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.


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