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Egypt: Bloggers open the door to police brutality debate

‘Extraordinary rendition’ has passed into common parlance over the last year as human rights organisations have accused the US government of exporting suspects to be tortured in regimes like Egypt, Morocco and Syria. But while cases involving international suspects get the headlines, these countries are regularly cited by human rights activists as having a major domestic torture problem, with the police in particular seeming to act with total impunity.

Now in Egypt, bloggers have struck a blow against police torture, by publicising videos shot by police officers of their colleagues beating suspects, and of police cadets receiving training. Add to this articles in the independent press and protests by civil society organisations, what's fast becoming a national campaign is gathering momentum.

Demagh Mak and Wael Abbas writing in Arabic, and others writing in English, such as Hossam e-Hamalawy, have consistently sought out and brought to light videos of incidents of police brutality on their blogs over the past few months. It's videos like this one – uploaded by Wael Abbas – that appear to be shifting the debate:

As reported by Hossam el-Hamalawy, an investigation has been launched into the conduct of the officer shown slapping the suspect in the above video, although it has now emerged that the officer in question has not yet been suspended from duty.

The brutality of Egypt's police is not a new story – Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and the Egyptian Organisation for Human Rights have regularly documented and condemned police brutality in briefings and reports.

But sustained pressure from the bloggers, and the publication of an investigative piece into the police torture video in the independent Egyptian weekly newspaper, El-Fagr, have forced the story into the mainstream. On 27th November 2006, El-Fagr published an expose on violence against suspects in the country's police stations, identifying the officers in the video above, and describing a second, much more brutal video.

That second video (which I won't show here) shows a group of officers torturing a suspect – handcuffed, stripped from the waist down, and on the ground – by inserting a stick into his anus. Now Wael Abdel Fattah, the journalist who wrote the 27th November piece in El-Fagr, has published the names of the officers who carried out the torture, and tracked down and interviewed the victim, a bus driver. Sharqawi and Hossam el-Hamalawy cover the story and relay the victim's account of how he came to be arrested, and of the horrific acts of torture perpetrated by the police. Both bloggers publish the victim's name, which, although it's in the public domain in El-Fagr, has caused debate, with one blogger, Elijah Zarwan, wondering at The Skeptic, whether this was the right thing to do.

With Ikhwan (the Muslim Brotherhood) now alleging police torture of one of its activists, and lawyers threatening a national strike in protest against police harassment, the anti-torture campaign in Egypt is growing in confidence and pace.

One YouTube user has now posted a video tribute to the bloggers here (3'42):

If bloggers like Wael Abbas, Demagh Mak, Misr el-Horra can continue to cover and make unignorable the stories that the traditional media find harder to publish, as with the Eid sexual harassment incidents, then it may open the door for the media to enter the debate – which might finally make Egypt's Interior Ministry take the problem seriously.

25 comments

  • you forgot to mention Torture In Egypt (http://www.tortureinegypt.net), a blog dedicated to the issue of torture, the blog played a major role in publicizing these events, it is slowly becoming a repository of information on victims, torturers, and detention centers where torture is prevalent.

  • […] Sameer Padania of Global Voices writes about the Egyptian bloggers anti-torture campaign… […]

  • Thanks, Alaa – sorry, I buried it a bit under the text “anti-torture campaign”! And on International Human Rights Day…

    Is there any chance that http://www.tortureinegypt.net will be published in other languages soon?

    And I wonder whether there might be an Egyptian (or other) use for some kind of application like Sami Ben Gharbia’s Tunisian Prisoners Map (see here: http://www.globalvoicesonline.org/2006/09/27/tunisia-opening-prisons-to-the-world/)

  • hmm the answer to both questions is if we find volunteers.

    yeah I’m sure the editor of torture in Egypt will welcome someone translating all the content (or at least her weekly summaries that she sends to the site’s mailing list).

    the google maps part, the technical details are more or less simple, what we need is people to work on the data. any volunteers?

  • Just wanted to clarify that I didn’t have a problem with Sharqawi or Hossam’s posting the victim’s name. Just wondered about al-Fagr’s decision to do so in the first place. In any case, Wael Abdel-Fateh and his associates deserve tons of credit for their investigative reporting.

  • […] Finally, Nasser expressed great admiration for the role of bloggers–like Wael Abbas and Demagh MAK–and Al-Fagr newspaper in exposing police brutality. But he also warned of increased police interest in the blogosphere, and expected, if not a crackdown, a state grand campaign to discredit the bloggers. […]

  • There has been a welter of media and civil society attention given to this story over the past two months, including today’s People & Power on Al-Jazeera International [http://english.aljazeera.net/NR/exeres/05180B28-9CAA-46FF-B1DD-981B70E3E9E9.htm]:

    – Voices of the People in Egypt –

    “This episode of People & Power explores the struggles that independent journalists in Egypt face when they attempt to hold the Egyptian regime and state-run institutions to account. An emergency law which has been in force since 1981 has enabled the government to enforce a rigid control over free expression. The law gives the government powers to detain people without charge and restrict civil liberties.”

    “Independent journalists who have dared to criticise the regime have allegedly faced intimidation, torture and arrest. Ibrahim Issa, who runs El Dostor, a newspaper that is critical of the government, says that the domination of state-run media means that 95 per cent of Egyptian journalists misinform people on a daily basis. Last year, Issa was sentenced to one year in prison for charges of insulting Hosni Mubarak, the president.”

    “The programme also features Momtaz el Qat, who runs the state-run newspaper, Akhbar el Yom. El Qat denies that independent journalists face any such repurcussions for criticising the government. He also argues that the concept of “freedom” guides independent journalists to act against the interests of Egyptian society.”

    “The film also looks at the ways the new technologies such as the internet have created a new space for independent journalists to operate in. However, the case of an internet blogger who was jailed for 45 days following his anti-government writings demonstrates that the online world is not immune from government oppression either.”

  • […] He was arrested in November, tried this month, and today the verdict came down: guilty of contempt of religion, insulting the president and spreading false information. It’s that last charge that’s most interesting, though. I’ve written before about Egyptian bloggers and how, although there’s only a very few of them writing about politics, they’ve exerted extraordinary influence in the country by exposing gruesome torture by the state police and mass sexual harassment of women on the streets of Cairo after Eid. (Their latest expose came just a few weeks ago.) Not only that, but according to the Beeb, “Bloggers also play an important role in Egypt’s small pro-democracy movement. They advertise in advance the times and venues of political protests, and then post pictures and accounts of how the police dealt with the demonstrations.” I’ve written about that, too. […]

  • Egitto, blogger condannato: le reazioni…

    Egitto, blogger condannato: le reazioni Le associazioni umanitarie si muovono. RSF consiglia all’ONU di rifiutare l’ospitalità che il paese ha offerto per l’Internet Governance Forum del 2009 Roma – L’Egitto rischia un danno clamoroso alla pr…

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