Beirut — The Egyptian authorities' failure to end or impartially investigate torture and mistreatment in detention facilities reinforces an urgent need for an independent international inquiry, Human Rights Watch said today. As a party to the United Nations Convention Against Torture, Egypt should also allow the United Nations special rapporteur on torture and other relevant UN experts to visit the country, including detention sites.
On January 30, 2019, the Prosecutor General's Office said that a Cairo prosecution official had led an investigation into several cases of abuse and torture that Human Rights Watch reported in 2017 but concluded that the findings were "untrue."
"The prosecutor's statement follows Egyptian authorities' same old formula of denying abuses, ignoring victims' pain, and voiding justice," said Michael Page, deputy Middle East and North Africa director at Human Rights Watch. "Prosecutors who are not independent, and who sometimes cover up abuses, can't carry out credible and impartial investigations."
In September 2017, Human Rights Watch published a report about 20 cases of torture between 2014 and 2016. Human Rights Watch concluded that under President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi's government, the Interior Ministry's regular police and its National Security Agency (NSA) have been involved in systematic, widespread enforced disappearances and torture that most likely amount to crimes against humanity.
Torture is carried out in police stations and unofficial security agency detention sites, and detainees are most vulnerable when lawyers and relatives are unable to find out their whereabouts. It involves beatings, stress positions, suspending people by their limbs, electric shocks, and sometimes rape or rape threats.
The statement form the Prosecutor General's Office said that east Cairo prosecutors had interrogated several of the victims cited by Human Rights Watch who had "denied giving interviews for anyone working for Human Rights Watch" and "having been subject to torture or ill-treatment." The statement did not mention other necessary elements of an investigation, such as interviewing security officers who might have participated in these abuses. Human Rights Watch and other rights groups have documented that in many torture incidents, police officers and prosecutors have intimidated the victims, warning them not to complain or talk about their torture.
Human Rights Watch had sent its findings to the Prosecutor General and the Interior Ministry four months before it published the report, but received no response. The prosecutor's investigation, which allegedly began in late 2017, remained largely secretive and did not involve the government-sponsored National Council for Human Rights, independent legal experts, or human rights defenders.
Egypt does not allow any independent supervision of prisons and detention sites and has repeatedly refused to allow visits of regional and international entities that investigate torture claims, including the UN special rapporteur on torture and other cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment. Egypt is also the only country to be the subject of two public inquiries by the UN Committee Against Torture. The committee wrote in June 2017, its most recent report, that the facts it gathered "lead to the inescapable conclusion that torture is a systematic practice in Egypt."
Torture has been endemic in Egypt for decades. But since the military unseated President Mohammed Morsy in July 2013, the authorities have cracked down on dissent, rounding up tens of thousands of opponents, many of whom were arbitrarily arrested. Local and international human rights organizations have documented hundreds of cases of enforced disappearance and torture under al-Sisi's rule. Security forces have also killed hundreds of peaceful protesters and have probably extrajudicially executed detainees in several incidents.
Egypt needs to swiftly establish national independent torture prevention systems, including allowing independent organizations to inspect detention sites and prisons, Human Rights Watch said.
Human Rights Watch found that the Interior Ministry has developed an "assembly line" of serious abuse to collect information about suspected dissidents and prepare often fabricated cases against them. Prosecutors often pressure suspects to confirm confessions obtained through torture and almost never investigate allegations of abuse. Few torture cases are referred to courts, and even fewer result in guilty verdicts.
Egypt, which has been elected as chair of the African Union in 2019, should also allow visits by the African Commission for Human and Peoples' Rights (ACHPR) units such as the Working Group on the Prevention of Torture in Africa, and the special rapporteur on prisons, conditions of detention and policing in Africa.
On January 24, the African Commission wrote a Letter of Urgent appeal "concerning alleged arrest of a human rights defender for documenting the abusive use of force in military trials and the violation of the rights of detainees awaiting trial" in Egypt.
In modern Egypt's history, it appears that no officer of the National Security Agency, formerly known as State Security, which appears to be responsible for the most flagrant abuses, has received a final guilty verdict for any abuse. In a recent example, in May 2018, a criminal court acquitted two National Security Agency officers, following their retrial, who were charged in the torture and murder of Karim Hamdy, a lawyer, in Cairo's Matariya Police Station in 2015. The officers were free for most of their trial after a brief initial detention despite the risk that they could abuse their authority to interfere with the evidence.
In October, Human Rights Watch documented the disappearance and alleged torture of Khaled Hassan, an Egyptian-American citizen whom authorities had recently referred to a criminal court. The government denied any wrongdoing.
Neither prosecutors nor the judge took any serious action when his lawyers requested an official investigation and forensic examination of his wounds.
In its 2017 annual report, the Committee Against Torture said that in Egypt "perpetrators of torture almost universally enjoy impunity." It said the impunity was "facilitated by the absence of an independent investigating authority for complaints of torture," and "a lack of regular independent monitoring of places of detention."
In its 2017 report, Human Rights Watch said the Egyptian government should establish an inquiry "consistent with the national mechanism provided in the Optional Protocol to the Convention Against Torture" to investigate, prosecute, and maintain a public record of torture cases.
Egyptian laws that facilitate abuse through the lack of proper definition and prohibition of torture and enforced disappearance should be amended, Human Rights Watch said. In recent years, authorities have arrested, prosecuted, or intimidated several lawyers and activists who fight torture and enforced disappearance. The government prosecuted a prominent human rights lawyer and disciplined two judges who proposed an anti-torture law, and shut down the al-Nadim Center for the Rehabilitation of Victims of Violence and Torture, the most prominent anti-torture clinic in the country.
Egypt should allow UN and AU mechanisms such as the special rapporteurs concerned with torture, enforced disappearance, and detention conditions to visit the country and amend its laws to meet Egypt's international obligations including under the African Guidelines and Measures for the Prohibition and Prevention of Torture, Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment.
"If Egyptian authorities want to rebuild their shredded credibility after decades spent covering up and denying heinous abuse of detainees, they should immediately end torture and welcome independent, international investigators from the AU and the UN rather than denying them access to the country," Page said.