Hopes of preserving religious harmony go wrong




Egyptian police resorted to torture in a murder hunt, inflaming feelings they were meant to soothe

By Mark Huband in Al Kosheh, Egypt

Financial Times, 4 November 1998

Police commander Abdel Hafiz sipped tea from a large mug and denied all the accusations made against his officers. Nobody had been suspended from the ceiling fans. No electric shock torture had been carried out. There had been no beating of children, and nobody had been strung upside down by their ankles from the window frame.

But personal testimonies and a report by the Egyptian Organisation for Human Rights (EOHR) describe how between mid-August and mid-September the police station in this Upper Egyptian farming village of Al Kosheh and the nearby police station of Dar al-Salaam were the scene of mass arrests, torture, and brutal collective punishment as part of a murder inquiry. “The police took me, and then they took my sons,” said Boctor Abu Al-Aymeen. “They hung me up by my feet from the window frame.”

Sitting in the crowded office of Al-Kosheh’s Coptic church, Mr Boctor said he was held for 34 days, blindfold, often strung up by his ankles, beaten with fists and sticks. He was tortured with electric shocks to his genitals and ears, and heard his family threatened with rape unless he confessed to murdering two Copts in the village on August 14.

Mr Boctor’s 11-year-old son Michael was subjected to the same treatment, and at one point was attached to a ceiling fan which was then switched on until he lost consciousness.

The official explanation for the police reaction to the murders remains vague. The EOHR believes police decided the killing of the two Copts would have damaged Moslem-Christian relations if a Moslem had been found guilty. Consequently, officials decided a Copt should be found guilty, the EOHR inquiry concluded. The investigation which followed now appears to have shattered the very relations the authorities were apparently trying to preserve, without even finding those guilty of the murders.

“The police took my 14-year-old daughter to the fields,” Mr Boctor said. “They placed her in front of her brother, and threatened to hang him up like Jesus Christ.” His daughter was not the youngest victim of the alleged brutality. The 17-month-old son of another suspect, Gamal Shukrallah, was held up by the crowd in the church office and a series of bruises across his backside revealed.

“That was from electric shocks. And there are others even younger who had the same treatment,” said Morees Shukrallah, the boy’s father. He himself had been detained for 19 days after being accused of the murders. During his detention in the Dar al-Salaam police station, he says, he was hung upside down, beaten and subjected to electric shock torture, while his wife and son were forced to look on.

During the month-long investigation, the police are estimated by church officials, villagers and the EOHR to have detained 1,200 people of all ages, many of whom were tortured.

The impact of the mass arrest and brutal treatment of villagers in an area which, the residents say, has never been affected by such trauma, has been to shatter whatever trust there may have been between civilians and the police.

“There was never any problem between the Copts and the Moslems here,” said Amba Wissah, Bishop of Sohag. “This action was not anti-Christian. It was anti-humanity. The church has gone to the government to expose the problems that the people are facing. But there’s no response.” During the period of the investigation Bishop Wissah sent letters to senior government officials alerting them to the police practices, but he received no replies.

“I shall try to do something, to bring the police to court. But I feel very sad. The human rights organisations come and do their reports, and then nothing happens,” he said. A list of written questions on the case submitted to the Interior Ministry has so far been met with silence.

“The government tried to ignore the problem during the events,” said Mohammed el-Ghamri, EOHR executive director. “Torture inside police stations has become a tradition in Egypt.{A The police officers see that it’s easy to get information from people by torturing them. In el-Kosheh the problem came about because of the torture. Murders in that area are quite normal.”

Human rights lawyers are now awaiting a report on police interrogation methods, which is being prepared by the Sohag public prosecutor. Only the prosecutor can decide whether to bring a criminal case against police officers. However, lawyers for the Centre for Human Rights Legal Aid (CHRLA) believe they may be able to bring a civil case and demands for compensation.

“If we get the right names of the police officers it might be possible to have the prosecutor take action,” said Gasser Abdel Rezak of CHRLA. But the lawyers are convinced the government would like to forget the whole incident in order to avoid inflaming sectarian conflict, of a kind which may now have arisen because of the police strategy.

“The police cursed our religion, and said we had no religion,” said Adel Arsal, the brother of one of the murdered men, who was held for 40 days and interrogated along with the hundreds of others. His anger at the insults reflects the upsurge in emotions which the villagers say they had rarely felt in the past.


© Financial Times