Egypt: Two Years into the Revolution Torture Continues, says Human Rights Watch

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On January 25, 2011, when thousands of Egyptians took to the streets to voice their anger, little did they know that it would result in a revolution. Even less to be expected was the outcome: the hated Hosni Mubarak was forced to step down after only 18 days of peaceful protests. Egypt had liberated itself, and this sweeping and unexpected success gave way to huge expectations of freedom and democracy that were surely to come.

Two years later, the outlook is not as bright. One and a half years of military rule dubbed the ‘transitional period’ and six months under a freely elected president from the Muslim Brotherhood with his own distinct ideas on how to run the country have left the revolutionary forces and opposition parties in despair. The economy is crippled, state funds are evaporating at an alarming rate and the tourism sector, so vital to Egypt’s survival, is barely functioning. Even more dire is the human rights situation: unfair trials both by military and civil courts and a lack of accountability for the over 840 protesters killed in the revolution and the many killed under military rule.

Heba Morayef, Human Rights Watch Director for Egypt in Cairo, who was targeted by Mubarak’s forces both before and during the revolution and has closely monitored developments in the last two years, points to how important a transparent dealing with the atrocities both of the army and the Central Security Forces has become. "I think what Egypt needs is a proper accountability process for the crimes of the past and not just these partial and ineffective prosecutions that we’ve had for the violence of January 2011", Morayef says, adding that even these have not produced true accountability.

The same, she says, goes for human rights violations committed after the revolution by the military, especially at state media headquarters, Maspero, where 27 Coptic Christians were shot dead or crushed to death by army vehicles in October 2011. In a belated and hasty military trial, where evidence presented by lawyers of the victims was ignored, the three young conscripts driving the army vehicles were sentenced to two and three years in military prison. Morayef calls this completely inadequate. "Between two to three years for that crime is nothing."

Worse still, a specific decision by army authorities excluded any investigation into the role of the military in the killing of 14 protesters by live ammunition. "The case that actually went to court only looked at the killing of 13 protesters who were crushed by the APCs. But the military from the beginning has refused to acknowledge that it’s ever used live gunfire. So, no, I don’t think there’s been any serious accountability for Maspero."

The hope to change this has only recently been destroyed by the new constitution which allows the army to continue holding military trials without any oversight. This prevents justice for the future in army violation cases and blocks any fair trials over atrocities of the past. Until the civilian justice system is in a position to actually investigate the military, Morayef says, things continue to look grim, both for the victims of Maspero and for protesters attacked by the armed forces. "I have no hope that there will be accountability while it’s only the military justice system that can investigate and prosecute military officers", she says.

Another obstacle to justice and accountability is the office of the Public Prosecutor, in charge of investigating the killings of unarmed protesters during the revolution. To date, only two police officers have been sentenced to jail over the killings. Acquittals of security and police officers in such trials have become the norm in Egypt and the Public Prosecutor, Abdel Meguid Mahmoud – a Mubarak-era official – made no serious attempt to change this.

President Mohamed Morsi, facing the wrath of many judges and prosecutors still attached to the old regime, has exchanged the Public Prosecutor with a new man, who is supposed to deliver the justice that up to now has been denied. But more than just a new figure at the top is needed, as Morayef points out. "I think it’s an office that requires a lot of fundamental reform in terms of its independence. It has very often served to maintain the impunity especially for security services and obviously also for the military over the years." And while she acknowledges the amount of work they have regarding investigations over killings and corruption by the old regime, she finds consultations are vital. "I do think the office of the Public Prosecutor needs to have a better relationship with the human rights community in general. We have in the past sought meetings with the Public Prosecutor himself and even with the Assistant Public Prosecutor and so far they’ve always declined them due to time constraints."

There are yet more problems within the state apparatus. While many Egyptians face a growing lack of security in the streets due to a police body – estranged by criticism – not doing its job, the fundamental reforms in the Ministry of Interior, responsible for the security services, are failing. The once notorious State Security Investigations (Amn al-Dawla) has been renamed National Security (Amn al-Watany), but Morayef has no illusions on this. "We haven’t seen any real accountability, we haven’t seen any transparency, we haven’t seen any accountability for the crimes of the Security Investigation’s officers over the years. And I think at a minimum we can say that the National Security is not any different from State Security Investigations", she says, pointing out that the new authority is still interfering politically, although cases of detention and ill-treatment, a horrific trademark of State Security, have not been reported.

So Egyptians are now safe from torture? Morayef shakes her head. "No, torture continues in the context of normal criminal investigations", she corrects any misapprehensions. "We’re just not getting torture cases from National Security yet. But no, torture continues as a practice. There’s been no attempt to actually halt torture in any way."

The full text of the interview with Heba Morayef can be found here

Jonathan Moremi is an award-winning writer, journalist and blogger, concentrating mainly on Egypt and the Middle East in his reporting since the outbreak of the Arab revolutions. You can follow him on twitter at @jonamorem

Photo: AFP/Getty

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