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Video focuses Egypt on issue of police torture

Images of a man being abused, apparently by officers, puts a human face on what is said to be a common problem.

January 20, 2007|Megan K. Stack | Times Staff Writer

CAIRO — The bus driver's face is twisted in agony, staring up from a white tile floor within a ring of shoes. His screams are high-pitched and panicked.

He has been stripped from the waist down; men believed to be Egyptian police officers hold his legs aloft and taunt him as they sodomize him with a rod the size of a broomstick.

The video, which lawyers and human rights workers say was captured on a cellphone by a police officer, made its way onto Egyptian blogs this winter. Passed along by angry activists, the clip sent outrage racing through the capital.

Rights workers say that applying electric shocks to genitals, beating and hanging up people in uncomfortable positions are common practice in the jails and police stations of Egypt, a key U.S. ally.

The video deeply troubled this sexually conservative society. It was hauntingly personal, putting an agonized face on a crime that usually stays out of sight, in the shadows of the security service buildings, obscured by fear and shame.

The torture scandal has erupted at a time when many Egyptians believe the United States, spooked by the rise of Islamists and distracted by the war in Iraq, has abandoned altogether its push for democratic reform in the region.

"Torture is pervasive in detention centers in Egypt. It's completely commonplace, even for petty crimes, for detainees to be tortured," said Elijah Zarwan, a Cairo-based representative of Human Rights Watch, who has closely monitored the bus driver's travails. "In this case it seems like it was just simple cruelty. They wanted to teach him a lesson."

The man in the video, first tracked down by an Egyptian newspaper reporter, turned out to be Imad Kabir, a 21-year-old minibus driver from a scruffy neighborhood a few miles from downtown Cairo. Kabir was arrested last January after a fight broke out between police and residents of the neighborhood.

Kabir was in police custody 36 hours before he was released on bail. Police filed a report saying he'd been detained for resisting authorities and insulting a civil servant, Zarwan said. But before he was allowed to walk out of the police station, Zarwan said, Kabir was systematically beaten and raped.

Afterward, the rights advocate said, police broadcast the video by a wireless device throughout his neighborhood as a warning to other drivers. After hearing about the rape from neighbors, the victim's father died of a stroke, Kabir's lawyer said.

Apparently embarrassed by the public attention and eager to portray the rape as an isolated incident, the Egyptian government imprisoned two police officers from the Bulaq Al Dakrur station. They will stand trial in March.

But in the meantime, to the outrage of rights activists here, Kabir has also been imprisoned. The bus driver was recently sentenced to three months in prison for last winter's dust-up with police. Human rights workers say he is at risk of further torture while in custody.

A few years ago, the U.S. began to push for democratic reform in Egypt, and a spark of hope was kindled among activists here. Apparently responding to U.S. pressure, President Hosni Mubarak put himself up for reelection in 2005, Egypt's first contested presidential balloting during his quarter-century in power.

But the fairness of that election was heavily criticized, and the push for democracy appears to have diminished further since then. Mubarak recently implied that he intended to head the country "as long as a heart beats in my chest and I draw breath."

Meanwhile, U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice passed through Cairo last week without a word of public criticism for government.

"Everybody thinks the U.S. is not doing enough for political reform," said Hassan Nafae, a political science professor at Cairo University. "The Egyptian regime has been successful in convincing the United States that it's either [Mubarak's] National Democratic Party or the Muslim Brothers. This is very dangerous."

The radical Muslim Brotherhood, though officially outlawed, is by far the largest opposition group in the Egyptian parliament.

In another sign of the Mubarak government's desire to remove the issue from the public eye, a producer for the Al Jazeera satellite TV channel was detained and interrogated for two days last week.

She had been investigating police torture, and was detained at the Cairo airport as she tried to fly to Qatar with videotapes of torture reenactments for a documentary.

Despite these setbacks, the outcry over the torture video provided some hope for reformers. Though Kabir got no help from either the U.S. or the Egyptian government, aid came from his fellow Egyptians, and from the cellphone cameras and blogs that are slowly revolutionizing the Arab world.

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