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Egypt's crackdown now wears camouflage
The military has seized on post-revolution fears to disappear thousands into its opaque prisons.
Last Modified: 20 May 2011 12:49
Egypt's army has taken over the duties of the hated security forces, including violently crushing protests [GALLO/GETTY]

The Israeli embassy in Cairo – the first of its kind and one of only two in the Arab world – sits on the top floor of an unremarkable 15-storey office building near the Nile, a short drive south and across the river from the revolutionary epicentre of Tahrir Square. From the roof, a pole protrudes and makes a right angle high above Ibn Malek Street. Fluttering from the pole is one of the most hated symbols in the Middle East: the Star of David.

Thousands of Egyptians protested below that flag on Sunday afternoon, the 63rd anniversary of Israel's independence. They wanted their post-revolution government to hear demands that Egypt break ties with Israel. Instead, they ran into a harsh post-revolution reality: The unchecked power of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces.

The demonstration had proceeded peacefully for hours before a surge toward the building's entrance at around 11pm caused the street to dissolve into a battlefield of burning tires, hurled rocks and swirling tear gas. Central Security and military troops violently dispersed the rally with rubber-coated bullets and live ammunition. One man was shot in the head and another in the abdomen.

Two hours into the fight, with the crowd thinned to hundreds of young, rock-throwing men, independent journalist Mohamed Effat arrived half a block away, in a square marked by a famous, 83-year-old statue of a sphinx and a peasant woman removing her veil – "Egypt's Renaissance."

The crowd around Effat shouted chants for a few minutes before a barrage of tear gas landed among them. The group ran several blocks south to escape the gas and paused on a corner near a Kentucky Fried Chicken and a Four Seasons hotel. Moments later, soldiers charged from the other direction, firing their guns in the air. Effat and the others scattered into side streets leading toward the Nile, but the army had sealed the entire Corniche.

Soldiers quickly rounded up the group and herded them to the embassy, where hundreds of police and army troops had assembled underneath a bridge. Effat and the protesters were made to lie face down on the pavement with their hands behind their heads. Officers cursed and berated them.


The protest at the Israeli embassy devolved into rock throwing and tear gas [Mostafa Hussein]

They threatened anyone who looked up with a beating and said each protester faced a three-year sentence. Effat was released, but around 150 others were taken away by the army.

"Please, go ahead to military prison," a policeman said. "You'll really enjoy it there, you youth of the revolution."

By positioning itself as the guardian of stability, the army has garnered support from a public that remembers clearly how the loathed police force abdicated responsibility for the looters, vandals and street thugs unleashed by the regime against the revolution just a few months ago.

But since it was deployed to the streets on January 28, that same army has subjected thousands of ordinary Egyptians to incommunicado detentions, trials and sentencings in front of military courts that provide little or no due process. Soldiers have stormed demonstrations in Tahrir Square and have beaten activists with metal bars, ropes and electrified batons.

The military's new sweeping law enforcement power, sometimes used in coordination with the internal security apparatus, sometimes against it, and sometimes not at all, has thrown public life in Egypt into disarray.

'We have a right to know where he is' 

Activists agree that the military has arrested and imprisoned thousands of Egyptians since the revolution, though the exact number remains impossible to know. The army does not let lawyers or relatives regularly visit prisoners, nor does it notify next of kin when it has detained someone.

Some case records are maintained, but their level of detail is unclear. Some activists say the army may be holding as many as 10,000 people. The Front for the Defense of Egyptian Protesters, a coalition of human-rights groups, believes at least 5,000 trials have taken place.

On Thursday, the military held a trial for an initial batch of 15 Israeli embassy protesters, including Tarek Shalaby, a web designer and well-known Twitter user. Nora Shalaby, his sister, attended the hearing with other relatives, lawyers, and the prisoners, who were held in a cage. A military police officer in the Nasr City courtroom told Nora that family members and lawyers were almost never allowed to attend.

A judge read out the six charges, which included assaulting a public official, damaging public property, and illegal assembly. He found the 15 protesters guilty of the latter two but suspended their one-year sentence. Tarek and the others were released that night; around 100 protesters are still being held.

"We have a right to know where he is, to speak with him, for him to have access to a lawyer," Nora Shalaby said. "The army] think they're being nice ... No, we're supposed to by default have this access."

If it weren't for the army's regular crackdowns on Tahrir Square protests, which yield headlines and sympathetic victims, lawyers and journalists would be hard pressed to sketch a picture of the opaque, rapid and disorganised system of military justice now in force in Egypt. Violent sweeps of the square on February 26, March 9, April 9 and April 12 led to hundreds of arrests, along with accounts of mistreatment.

Ramy Essam, a well-known 23-year-old protest singer, was dragged from a demonstration to a makeshift army camp next to the Egyptian Museum on March 9 and beaten savagely with metal bars, wires and hoses. Soldiers stomped on him, shocked him with multiple Tasers, and cut his long hair.

Essam was the most prominent Egyptian to endure post-revolution army justice, and he was released without charge after two weeks. Others have not been as fortunate.

Beheiry, shown here after being beaten by army soldiers, was given a five-year prison sentence [Mona Seif]

Amr el-Beheiry was attending his first protest rally in Tahrir Square when he was arrested in the pre-dawn hours of February 26. That protest – the largest since the revolution – had called for the resignation of then-Prime Minister Ahmed Shafiq and his interim cabinet, in addition to a long list of democratic reforms. Military police broke up the rally in the darkness and seized 32-year-old Beheiry and his cousin. They beat the men with sticks and electric shock batons, according to Mona Seif, an activist at the protest who helps lead a campaign against military trials for civilians.

Seif, her mother and others saw the army take Beheiry away. They approached the nearest checkpoint and demanded he be let go. When a senior officer ordered his release, they walked him a short distance away and began photographing his injuries. Soldiers who saw them came and arrested him again.

Back in detention, Beheiry and his cousin were allegedly beaten and given electric shocks. For two days, army officers told lawyers that Beheiry would be charged with possessing a weapon. Seif and her family tailored their testimonies to refute the accusation; they hadn't seen Beheiry with any weapon. Then, on March 1, he was put before a military trial without a lawyer, charged with breaking curfew and assaulting a public official, and sentenced to five years in prison, the longest verdict yet applied to a protester.

"He was the first case that we knew of, and he was sort of our window to this whole thing of military trials," Seif said. "With lots of the other cases, you only have the account of the testimonies from their parents, or people who were with them. But we happened to be witnesses, so we have solid ground and evidence that this is all fake, from the beginning to the end."

The Tahrir raid on February 26 may have marked a symbolic end to protesters' strained attempts at friendly diplomacy with the army, but human rights activists knew the military had begun arresting and mistreating civilians a month earlier, on January 28, when troops first deployed to the streets three days after the Friday protests that set off Egypt's uprising.

In the first 11 days of February, before President Hosni Mubarak stepped down, soldiers attempted to impose order on Egypt's chaotic streets by rounding up protesters, petty criminals and anyone who ran afoul of the army by the thousands. Many detentions were brief, lasting at most a few days, but the army packed others off to military camps, according to Heba Morayef, a researcher at Human Rights Watch. At the time, Morayef said that senior human rights lawyers and family members were not given access to the prisoners or information about their offences. Those who were released reported beatings with sticks and cords, as well as electric shocks.

When approached by lawyers, the military refused to volunteer the names of prisoners in custody or those who had been freed, said Nadeem Mansour, a researcher with the Hisham Mubarak Law Center. If lawyers came with a list, there was a chance a military officer would confirm whether an individual was being held. Freed prisoners told lawyers that thousands were in custody, but no official would provide a number. Meanwhile, families searching for their loved ones approached lawyers by the hundreds, each with a similar tale of a relative who had disappeared.

In the days before Mubarak stepped down, soldiers detained and beat those on both sides of the protests [GALLO/GETTY]

"It usually goes something like: Somebody went out and we haven’t seen him since, or he appears to have been arrested by a neighbourhood patrol, or he was arrested by the military and he was just walking home carrying sandwiches," Morayef said.

Many of these families told stories of sons and daughters who had nothing to do with street violence.

"The majority of them of course are not activists. The problem is not with activists, the problem is with normal people," Mansour said at the time. "The military is not used to dealing with society, dealing with the families, this is very new to the military."

Later that month, when lawyers went to the military prosecutor's office in Nasr City to follow up on Beheiry's case, they found files suggesting that the army had since January 28 routinely put those it arrested before trials, with no oversight.

In the months since Mubarak stepped down, the process has barely improved. In one particularly well-known case, a group of men arrested during the March 9 Tahrir crackdown were ushered into a kitchen at the Nasr City office the following night and put before a man who said he was a military judge. Among them was Ali Subhi, an actor and a friend of Seif and other activists whom soldiers had beaten, along with others, in their makshift camp next to the Egyptian Museum.

Thirty minutes before the detainees were taken to the kitchen, human rights lawyers had visited. They were told the group's trial would be held in two days. Instead, after the lawyers left, the military laid out weapons in front of the group and allowed cameras to film the scene for broadcast on state television. The kitchen trial began after midnight and lasted for minutes. Days afterward, some of the detainees were released, including Ali Subhi. Others were inexplicably held.

On Wednesday, the army announced that 120 people arrested on March 9 had received one-year sentences, but that they would be suspended. It wasn't apparent whether that accounted for the entire March 9 group. Tahrir Diaries, a website for the campaign against military trials, recorded the names of 157 people arrested that night.

"It's not systematic, it's not something you can predict, it happens very randomly," said Nazli Hussein, another activist involved in the campaign. "To the best of our knowledge, [Subhi] was probably sentenced … and then they released him."

The accused are rarely told their charges or even whether they have been found guilty, activists say. Some learn from visiting family members that they have been given a prison sentence. The army also doesn't hold those it arrests in a central location. Many protesters, including those taken on March 9, were taken to Tora Prison in Cairo, the same facility that now houses former regime officials and Mubarak's two sons, Gamal and Alaa. Others, including Beheiry, are in a prison in the New Valley governorate, hundreds of kilometres south of Cairo. Still others are being held in Fayoum, a municipal centre around an hour and a half south of the capital.

At times, the Council appears to be making new rules on the fly, with life-or-death consequences. On Monday, a military court sentenced a 17-year-old boy to death for kidnapping and raping a 17-year-old girl. The verdict contravenes not only Egyptian law but the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, ratified by Egypt in 1990, which prohibits the death penalty for minors. The Council had announced on April 1 that it would permit the death penalty for minors in cases of rape, but it had also stated, shortly after assuming power, that it would abide by all pre-existing international treaties.

"These courts flout international standards for fair trial, and are grossly unjust," the rights group Amnesty International said in a statement on Thursday. "The faith of many Egyptians in the criminal justice system is being sorely tested by military courts." 

Unpredictable and autocratic

Hussein's mother, Ghada Shahbandar, is a lawyer with the Egyptian Organization for Human Rights and recently took on the case of Amr Shalakany, a law professor at the American University in Cairo who nearly found himself one of the biggest names subject to post-revolution military justice.

Shalakany avoided a military trial because he went before an honest prosecutor, his attorney says [Evan Hill]

Shalakany's case reflects the military's unpredictable but nearly autocratic role in a country where a demoralized and shamed police force has withdrawn from many of its duties – some say as part of a larger plot – leaving the army to enforce law and order and civilians to puzzle out who's actually in control.

On April 27, Shalakany was vacationing in Sharm el-Sheikh, a popular resort town at the southern tip of the Sinai Peninsula that is also home to one of Mubarak's presidential compounds. Egypt's former leader had sought refuge there after leaving office. That night, Shalakany took a hotel limousine to visit a friend staying in Naama Bay, the gated centre of town. There, a plainclothes detective stopped the car and refused to let it inside, supposedly a precaution against the kind of terrorist bombings that have struck Sharm el-Sheikh in past years.

Shalakany protested, and the detective began to hurl insults at him and the driver.

"You can't talk to the driver that way," Shalakany said.

"I will speak to the driver any way I want, and I will speak to you any way I want," the officer responded.

Shalakany told the detective that he wasn't living in January 24th Egypt anymore.

"I'm a citizen," Shalakany said. "I have rights even though Mubarak is living here."

The argument escalated, and both men went to a nearby police station. There, Shalakany was charged with being drunk in public, and slandering and verbally assaulting a police officer. He was taken to a hospital to undergo a urine test. Incensed at his treatment, Shalakany poured the contents of the cup out at the detective's feet.

The officer smiled.

"I like your performance," he said.

Shalakany was sent back to the police station in a truck with several other prisoners. Among them was a scruffy man who introduced himself as Mohamed Kalba. He began loudly discussing the virtues of the revolution with Shalakany. Back in the station, the group was placed in a cell, and Kalba began to rile up the inmates with shouts about their mistreatment and his plans to escape. Unlike the other men, Kalba had a blanket and a lighter. He threatened to start a fire if the men weren't released by 10:15pm.

When Kalba eventually set fire to the blanket, officers stormed in. A few made straight for Shalakany, took him out, and placed him in a separate cell. In the morning, the other prisoners were released, but police charged Shalakany with inciting a riot, damaging public property, and attempting to escape. They sent him eight hours up the road to Suez and handed him over to a military prosecutor's office.

But there was one problem: The military prosecutor didn't buy it. Shalakany, a Harvard-educated academic, may not have known, but Kalba was a planted informant, and the blanket and fire an old Egyptian police set-up.

"It's a well-known trick," the irate prosecutor said of Kalba's escapade, according to Shahbandar, who had received a call about Shalakany's case and driven to Suez to meet them. The prosecutor told the police he had no jurisdiction over the charges they had filed and that they and the general prosecutor's office were needlessly flooding the military with cases. Meanwhile, two other inmates brought by police to act as witnesses reversed their stories about Shalakany, perhaps sensing that the military would not play along, Shahbandar said.

"I'm not happy about the entire procedure," the prosecutor told the police. "If I start investigating this, there will be severe repercussions for everyone."

To Shahbandar, the message was clear: The prosecutor had no patience for the police officers' attempt to use his office as a cudgel and was threatening to shame them by exposing the story they had concocted to frame Shalakany.

Two days later, Shalakany was released after paying a bail of 100 pounds. He and Shahbandar assume the charges relating to the attempted "prison break" will be dismissed. The case over slandering a police officer, which was filed by the detective himself, is still pending.

Shalakany was fortunate to go before an honest military prosecutor who has "a genuine will to serve justice," Shahbandar said.

Elsewhere, the military has assumed responsibilities from the police for which it has little or no training. Shahbandar brought up the March 9 Tahrir crackdown. Among the scores of protesters arrested were around a dozen women. When the army brought the women to Nasr City, Shahbandar said, the soldiers realized they had no female prison to hold them.

"The situation's become somewhat chaotic," she said.

A rebellion in the ranks

Neither police nor army officers acted to prevent deadly Muslim-Christian violence in Imbaba [EPA]

There are other consequences to the diminished police presence. Earlier in May, when violence broke out around two churches in Imbaba, an impoverished neighbourhood in Cairo, security forces who had been sent to protect the area fled. Police knew that Muslims would likely rally around the churches, suspecting that a woman who had allegedly been forced to convert to Christianity was being held inside one of them, but officers did nothing to restrain the crowd, witnesses told the Egyptian Institute for Personal Rights.

The resulting street fights in Imbaba, which involved rocks, knives, Molotov cocktails and guns, left 15 people dead and 242 injured. Police blamed the military for not intervening, while the military said its orders were to protect the churches and not "engage with the people," according to the Daily News.

It was the kind of confusing and dangerous absence of authority that has become common in post-revolution Egypt.

For decades, Central Security riot police and State Security investigators operated with impunity, employing torture to extract information from suspects and putting down demonstrations with deadly force. Rape, electric shock, stress positions and incommunicado detentions were all commonly used tools. But now, former Interior Minister Habib el-Adly and many of his deputies face decades in prison over charges of complicity in the attacks on protesters during the revolution, and the police have been humbled. They carry a chip on their shoulder, Shahbandar said.

"So rather than find another method, they say 'Oh, we're not going to do anything about that,'" she said. "It's a kind of rebellion."

Some activists say the withdrawal of the security forces since the revolution is artificial; part of a strategy.

"There's Amn el-Markazy whenever they're needed," Hussein said, referring to the Central Security forces.

She and others see the retreat of the police and the lawlessness it inspires as a method of distracting the protest movement and keeping it off balance, unsure of the real enemy.

"I also think in a way they are enjoying this ongoing battle between us and the army," Seif said. "Because ultimately that will lead people to seek them out as the alternative."

For now, the demand of Seif, her allies and human rights lawyers in Egypt is clear: End military trials and retry everyone in civilian courts. Unlike other groups, they are pushing for retrials across the board, for petty thieves and murderers, not just protesters and their friends. They trust that the country's civil courts, which are handling the major trials of ex-regime figures, can sort the good from the bad.

The demand is straightforward, but the process is not. How can you retry as many as 10,000 detainees if the army hasn't kept detailed records and may have not conducted legitimate trials in the first place, they wonder. Was any witness testimony recorded? Has the army maintained any of the evidence used against the alleged criminals? There aren't many answers.

Egypt's public is also unlikely to support a wholesale retrial, especially for those arrested on non-protest charges. There is little sympathy for men who are seen to be taking advantage of the post-revolution uncertainty to rob and vandalise, or to settle scores and business disputes with guns and petrol bombs, as two families did in a central Cairo business district earlier this month, leaving 60 injured.

"People actually believe the army is the last resort, and this is the card they've been pulling out from the beginning," Hussein said.

The military has played an effective public relations game. Information rarely leaks, and the armed forces constantly publicise their efforts to honor the martyrs of the revolution and clamp down on thousands of "thugs."

Even independent newspapers and satellite television channels that activists depended on to embrace the goals of the revolution have shied from harshly criticising the armed forces – one of the few remaining "red lines" in Egyptian political life.

Yosri Fouda, a former Al Jazeera investigative reporter who hosts the widely watched ONtv program "Final Words," has been criticised for failing to press the army on the mistreatment of detainees, and he took to the newspaper Al Masry Al Youm in April to defend himself.

"The revolution did not go after State Security just so we end up in this situation, with forced disappearances, torture … and military trials that are lacking transparency and that do not guarantee even the minimum degree of justice," he wrote. But the army "feels that no one is appreciating its enormous effort … [and] we say this wishing to offer sincere thanks and appreciation for the Egyptian army, soldiers and officers and leadership, for their extraordinary effort."

Activists believe that if they continue to apply pressure on the Supreme Council, through media attention and protests, they'll win broad retrials. But another possibility also looms in the background: If the army doesn't adjust its heavy handed tactics, it seems only a matter of time before someone known widely enough to spark outrage is seriously injured or killed, causing irreparable damage to the military's reputation. Already, average Egyptians have endured such violence.

Atef Yehia, a 23-year-old internet café owner who supports his three sisters and widowed mother, was the man shot in the head at the Israeli embassy protest. His friend, Sabry Khaled, said he was like any other Egyptian who wanted to vent his anger and express his opinion in public.

"I just want my friend to have a normal life and to get well soon," Khaled said. "We had an idea before that the army and police aren't very good, but what happened [on Sunday] and what happened to my friend made this idea concrete."

Follow Evan Hill on Twitter: @evanchill

Source:
Al Jazeera
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