Connect to share and comment

As Egypt's presidential election presents extraordinary challenges, GlobalPost offers this continuing series to shed light on how the country will move forward under its first-ever civilian head of state and how the soon-to-be-drafted constitution will protect civil rights in a new Egypt. 

Thousands rally for alleged torture victim Essam Atta

Rage at Egypt's military leadership as crowd invokes revolutionary icon Khaled Said.

CAIRO — The scene outside Zeinhom Morgue in the downtown Cairo slum was chilling on Friday afternoon as dozens of angry protesters mourned as they awaited the body of 24-year-old Essam Atta, allegedly tortured and brutalized by security officials in Tora Prison for smuggling in a SIM card to use in a cell phone.

“They took my son, my groom, they took him before his time,” mumbled Neama, Atta’s mother, as she walked sobbing down the dark corridor to the back entrance of the dirty morgue.

Naema’s face was dazed as she spoke of her son’s death. She said she was was visiting him on Tuesday when prison officers stormed into the room, grabbed Atta abruptly, then took him into a bathroom, turning on a water hose to full power and inserting it into his anus and mouth.

“I screamed at them, tried to pull them away but they hit me and pushed me aside,” she said. “I saw them take the bedcover he used to sleep on and put it and they put it over the window of the bathroom where they tortured him,” she said, still sobbing.

On Thursday night, Atta was declared dead at Cairo’s Kasr el-Aini hospital. The Ministry of Information announced Atta was found “foaming around the mouth, suffering from fatigue and loss of consciousness” on Thursday and that the cause of the death was “drug poisoning.”

“What we are seeing now is Khaled Said number two.”
~Aida Seif, doctor and human rights activist

But his family and prison mates say he may have died as early as Tuesday night or Wednesday morning as a direct result of torture, not drugs.

For many Egyptians, Atta’s death is all too reminiscent of 28-year-old Khaled Said, who died at police hands in June 2010. Said’s death had sparked unprecedented protests that eventually led to January 25, when millions of Egyptians demanded the fall of Hosni Mubarak and his regime.

After Atta’s body was released from the morgue Friday evening, his family, along with dozens of protesters marched to Tahrir Square, where there were more than 20,000 other protesters demanding the fall of Field Marshal Mohamed Tantawi and his ruling military council, who assumed power after Mubarak was forced out of power in February.

After the prayer finished, the people rose simultaneously, angrily chanting: “The people demand the fall of the Field Marshal.”

Khaled Said’s mother, Leila Marzouk, also arrived to console Atta’s family just days after the two officers involved in Said’s death were sentenced to seven years in prison for manslaughter.

“Sadly, I am here today to bring in another Khaled,” Marzouk said to a group of protesters in Tahrir as tears streamed down her face. “They cannot keep killing our youth and getting away with it. My faith is in you,” she said to the young people in the crowd.

Atta’s autopsy came out a few hours after his admittance into the morgue on Friday afternoon showing that he had died of “heart failure and internal bleeding.”

Neama said Atta’s prison mates had confirmed to the family what Atta had been relaying via an illegal cell phone: Their son was being regularly tortured by police officers at the prison.

Out of concern, Naema headed to Tora early Tuesday after not seeing Atta for over a month and a half.

His mother said she believes her son was tortured because he told his family of what was happening to him inside the prison walls.

“Before they took him, he was asking me to get him out of there, to file a complaint to the general prosecutor about what was happening to him,” Neama said.

Atta’s sister Hanan said, “He had told us while he was in prison that we should file a complaint to the Prosecutor General, but my father told him ‘No, son, if we do that, they might kill you.’”


Atta, who worked as a shoe repairman in his father’s small shop, comes from a low-income family that lives in El Basateen, a slum just outside of Old Cairo.

He is one of six children, and had been serving a two-year sentence in Tora Prison for “illegally occupying an apartment.” His friends and family contend he was an innocent bystander when arrested in February and the apartment charge was added later.

In their last visit with Atta, Neama said her son told he was tired of what was