US embassy cables: Police brutality in Egypt
guardian.co.uk, Friday 28 January 2011 14.44 GMT
C O N F I D E N T I A L
SUBJECT: GOE STRUGGLING TO ADDRESS POLICE BRUTALITY REF: A. 08 CAIRO 2431 B. 08 CAIRO 2430 C. 08 CAIRO 2260 D. 08 CAIRO 783 E. 07 CAIRO 3214 F. 07 CAIRO 2845
The US ambassador in Cairo describes how police still resort to torturing activists deemed a political threat. Key passages highlighted in yellow.
Classified By: Ambassador Margaret Scobey
1. (C) Summary and comment: Police brutality in Egypt against common criminals is routine and pervasive. Contacts describe the police using force to extract confessions from criminals as a daily event, resulting from poor training and understaffing. Brutality against Islamist detainees has reportedly decreased overall, but security forces still resort to torturing Muslim Brotherhood activists who are deemed to pose a political threat. Over the past five years, the government has stopped denying that torture exists, and since late 2007 courts have sentenced approximately 15 police officers to prison terms for torture and killings.
Independent NGOs have criticized GOE-led efforts to provide human rights training for the police as ineffective and lacking political will. The GOE has not yet made a serious effort to transform the police from an instrument of regime power into a public service institution. We want to continue a USG-funded police training program (ref F), and to look for other ways to help the GOE address police brutality. End summary and comment.
A Pervasive Problem
2. (C) Torture and police brutality in Egypt are endemic and widespread. The police use brutal methods mostly against common criminals to extract confessions, but also against demonstrators, certain political prisoners and unfortunate bystanders. One human rights lawyer told us there is evidence of torture in Egypt dating back to the times of the Pharaohs. NGO contacts estimate there are literally hundreds of torture incidents every day in Cairo police stations alone. Egyptians are bombarded with consistent news reports of police brutality, ranging from high profile incidents such as accidental but lethal police shootings in Salamut and Aswan this past fall (refs B and C) that sparked riots, to reports of police officers shooting civilians following disputes over traffic tickets. In November 2008 alone, there were two incidents of off-duty police officers shooting and killing civilians over petty disputes. The cases against both officers are currently making their way through the judicial system.
3. (C) NGO and academic contacts from across the political spectrum report witnessing police brutality as part of their daily lives. One academic at XXXXXXXXXXXX told us XXXXXXXXXXXX the police proceeded to beat a female suspect into confessing about others involved in the theft and the whereabouts of the stolen valuables. A contact from an international NGO described witnessing police beat the doorman of an upscale Cairo apartment building into disclosing the apartment number of a suspect. Another contact at a human rights NGO told us that her friends do not report thefts from their apartments because they do not want to subject “all the doormen” in the vicinity to police beatings. She told us that the police’s use of force has pervaded Egyptian culture to the extent that one popular television soap opera recently featured a police detective hero who beats up suspects to collect evidence.
4. (C) Contacts attribute police brutality to poor training, understaffing and official sanction. Human rights lawyer XXXXXXXXXXXX XXXXXXXXXXXX XXXXXXXXXX speculated that officers routinely resort to brutality because of pressure from their superiors to solve crimes. He asserted that most officers think solving crimes justifies brutal interrogation methods, and that some policemen believe that Islamic law sanctions torture. XXXXXXXXXXXX commented that a culture of judicial impunity for police officers enables continued brutality. According to XXXXXXXXXXXX, “Police officers feel they are above the law and protected by the public prosecutor.” Human rights lawyer XXXXXXXXXXXX attributed police brutality against common criminals, including the use of electric shocks, to the problem of demoralized officers facing long hours and their own economic problems. He asserted that the police will even beat lawyers who enter police stations to defend their clients.
Criminals and Islamists
5. (C) XXXXXXXXXXXX explained that since the GOE opened a dialogue with formerly violent Islamists, such as the Islamic Group, following the 1997 Luxor terrorist attacks, torture of Islamists has decreased. XXXXXXXXXXXX claimed that the GOE now treats Islamists better than common criminals. Some Islamist detainees are “spoiled,” he asserted, with regular access to visits from friends and family, decent food and education. Before the Luxor attacks, XXXXXXXXXXXX commented, the government would torture Islamist detainees on a daily basis.
6. (C) Attorney XXXXXXXXXXXXXX commented that the GOE is more reluctant to torture Islamists, including Muslim Brotherhood (MB) members, because of their persistence in making public political statements, and their contacts with international NGOs that could embarrass the regime. XXXXXXXXXXXX speculated that the exception to this rule is when MB members mobilize people against the government in a way the regime deems threatening, such as the April 6 Facebook strike (ref D). According to XXXXXXXXXXXX, the MB-affiliated blogger and “April 6 Movement” member XXXXXXXXXXXX whom police arrested XXXXXXXXXXXX (ref A) falls into this category, and the GOE is probably torturing him to scare other “April 6” members into abandoning their political activities. XXXXXXXXXXXX’s assessment tracks with “April 6” member XXXXXXXXXXXX’s accounts of his own torture and the alleged police sexual molestation of a female “April 6” activist this past November (ref A). Bloggers close to XXXXXXXXXXXX told us that following his arrest he was tortured severely with electric shocks and needed to be hospitalized, but that security forces stopped the torture when he began cooperating.
GOE Awareness of the Problem
7. (C) Contacts agree that in the past five years, the government has stopped denying that torture exists and has taken some steps to address the problem. However, contacts believe that the Interior Ministry lacks the political will to take substantive action to change the culture of police brutality. XXXXXXXXXXXX asserted that following alleged standing orders from the Interior Ministry between 2000 and 2006 for the police to shoot, beat and humiliate judges in order to undermine judicial independence, the GOE made a political decision in 2007 to allow the courts to sentence police officers to short prison terms. XXXXXXXXXXXX described the 2007 Imad El-Kebir case as a turning point in influencing the government to permit the sentencing of police officers.
(Note: Per ref E, a court sentenced two police officers to three years in prison in November 2007 for assaulting and sodomizing bus driver Imad El-Kebir. The case gained notoriety after a cell phone video recording of the torture was posted on YouTube. End note.)
8. (C) An estimated 13 cases of officers accused of brutality are currently working their way through the courts, and judges have handed down moderate sentences, usually the minimum three-year prison term, against policemen over the past few months, often for heinous crimes. For example, in October 2008, a court sentenced a policeman to three years in prison for beating and drowning a fisherman. In November 2008, a court sentenced two policemen to three years in prison for hooking a man to their car and dragging him to his death. XXXXXXXXXXXXX characterized the sentences as “light,” in proportion to the crimes, but commented that any prison sentences are an important development toward holding the police responsible for crimes. XXXXXXXXXXXX commented that the prison sentences demonstrate that the GOE is providing political space for judges to operate somewhat independently, in response to criticism from foreign governments and international NGOs. XXXXXXXXXXXXX described the sentences as important in drawing public attention to brutal police crimes, and strengthening the hand of advocates who call for reforming systemic problems within the police force.
9. (C) Ambassador Ahmed Haggag, who is detailed from the MFA as the coordinator for the UNDP Human Rights Capacity Building Project, described for us the organization’s efforts to train the Interior and Justice Ministries and the Public Prosecutor on human rights issues through lectures and workshops. Acknowledging that torture is a “problem, but not a daily occurrence,” Haggag said the UNDP trains police officers on international human rights conventions, and is trying to convince police officers to solve cases using “legal and ethical means,” instead of torture. Haggag told us he “doubts there is still torture against political prisoners.” Staffers from the quasi-governmental National Council for Human Rights described the council’s workshops for police officers where professors give lectures on human rights law and prisoner psychology. NGO contacts have privately criticized the UNDP project as ineffective, complaining that it has banned credible human lawyers from giving lectures to the police because of their political opposition to the NDP, and instead invites MOI officials complicit in torture to give human rights presentations.
10. (C) In late December 2008, the MOI announced it had suspended 280 police officers for human rights violations and fired 1,164 lower-ranking policemen for misconduct. Our NGO contacts doubted that the disciplinary actions were human rights related, and speculated that the officers were probably involved in taking bribes and other illegal activity. XXXXXXXXXXXX asserted that this announcement does not amount to a serious MOI human rights policy. XXXXXXXXXXXXX expressed skepticism over whether these disciplinary actions will result in long-term positive changes XXXXXXXXXXXX
11. (C) Former senior Interior Ministry official Ihab Youssef, Director of the NGO “The Police and the People for Egypt” told us in late 2008 that his NGO did not receive many proposals from the public in response to its solicitation for ideas on developing projects to build trust between the police and citizens. Youssef said that the NGO’s Facebook site, which provides a forum for the public to complain about the police, has generated more interest. In September 2008, Youssef publicly announced the formation of his NGO, which counts establishment figures such as former FM Ahmed Maher among its board members (ref C). Youssef does not receive GOE funding for the NGO, and has turned to private Egyptian businesses to raise money. XXXXXXXXXXXX
12. (C) The GOE has not begun serious work on trying to transform the police and security services from instruments of power that serve and protect the regime into institutions operating in the public interest, despite official slogans to the contrary. It seems that the government would have the strongest interest in preventing future accidental shootings of innocents, such as the Salamut and Aswan incidents that resulted in riots. We imagine that halting the torture of common criminals, who are usually poor and voiceless, is lower on the GOE’s agenda. We want to continue USG-funded police training, and we will look for ways to help XXXXXXXXXXXX’s NGO launch productive work.