Egypt crisis: Young detainees allege torture
- 28 March 2014
- From the section Middle East
Brutal beatings, sexual abuse, and electric shocks are being carried out on detainees, including teenage children, in Egypt, according to testimonies gathered by the BBC.
As many 20,000 people are estimated to have been held since last July in a sweeping clampdown on dissent.
A growing number are now emerging from police stations and prisons with serious allegations of torture.
The claims are denied by the military-backed interim government.
For 15-year old Ahmed Abdel Fattah, the trouble began on 24 January, when his fondness for his mobile phone cost him his freedom.
He was using the phone to film an Islamist protest near his home in Sharqiya Province, north of Cairo.
"I was curious," he said. "Why shouldn't I film something that I see every night on TV?"
When some local thugs tried to steal the phone he refused to hand it over, so they handed him over to the police.
The softly-spoken and neatly dressed teenager says that was the start of 34 days of torture at a local police station.
"They electrocuted me in sensitive places like my spine, here and here on my arms, and in sensitive areas like between my legs," he said, gesturing to the areas.
"And when they electrocuted me I used to fall down on the ground, and I could not stand up. At the same time they were beating me. And sometimes they would throw water to increase the voltage."
Ahmed said he got special attention from the police - in spite of his youth - because he was suspected of belonging to the banned Muslim Brotherhood.
"They wanted me to be afraid," he said. "They thought I would have a lot to confess to. Of course I am not from the Brotherhood at all. They were saying so-and-so is getting outside financing, and this person has weapons, and you are getting weapons from them. They said you had Molotov Cocktails on you and you hit an officer. I told him I could not hit an ant."
Ahmed says he was accused of carrying a total of 18 Molotov Cocktails, though a previously broken arm means he struggles to lift much.
His father Abdel Fattah, a school inspector, sat grim-faced alongside him, as he gave his account. He told us Ahmed suffers from epilepsy, and his health has worsened since his arrest.
Many of those who emerge from detention are too frightened to speak, but we have tracked down other detainees who provided detailed and credible testimony about a range of severe abuses.
Their accounts cannot be independently verified but they tally with reports from leading human rights groups who say that there is widespread torture and brutality in detention.
"Egypt has gone back to the systematic torture of the Mubarak era," said Gamal Eid, of the Arabic Network for Human Rights Information. "There is more torture now because there are more people being arrested. What's different is that the proportion of barbaric torture is higher."
Yassin Mohammed says he is proof of that. The slight 19-year-old is a seasoned democracy campaigner. He was arrested in central Cairo in January and held for 42 days.
He told us he had decided to speak out for the sake of others who are still being tortured. His account of being electrocuted was punctuated by pauses and a troubled nervous laugh.
"I was expecting that they were just going to start hitting me - normally - like every time," he said, "and then I was surprised when they took off my trousers and put the wires on me. I was screaming and shouting.
"While you are being electrocuted, there are strange things happening to you, you don't know what's going on, you feel like you are going to die, and sometimes you feel like you are completely drunk, completely out of it, and at the end after they remove the wire, you just feel dizzy-dizzy-dizzy."
With shaking hands, Yassin demonstrated how his body continued to tremble after the wires were removed. He told us that after his session he heard the police calling out for others to be brought in.
Yassin says his torment included "unspeakable things". His account of being sexually assaulted is too disturbing to print.
His arrest came at a protest calling for the release of several detainees, including a 19-year-old student called Ayat Hamada.
Threatened with rape
She is now back home, having shared a similar fate.
Ayat says she too was sexually assaulted, at the time of her arrest. In this conservative society, it is a rare admission from a woman.
"It was physical," she told us. "I don't dare to explain more. But they harassed us in a very, very humiliating way, and the aim was to break our spirits."
As she spoke her friend, Salsabile Gharabawi, squeezed her hand for moral support. The women sat side-by-side, with headscarves covering their hair. Both said they were beaten and threatened with rape.
Salsabile, 21, a business student, said police forced her and other women to have pregnancy tests.
"They parked the car away from the hospital gate," she said, "and made us walk in the street with handcuffs. They kept making us go in circles around the whole hospital so people could see us. The humiliation broke us more than the beatings."
It is easy to get detained in Egypt these days - just go to a protest, or even walk by. An estimated 20,000 people have been rounded up in a brutal crackdown on dissent since the army ousted Islamist President Mohammed Morsi last July.
Indignities and beatings
In a bitter irony, more than 1,000 were arrested on 25 January - the third anniversary of the revolution which swept away Hosni Mubarak. Khaled El-Sayed, a newly-wed, was one of them. The 30-year-old engineer was a leading activist in the revolution.
He described a routine of abuses, indignities and beatings - the worst of which was a brutal assault lasting over half an hour. It happened after officers found a letter from his wife in his overcrowded prison cell.
"There were two on this side and two on that side," he said. "The four flanking me starting beating me. They starting hitting me against the pillar, they hit me in the back, and they put me on the ground and started kicking me in the stomach." Khaled was freed after 42 days, but is still a prisoner to his nightmares.
At the heavily fortified interior ministry we asked for the government's response to the growing number of grave abuse allegations.
A senior official showed us video footage of a neat and clean prison - filmed several years ago - and told us there was no problem.
"I categorically deny that there is any such thing as electrocution or torture in prisons or police stations," said General Abu Bakr Abdel Karim.
When challenged, he conceded there might be "mistakes or transgressions" by police but he insisted this did not reach the level of torture. "It's not covered up," he said. "We don't stay quiet about it. We confront it and we hold anyone who has mistreated the public to account."
Human rights groups disputed that. According to Amnesty International's Nicholas Piachaud, the authorities do not take reports of torture seriously and most go unpunished.
Egypt is now counting down to a presidential election. The former Army Chief, Abdul Fattah al-Sisi, looks certain to emerge as the new Pharaoh. There are fears that torture could tighten its grip under President Sisi.