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The resurgence of torture is polarizing Egypt.
Egyptian police arrest a Muslim Brotherhood supporter (C) following a demonstration in the Nasr City district of Cairo. (Mohamed El-Shahed/AFP/Getty Images)
CAIRO, Egypt — Gihad al-Khayat was waiting in a downtown Metro station when a man passing by noticed her pin. He pointed at her and cried out.
Suddenly, police grabbed her. By the time she was released more than two months later, her arm, jaw, and one leg had been broken. She had been beaten on several occasions, denied food, and subjected to a forced pregnancy test.
The button al-Khayat had been wearing was marked with the image of a hand showing four fingers — the symbol commemorating the massacre of more than 900 Islamist protesters in August last year in Rabaa Square. It marked her as an opponent of the current government. And this was, she says, the only excuse the police arresting her needed.
Al-Khayat is one of an estimated 21,000 people, according to the widely cited Egyptian Center for Economic and Social Rights, to have been detained by Egypt's security services since the military pushed former president and Muslim Brotherhood politician Mohamed Morsi from power in July last year.
Since then, a surge in the routine abuse of prisoners has deepened Morsi supporters’ hatred of the army-backed authorities, and underscored the impunity which the feared security services have enjoyed since the coup last summer.
Torture in detention — which did so much to fuel the anger that spilled over in the 2011 Egyptian Arab Spring revolution against Hosni Mubarak, and which has hardened the resolve of Islamists for decades — is back with a vengeance.
A series of interviews with detainees and their families reveal accounts of beatings, broken bones, sexual harassment toward both genders, and forced pregnancy tests. Others reported the denial of regular access to a lawyer and detention without charge for six months or more, while rights groups have documented cases of electrocution.
Egyptian government spokesman Dr. Badr Abdelatty, asked about these families’ stories, referred GlobalPost to an Feb. 11 statement in which the Interior Ministry flatly denied allegations of torture, but did not respond to more specific questions. Egypt's new constitution, approved by a landslide in January, criminalizes torture.
According to multiple rights groups, not only did police abuse continue under the current military-backed administration, but the rate of torture has skyrocketed since July 3, when it took power.
Hend Nafaa coordinates a campaign group called Nation Without Torture, which collates and verifies reports of such abuse.
"Before 30 June we typically had one case a day, after 30 June, we document 10 to 20 daily," she said. Each “case” refers to an instance of torture the group can verify by talking to the victim, the victim’s family, or the victim’s lawyer if the victim is still in custody. "Torture is so frequent that it became an ideology, a system."
Gihad al-Khayat, who still limps with a crutch, agrees. She is one of few women to describe publicly the abuse she received in custody. Among the most distressing incidents during her detention, she was taken to a hospital and told that if she did not submit to a pregnancy test — carried out by blood sample — she would be subjected to a "virginity test," an invasive procedure in which a doctor probes for an intact hymen. She gave in.
The use of virginity tests in custody came to light in 2011 during the anti-Mubarak protests, when a number of women who were subjected to the procedure by military doctors launched a legal challenge to the practice, leading to its ban. Egypt's armed forces chief, Field Marshal Abdul Fattah al-Sisi, said that the tests had been instituted "to protect the girls from rape, and the soldiers and officers from accusations of rape."
"Pregnancy tests are routine, they never went away," said Diana el-Tahawy, an Egypt researcher at Amnesty International. Nafaa, of Nation Without Torture, said she believes the real purpose of the tests is humiliation. The government spokesman did not respond to a question on the topic.
The food provided in Egyptian prisons is extremely poor, verging on inedible. Like most other prisoners, al-Khayat relied on food her family brought. But a guard who took a dislike to her routinely ate the food instead, she said. During the six months, she says she was held in at least five different police stations and prisons.
On the advice of her lawyers and due to her own distress, she declined to discuss the incident which led to her broken limbs and jaw.
Ashraf Ghoneim lives with his family in the village of Ibshish, three hours' drive from Cairo. His 17-year-old son Hamza was arrested at an anti-government demonstration in nearby Aatour, a small town of blocky concrete apartments couched in the green fields of the Nile delta. A few days after his arrest, photographs of Hamza appeared on Facebook, some of the few images to escape from the inside of Egypt's police stations and jails, where cameras and phones are forbidden.
The photographs showed him with swollen black eyes. They also showed other prisoners with injuries to the head and torso.
Photos of unknown origin posted to Facebook show Hamza (far left) with a black eye. The other prisoners show signs of having been beaten as well. In the right-hand photo, the prisoner being tended to displays the four-finger sign commemorating the Rabaa Square massacre.
Along with many other minors, some as young as 14, Hamza is now detained in the adult Mansoura prison, contrary to Egyptian law. Prison authorities typically delegate discipline in cells to a long-term inmate, often a hardened criminal.
Ghoneim said that since the family learned of the beatings — part of a commonplace ritual at police stations known as the "arrival party," also described by several other interviewees — they have been sick with worry. Abuse in prisons is typically less severe than that received early on at the police stations.
A young friend of Hamza's said that the arrests and beatings tended to spur sympathy among their peers on the outside, and resentment of the authorities.
On Sunday, a videosmuggled from inside a jail emerged, showing filthy and cramped prison conditions and prisoners complaining of maltreatment. "They beat me, electrocuted me, they tortured me in ways I can't describe," one anonymous man said.
Aida Seif al-Dawla of the Nadeem Centre for the Rehabilitation of Victims of Torture said that Islamist activists were more reluctant than secularists to approach human rights organizations, some of whom they perceived to have supported the violence meted out by the security services since July.
Islamist supporters of ousted president Morsi like al-Khayat and Hamza make up the large majority of victims, but secular oppositionists and even bystanders have suffered, too.
Among them is Hany Fouly, an engineering student arrested on the streets of central Cairo on Jan. 25 this year. He was not involved in protests taking place a few streets away, he says, but police seized him anyway and began beating him. They dragged him along with dozens of others into a nearby synagogue, where the beating continued, before taking him to the Abdeen police station, and eventually to the infamous Tora prison complex in Cairo.
More than a month later, Fouly was released on bail, but still faces a dozen charges including attempted murder and membership of a terrorist group, he says. But, imprisoned in a cell alongside dozens of activists, he found the camaraderie inspiring.
"There was not room for us all to sleep at once, so we would sleep in shifts," he recalled in an interview just meters from the spot where he was arrested, "and if we had a piece of bread we would divide it between us."
Privately, several Egyptian officials have told GlobalPost they are uncomfortable with the excesses of the police and security services, but feel powerless to prevent them due to the strength of the Interior Ministry, and the difficulty of challenging anything labeled as being in the interests of “national security.” Many ordinary Egyptians who backed the removal of Morsi also want to see the police reined in. But successive administrations, including that of Mohamed Morsi, have shrunk from reform of the Interior Ministry, electing instead to use its powers to their immediate advantage.
"It gives them the chance to be the sole power in the country," said Nafaa of Nation Without Torture. "The only voice."