and terrorism. In practice, however, the authorities continued to use its sweeping powers to repress government critics and commit other human rights violations. One of the most pervasive violations has been the use of administrative detention – the main focus of this report. This entails depriving individuals of liberty, by order of an administrative authority, without intent to prosecute them in a criminal trial.

In Egypt, the emergency powers given to the Interior Minister to order the arrest and administrative detention of individuals have been used over the years to hold tens of thousands of people without charge or any prospect of trial for months or years – in some cases 20 years – often in defiance of repeated court orders for their release. The extensive use of administrative detention has pervaded Egyptian society and affected Egyptians from all walks of life, reinforcing the repressive atmosphere created by the authorities. Although the SSI, which was at the heart of the administrative detention system, has been disbanded, it remains unclear how many officers it employed nor what has happened to them. They are likely to have been simply integrated into other security bodies, including the newly-established national intelligence body, without any vetting mechanism. With the exception of the former Interior Minister, to whom the SSI directly reported and who is now facing charges of corruption and ordering security forces to shoot demonstrators during the recent unrest, it is not clear if the Egyptian authorities will hold SSI officials to account for the years of abuses under the rule of President Mubarak, or to provide truth, justice and reparation for the thousands of individuals arbitrarily detained over the years.

Unless the Egyptian authorities address the legacy of abuse by the SSI, repeal the Emergency Law that has facilitated abuses, and holds those responsible to account, there will be no guarantee that the abuses under President Mubarak will not be repeated.

Amnesty International reports that the Government during meetings stated the total number of administrative detainees was less than 800, although no details were ever provided, such as a list of the names of those detained. However, national and international human rights organizations estimated the number of administrative detainees to have been between 6,000 and 10,000 at most points in recent years.
Following the fall of President Mubarak and calls from civil society and relatives of detainees, a newly-installed Interior Minister announced on 12 March 2011 that 1,659 administrative detainees had been released since early February. However, he did not disclose how many people remained held in administrative detention and for what reasons, maintaining the long-standing official policy of withholding such information about the numbers, identities, places of detention and length of time that such detainees have been locked up without charge or trial and without any effective means of obtaining remedy.

Even though administrative detainees were not charged, let alone tried and convicted, they were treated like sentenced prisoners once in jail. Some were tortured or otherwise ill-treated. Some were transferred to remote prisons far from their families, seemingly as punishment. Some were denied adequate medical care. After years in detention, many have struggled to find paid work or reintegrate into their communities.
Other serious human rights violations have included enforced disappearances, torture and other ill-treatment, and severe restrictions on the rights to freedom of expression, association and assembly. Among those targeted for such abuses have been political opponents and government critics, human rights defenders, members of minority religious communities, journalists and bloggers.

Since President Mubarak’s departure from office, Egypt has been governed by the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF). In early March, following the resignation of newly-appointed Prime Minister Ahmed Shafiq, former Transport Minister Essam Sharaf was asked to form a new government. And yet the state of emergency was not lifted. The proposals were put to a national referendum in March 2011, and endorsed by a large majority of voters. The amendments create new term limits on the presidency, make it easier for Egyptians to stand in presidential elections, ensure more robust judicial oversight of elections, and restrict the government’s power to maintain the state of emergency.

Mohamed Abu Essaoud Ismail, 52, from Sharanis village, spent almost 2 decades in detention without charge or trial despite scores of court decisions ordering his release, until his release on 19 February 2011. He was arrested on 30 June 1991 for alleged membership of Gamaa al-Islamiya, at that time an armed group. His family had no news of him until 1998. During this time, he was subjected to torture and other ill-treatment. In 1997, after the group renounced violence, thousands of its members were released. Mohamed Abu Essaoud Ismail, however, continued to be held in prison in harsh conditions, although he denied that he still belonged to the group and committed himself to non-violence. While in prison, he is believed to have suffered serious health problems, to have been denied adequate medical care and, at times, to have been barred from receiving family visits.

On 30 January 2011, after prison riots erupted, Mohamed Abu Essaoud Ismail phoned his brother, Ahmed, informing him that the prison guards had deserted their posts allowing inmates to get out of the prison. According to Ahmed, he drove to the prison and picked up Mohamed only for them to be stopped by an SSI officer accompanied by people armed with sticks who then detained Mohamed although his brother asked that he be allowed to return home, under guarantee of return, until the prison administration could guarantee his safety. Ahmed was not told what would happen to his brother by the SSI officer who took him away. Later in the day, Mohamed phoned Ahmed to tell him that he had been taken to Bandar Manouf, where he was being held with around 50 people in a small cell. In the following days, his family were denied access to him and prevented from giving him medication for his diabetes but, fortunately, he was eventually released on 19 February. He had spent almost 20 years in jail without being convicted of any offence.

The case above is only a pixel of the real picture of administrative detention. Administrative detention in Egypt has been the most visible face of the state of emergency, yet shrouded in secrecy. The authorities withheld the truth about how many people had been detained without charge or trial in total disregard for their basic human rights. Its widespread use against people from all walks of life has turned it into a social phenomenon, with almost every Egyptian knowing or having had a relative or a neighbour who has been a victim of administrative detention. The treatment of the detainees has deeply affected them as well as their families, who sometimes felt isolated because of pressure from the SSI and as a result of the social repercussions in their locality from having links to an individual considered a security detainee. Prolonged administrative detention was clearly used as a means to punish people and break the spirit of those who dared oppose such corrupt authorities. Egypt has destroyed one of their chains, but many more still rattle.

The degree of civilization in a society can be judged by entering its prisons – Fyodor Dostoevsky

Selin Kavlak

For more of Selin’s writing, visit her blog

Views expressed in articles are the author’s and do not represent Comment Middle East