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Torture to Death in Egypt’s Police Stations

Talaat Shabib and Afify Hassan Afify are two Egyptian men who come from very different backgrounds and locations. Shabib was a papyrus salesman from Luxor in Upper Egypt, and Afify was a middle-class pharmacist from Ismailia along the Suez Canal. Despite their differences, they shared the same destiny: both men died last month in police stations, both allegedly due to torture. 

Shabib and Afifi are not unique cases; they are among 13 reported deaths in detention in November, nine of which were due to torture, according to Egyptian organization El Nadim Center for the Rehabilitation of Victims of Torture. At least four individuals have died in police detention just this week. However, the deaths of both Shabib and Afifi were followed by demonstrations and intensive media coverage, unlike many other deaths in detention. The street momentum was high enough to make Minister of Interior Magdy Abdel Ghaffar visit Luxor and meet with the elders of Shabib’s family. Four police officers are currently being held pending investigations in Shabib’s case. In Ismailia, the police inspector attended Afify’s funeral.

Although there is increasing evidence of death due to torture, not all cases trigger public fury and attention. Similar to the deaths of Shabib and Afifiy is the case of Khaled Saeed in June 2010, a middle-class Alexandrian man whose death by torture started a movement, “We are all Khaled Said.” The Egyptian revolution that started in January 2011 turned Khaled into an icon. Each of the three cases defies the regime’s claims that victims of torture are terrorists or that dissident political activities threaten national security. None of that should justify torture, but these men’s backgrounds and the absolutely apolitical nature of these cases bring the regime’s false claims into question and prompts public sympathy toward their cases.   

Both Shabib and Afify were from relatively small cities, far from Cairo and Alexandria, where social dynamics might make it easier to create solidarity due to kinship and close family ties. In Shabib’s case, he belonged to the al-Awamia tribe, a large clan in Luxor with significant political influence.

The eruption of mass demonstrations in protest of such torture deaths refutes the claim that Egyptian people will favor stability and economic rights over their civil and political rights. The war on terror cannot continue to be used as justification for the atrocities and torture practiced in police stations. Luxor—having voted repeatedly in favor of the regime—and Shabib himself—having worked in a sector that requires stability in order to flourish—would benefit from winning the war against terrorism, but a war on terrorism with disregard for human rights will destroy the same people it is meant to protect.

These demonstrations further refute the idea that the work of human rights organizations and their defenders are elitist ideals or Western concepts indtroduced by foreign organizations . These cases show that people will not always choose bread and security over freedom and dignity. This is also a reminder that the 2011 revolution was sparked with Khaled Said, a torture victim, and is proof that four years later—despite all the atrocities that have occurred—people will still rise up to defend their rights. The mobilization cycle is still there feeding off the regime’s mistakes; it might not lead to another revolution, but the cycle will bring new forms of protests and expression of dissent.

The number of victims of torture is on the rise due to the lack of accountability.  Although Egypt’s international legal obligations under the Convention Against Torture (CAT) mandate that it prohibit torture and Article 52 of the Egyptian constitution recognizes torture as a crime not subject to prescription, the Penal Code only criminalizes torture committed by a government official for the purposes of eliciting a confession. Although confessions are often the object of torture, such a narrow classification falls short of the CAT definition of torture and excludes torture committed for other purposes. Further, the Penal Code punishes torture and “cruelty” (including a “breach of…honor” or “bodily pain”) with limited sentences that do not reflect the egregious nature of the practice; the crime of torture carries a prison sentence of three to ten years, while cruelty carries less than a one year prison term and/or fine. Human Rights Watch reports that courts have previously used Article 17 of the Penal Code to reduce the sentences of security personnel convicted of torture or cruelty, citing concern for their professional career.   

Further, many police officers who torture detainees are often charged with misdemeanors rather than felonies; in turn, they are not necessarily fired from their positions. The law governing the police mandates firing in the case of felony conviction, but misdemeanor convictions are subject to the minister of interior’s discretion. Akram Soliman, an officer convicted and sentenced to five years in prison for crushing the skull of citizen Ragaay Soltan in 2009, was appointed to head the human rights section of the  Alexandria security directorate in 2014. In 2010, Islam Nabeeh returned to his post in the interior ministry after he had been convicted and sentenced to three years in prison for torturing Emad al-Kabir. By allowing personnel convicted of torture to return to their positions as public servants, the state sends an implicit message upholding impunity for torture. That message is reinforced by statements from senior officials, like President Abdel-Fattah El Sisi’s speech at the police academy in the wake of the recent incidents. Sisi described violations of rights as individual, not systematic, and praised police for their role in protecting society.

In light of its international legal and domestic obligations, Egypt should amend its penal code to recognize all forms of torture, sign the Optional Protocol to the Convention Against Torture to contribute to international inspection of torture, and recognize the Istanbul Protocol on the documentation of torture. Additionally, the country should take steps to ensure that convicted state personnel who torture detainees be removed from their positions permanently.

The public reaction to the most recent torture cases dismissed two major fallacies propagated by the regime. First, the dichotomy between stability and security on one hand and human rights and democratic principles on the other; protesters in Ismailia and Luxor rose up demanding accountability, justice, and dignity, demonstrating the issue with that logic. The second fallacy is that media censorship can prevent the disclosure of such cases in order to avoid public outrage. In contrast, it was actually local protests that brought media attention to these cases.  Those two fallacies attempt to produce a distorted image of reality and a superficial perception of stability. Propagating such false assumptions and a continuing lack of accountability for such atrocities neither conceals those crimes nor maintains stability.