CAIRO – Egypt's crackdown on Islamists has jailed 16,000 people over the past eight months in the country's biggest round-up in nearly two decades, according to previously unreleased figures from security officials. Rights activists say reports of abuses in prisons are mounting, with prisoners describing systematic beatings and miserable conditions for dozens packed into tiny cells.
The Egyptian government has not released official numbers for those arrested in the sweeps since the military ousted Islamist President Mohammed Morsi in July. But four senior officials — two from the Interior Ministry and two from the military — gave The Associated Press a count of 16,000, including about 3,000 top- or mid-level members of Morsi's Muslim Brotherhood.
The count, which is consistent with recent estimates by human rights groups, was based on a tally kept by the Interior Ministry to which the military also has access. It includes hundreds of women and minors, though the officials could not give exact figures. The officials gave the figures to the AP on condition of anonymity because the government has not released them.
The flood of arrests has swamped prisons and the legal system. Many are held for months in police station lockups meant as temporary holding areas or in impromptu jails set up in police training camps because prisons are overcrowded. Inmates are kept for months without charge.
"My son looks like a caveman now. His hair and nails are long, he has a beard and he is unclean," said Nagham Omar, describing to the AP the conditions that her 20-year-old son Salahideen Ayman Mohammed has endured since his arrest in January while participating in a pro-Morsi protest. He and 22 others are crammed in a 3-by-3 meter (yard) cell in a police station in the southern city of Assiut, said Omar, who visits him once a week. Mohammed has not yet been charged.
"He is my son, but the stench in that place makes me want to leave immediately," she said.
The government says the police, run by the Interior Ministry, have changed their ways from the era of autocrat Hosni Mubarak, when the security forces became notorious for torture and corruption. Now, officials say, there is no tolerance for abuses.
The assistant interior minister for human rights, Maj. Gen. Abu Bakr Abdel-Karim, told the newspaper Al-Watan in an interview last month that "it is possible that there is some use of cruelty" and said anyone claiming to be maltreated should file a complaint with either the ministry or the general prosecutors' office. But he said so far there had been no proof presented of maltreatment.
"If we have anyone (in the police) who made a mistake and broke the law, he will be held accountable under the law," Abdel-Karim said in a separate interview with private broadcaster ONTV.
The new military-backed government is determined to crush the Muslim Brotherhood and its Islamist allies. They present the campaign as a fight against terrorism, accusing the group of cooperating with Islamic militants in a wave of bombings and assassinations since Morsi's ouster. The violence has killed dozens of police and soldiers.
The Brotherhood denies any link to the militants, and says authorities are using terrorism as an excuse to eliminate the group as a political rival. Some 2,000 Brotherhood supporters have been killed by police in crackdowns on pro-Morsi protests that Islamists have held for months around the country.
Hatred of police abuses was a major factor fueling the 2011 uprising that overthrew Mubarak. However, the new arrests have seen broad support among the public amid a wave of nationalist feeling. Millions rose up in protests last summer demanding Morsi's removal before the military ousted him.
Since then, much of Egypt's media have fed the fervor, depicting the Brotherhood as terrorists and the police and military as heroes. That same fervor seems likely to lift the head of the military, Field Marshal Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi, to the presidency in upcoming elections. As a result, there is little public tolerance for criticism of the military or police. Human rights activists' reports of abuses by the police have caused little public outcry.
The result is the biggest wave of arrests since the 1990s, when Mubarak's security forces jailed at least 20,000 people, mostly Islamists, while battling a bloody militant insurgency.
Most of those detained in the crackdown since Morsi's July 3 ouster are Islamists detained during street protests, when police arrest dozens at a time. They also include Brotherhood members arrested in raids on their homes. But there have also been frequent arrests of individuals found carrying posters or other literature seen as supporting the Brotherhood or critical of the military. Secular, anti-military activists — including some of the biggest names of the 2011 anti-Mubarak uprising — have been arrested for violating a draconian new law that bans all protests without a police permit.
Rights activists say torture — by Egypt's legal definition — is not standard practice, though they have received reports of electric shocks being used to punish detainees. More widely spread, they said, are beatings, sleep deprivation, verbal abuse, threats of rape and denying inmates basic items like bedding, blankets, newspapers and exercise.
"I am not convinced that torture is systematic, but I am convinced that excessive cruelty is," said Mohammed Abdel-Aziz, a prominent rights lawyer who heads a non-governmental organization that supports detainees.
But he and other rights lawyers say the general prosecutors' office, whose role is to investigate accusations against detainees, usually accept police versions of events.
Police appear to be inflicting brutal treatment systematically with no fear of punishment. On March 10, police beat three secular activists inside a court building because they insisted their handcuffs be removed in court, their lawyer said. In the hearing, the activists demanded the judge register their complaint, but he took no action against the policemen.
Khaled el-Sayed, a 30-year-old veteran of the 2011 revolution, described to the AP his ordeal after he was arrested with two other prominent liberal activists on Jan. 25, a day of protests by both Islamists and secular anti-military groups. He was released earlier this month.
At the first police station they were taken to, in Cairo's Azbakeya district, those arrested in protests stood blindfolded for 14 hours while officials repeatedly punched and beaten them with sticks, he said. He could hear others screaming as if being given electrical shocks, but could not see anything.
"It was inhuman," el-Sayed said.
He and the others were taken to a second police station and held for 10 days, with about 15 people crammed in a 7-square-meter (square-yard) cell, then were taken to Abu Zaabal prison just north of Cairo.
At the prison, they were kept in the parked police truck for 90 minutes. When they were let out, he said they were given what police call "the reception." Guards beat arriving inmates with sticks, el-Sayed said. They were all sat on the floor, and guards beat anyone who raised their head again, he said.
Afterward, he said guards packed 30 inmates in a single cell, with only blankets to sleep on the cold concrete floor. El-Sayed would spend the next 16 days there. Several inmates had fevers but were refused medical treatment. During one inspection, guards singled out el-Sayed because he complained about the conditions. He said they handcuffed him, slammed him against a wall and punched him repeatedly in the face.
After 16 days, he was transferred to another prison, where he said treatment was better — because, he believes, he leaked a letter to the public about the abuses.
"Abu Zaabal is a living proof that Mohammed Ibrahim is more ruthless than Habib el-Adly," he said, comparing the current interior minister to Mubarak's longtime security chief. "He is taking revenge on the people of Egypt."
Ahmed el-Yamani, a 52-year-old Brotherhood member who was held for nearly five months after his arrest in August, said he shared a 7-by-5 meter (yard) cell with 35 other detainees. At one stretch, he said they didn't leave the cell for an entire month.
"They ordered us to strip and took away our clothes. We spent two weeks in just our underwear. One of us spent a whole month wearing only his boxers," he told the AP.
The two Interior Ministry officials who spoke to the AP said reports of ill-treatment are "grossly exaggerated" but they acknowledged some take place. They blamed overcrowding, a lack of medical treatment and other problems.
But one also said: "We cannot talk about human rights and detainees' rights at a time when policemen are now targeted on the streets by assassins and see their comrades being gunned down."
The military-backed government in January pushed through a new, voter-approved constitution with articles ensuring due process. It guarantees detainees cannot be "tortured, intimidated, coerced or physically or morally harmed" or held "except in places designated for that purpose."
Maha Youssef, chief lawyer of the El-Nadeem Center, which cares for torture victims, said the large number of detainees is in part because prosecutors order suspects held in custody for long periods when the crime they are accused of is minor, such as participating in an unlicensed protest or blocking traffic. Bails are set unusually high, beyond the means of most Egyptians, she added.
Prosecutors also question detainees at their place of detention, not in prosecutors' offices, and sometimes question dozens en masse, both violations of the prisoners' rights, rights activists say.
"That, in itself, is a kind of torture," given the poor conditions, said Negad Borai, a rights lawyer. "Egyptians have few rights when they're free, so you can imagine what it's like for them when they're in jail."