One protester's story: Paying the price for seeking freedom in Egypt

Image caption,
Mahmoud Hussein says he needs a crutch because of abuse and medical neglect in prison

It is six years since the outbreak of the 18-day revolution in Egypt which swept the autocrat, Hosni Mubarak, from power. But human rights campaigners say the situation in the country is now far worse than before the uprising, as Orla Guerin reports from Cairo.

With every step he takes, Mahmoud Mohammed Hussein is reminded of the price he paid for wanting freedom and democracy in Egypt.

The 21-year-old has a pronounced limp and relies on a crutch - a legacy, he says, of beatings during almost 800 days in a series of prisons. Ten months have passed since his release, but he still appears frail.

Mahmoud is one of thousands who have been detained in recent years under Egypt's latest strongman, President Abdul Fattah al-Sisi.

As army chief he led the military overthrow of Egypt's first democratically-elected president, Mohammed Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood, in 2013.

Since then Mr Sisi has presided over a sweeping crackdown on dissent - ensnaring Islamists, liberals, journalists, aid workers, and icons of the revolution of 2011.

Image source, AFP
Image caption,
People took to the streets of Cairo on 25 January 2011 to demand Hosni Mubarak resign

Mahmoud joined the throngs behind bars back in 2014, when he was just 18.

His ordeal began on 25 January, the anniversary of the outbreak of the revolution. His fate was sealed by his T-shirt which read: "A nation without torture."

"It was a day of celebration for me," said Mahmoud, who has dark curly hair and a ready smile.

"I wasn't part of the revolution, but I believed in it and its goals. It made me feel like a human being, with rights and duties.

"Nowadays, people see the anniversary as a black day, they worry when it comes. For me the mood was one of celebration."

Image source, AFP
Image caption,
Supporters of Abdul Fattah al-Sisi were allowed to take to the streets on 25 January 2014

But then - as now - the streets were reserved for President Sisi's supporters. They could gather freely, unlike his critics. Protests are virtually banned here.

We witnessed police opening fire that day - with live rounds - on unarmed demonstrators.

Mahmoud said he was not involved in any of the protests, but that he was detained as he headed for home.

"The officer who arrested me told me, 'You have my picture on your T-shirt'," he said.

"The T-shirt was inspired by the revolution. I saw it as a beautiful thing, not a crime. A country without torture is a dream that everyone wishes for."

Image source, AFP
Image caption,
Dozens died in clashes with security forces at anti-government protests three years ago

That dream was apparently not shared by the police he encountered that day. Mahmoud said they soon employed the torture skills for which human rights groups have long condemned the Egyptian police.

"I was abused at the checkpoint where I was arrested," he told us.

"Then they transferred me to the police station. I was electrocuted on my private parts. They kicked me with their military boots, and hit me with sticks.

"Everyone knew I was there because of the T-shirt. They believed this was a personal insult to them, so they beat me."

The aim, he said, was to get him to sign a false confession.

Image source, Egyptian government
Image caption,
Mahmoud Hussein (centre) was photographed with the T-shirt reading "A nation without torture"

"A senior officer beat me and kicked me and then asked junior police officers to do the job," he said.

"They wanted me to sign a report saying I was against the police. I refused. The juniors have their own ways - if beating doesn't work, then electrocution might do the job.

"I was stripped naked, without even boxer shorts, and I was beaten just to admit to certain charges".

Mahmoud asked the officers to spare his leg, which was injured in the past.

"They insisted on kicking me and beating me on that leg," he said.

"Because of all the abuse and the medical neglect in prison I now need my friend, the crutch, and two surgeries."

His account is consistent with testimony from others who have been detained in recent years. We asked the Egyptian government for a response to the allegation that detainees have been beaten and tortured in custody. There was no reply.

In the past the authorities have denied there is systematic torture, but said there may be individual cases.

Image caption,
Mahmoud faces charges including joining a banned terrorist group - something he denies

Mahmoud described both physical and psychological abuse.

He told us he spent 14 months in one overcrowded cell where he could barely move, and could not see daylight.

There were about 150 other prisoners, including Islamists and men held for rape and murder.

"I always had this element of fear," he said, "All the time, because prison is like a tomb. It's a place that takes away your soul, and kills everything beautiful in you."

Image source, AFP
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Tens of thousands of people have been jailed in a sweeping crackdown on dissent since 2013

Mahmoud was released from detention last March - following campaigns at home and abroad.

While he is back home with his family in Cairo, he is not completely free.

He still faces charges including joining an unauthorized protest, possession of explosives and joining a banned terrorist group - all of which he denies.

"I could go back to prison at any time," he said. "They could just pick me walking on the street.

"Since my release that has happened twice. I was held for a few hours and then they let me go."

Image source, Getty Images
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Public criticism and peaceful opposition are effectively banned in Egypt, rights activists say

Mahmoud has also been receiving threatening phone calls.

"One told me I would not have time to come back to prison," he said, "meaning that someone could stab me or kill me. I didn't reply. I just hung up."

In spite of all the dangers, including the risk that he could be put on trial, Mahmoud refuses to be silenced.

"In Egypt my rights and the rights of thousands of others like me are violated, just for dreaming or hoping for freedom," he said.

"Their destiny is prison, or death. That's not going to stop me from speaking out, or caring for thousands like me. "

Officials here would not give us a comment on allegations that all dissent is being crushed.

Image source, AFP
Image caption,
President Sisi said in September that "there can be no return to dictatorship"

President Sisi has said in the past that stability is more important than freedom, but he maintains that dictatorship cannot return to Egypt. Critics believe in some key respects it never left.

When asked if the revolution is now dead, Mahmoud gave a swift response.

"No, not at all," he insisted. "25 January is a dream that will never die. The revolution lives in the hearts of people like me, of everyone who believes in it.

"The current regime is trying desperately to erase it from memory."

As for the T- shirt that cost him his freedom, he has no regrets.

"I always say that if I could go back, in spite of all the abuses I suffered, I would wear the T-shirt again," he said.

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