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June 23, 2004

Egyptian Police Learn From Abu Ghraib

by Jim Lobe

WASHINGTON – In what may be the first concrete example of the effects of the Abu Ghraib prison torture scandal in Iraq, lawyers and human rights groups in Egypt, a major U.S. ally in the Middle East, say that local police are increasingly resorting to new torture tactics similar to those used by U.S. soldiers in Iraq.

Several lawyers and human rights groups told IPS in phone interviews over the past two weeks that the Egyptian State Security Police used methods that mirrored those in Abu Ghraib, like stripping some detainees naked – a rare practice in Egyptian prisons, even though the country has a long record of human rights abuses and prison torture.

Other practices include taking pictures or threatening to take pictures of prisoners naked, which the groups say was a hugely uncommon occurrence in the past; and blindfolding and handcuffing detainees for long periods of time, which also prevented them from fulfilling their religious obligations, such as praying five times a day.

But perhaps most disturbing to domestic human rights groups is the growing use of the name "Abu Ghraib" by officers to threaten further torture of detainees, and its significance as a code term for applying electricity to the genital area.

"It is clear that the U.S. has now spread the culture of barbaric torture," said Gamal Tajeldeen Hassan, a lawyer who heads the Sawasya Human Rights and Anti-Discrimination Center in Cairo.

"Torturers here seem now to compare their methods to what happened in Iraq and say 'hey, there are more things that we need to try'. And now they try the most horrendous kinds of torture."

U.S. soldiers and private interrogators working for the U.S. military in Iraq abused prisoners often stripped them naked and took pictures of them.

Leaks to the media of those photos, and first-hand reports by U.S. military personnel, led to the scandal over abuse and torture in Abu Ghraib in Baghdad, and many human rights groups warned that the debacle could put a major dent in the human rights cause across the world.

The Egypt developments may come as a speedy vindication of those fears.

"There are certainly striking similarities," said Hany Fawzy, a human rights lawyer who attended interviews by the attorney general's office of abused detainees.

The abuses in Egypt unraveled earlier this month after the Egyptian police arrested some 58 members of the non-violent Muslim Brotherhood, Egypt's largest opposition group, whose goal is to set up an Islamic state in Egypt through peaceful means.

Days after the arrests, on June 3, one of the detainees, 43-year-old engineer Akram Zohiri, died in prison, apparently under torture and neglect of his deteriorating health condition.

His death prompted parliamentary demands for an independent inquiry into police brutality. The government of President Hosni Mubarak eventually acceded and approved an investigative visit – which proved to be short-lived – to a prison facility.

Lawyers, human rights groups and members of parliament who attended the trip heard testimony from detainees supporting the charge that what happened in Abu Ghraib inspired torture elsewhere.

Some detainees, including Hesham Dooh and Mahomd Zein el-Abideen, told the independent visitors in the presence of lawyers from human rights groups that they were stripped naked and ordered to parade around, blindfolded with hands bound behind their backs, for at least two hours a day.

Some said they were also photographed naked, while others said they were only threatened with being photographed in the nude.

An officer identified as Ayman Shaheen threatened el-Abideen that his picture would be displayed in the neighborhood where he lived to further humiliate him, so that he would give up his religious and political beliefs.

Lawyers and human rights groups say Dooh was interrogated naked three times for three hours each session.

According to a complaint made available to IPS by a group of lawyers and submitted to the newly formed semi-official Egyptian Council on Human Rights, Abideen reported to the attorney-general that he was electrocuted in different parts of his body, including his genitals.

He said that officers used terms like "give him estakoza" – which meant that he would be electrocuted on his head, chest and back – and the new code term, "give him the Abu Ghraib way" in which soldiers would use electricity on his penis and anus.

"Torture in Egypt is far from new. They have used all methods before and tried it all," said Mohammed Zaree, an anti-torture activist, who heads the Human Rights Center for the Assistance of Prisoners (HRCAP), and was himself a victim of torture in 1980s.

"What may be new here is that it's become fashionable to refer to Abu Ghraib in prisons. The idea behind referring to Abu Ghraib now is to tell the victims that they have no hope, that they are really in the remotest part of the world, that nobody will hear or care about them, just like Abu Ghraib."

Another detainee, Desoki Sayed Deskoki, reported that he and others were threatened that their "wives, daughters, mothers" would be raped in front of them unless they admitted to accepting foreign financing and working to topple the regime.

Several local human rights groups condemned the abuses in a statement earlier this month.

"What is happening in Egyptian police and state security intelligence stations is not different from what happened in Abu Ghraib prison," said the groups, which included El Nadim Center, the Hisham Mubarak Law Center and the Arab Network for Human Rights Information.

"The geography might be different, the nationality of the torturers might be different, but torture remains the same: a crime against humanity, against life," they said.

The Egyptian Organization for Human Rights (EOHR), another leading group in Cairo, also condemned the abuses, blaming U.S. actions at Abu Ghraib prison for the escalating torture in Egypt.

"What Abu Ghraib did was to give legitimacy of torture practices not only in the Egyptian security system but in security systems across the region [the Middle East]," said Hafez Abu Seeda, secretary general of the EOHR.

"The Abu Ghraib practices actually left a major impact in the region. We noted that there is an increase in torture practices than before, which we documented. It is my opinion that Abu Ghraib emboldened and made torture more brazen here."

International human rights groups say they are monitoring the developments in Egypt and that they expected the Abu Ghraib scandal to reverberate for a long time to come.

"I wouldn't be surprised at all if in Egypt and all over the world that repressive governments feel more able to resort to torture and that torture is more blatant and that it is more widespread," Elisa Massimino, director of the Washington Bureau of Human Rights First.

The reports are particularly ironic because the George W. Bush administration says it invaded Iraq in March 2003 part to bring human rights and democracy to the Middle East, a region whose nations have long been suffering under dictatorships that came to rule after colonial powers.

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  • Jim Lobe, works as Inter Press Service's correspondent in the Washington, D.C., bureau. He has followed the ups and downs of neo-conservatives since well before their rise in the aftermath of the September 11, 2001 attacks.

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