BENI SUEF, Egypt – The 32-year-old Egyptian government engineer disappeared in mid-January when, according to witnesses, masked police burst into his office in the southern city of Beni Suef and dragged him off in handcuffs in front of his co-workers.
Mohammed Hamdan's family searched for him for 15 days, filing a formal complaint over his detention and asking at police stations — only to be told by every official that he was never arrested.
On Jan. 25, he turned up dead. But police gave a very different story: The Interior Ministry announced that security forces killed Hamdan in a gun-battle that day while raiding a farmhouse where he was hiding. It said Hamdan, a Muslim Brotherhood member, was behind previous killings of policemen. His family was summoned to the morgue, where they found his body riddled with bullets.
"They arrested him, killed him, sent the body to the morgue, wrote the report, sealed the case and gave me a body to bury," Hamdan's father, Qenawi Hamdan, told The Associated Press, speaking in his mud-brick house in the village of Beni Suleiman outside the city of Beni Suef.
"I can't fight the government," the 67-year-old said.
Allegations of abuses by police are raising fears that Egypt's security agencies are growing out of control. For two years, they have had a largely free hand in cracking down against the former ruling Muslim Brotherhood and against Islamic militants — a threat the government says is one and the same. Police have also targeted secular activists critical of the government, something which prompted little criticism from a public more concerned with security.
But in recent weeks, incidents of abuse against regular citizens have sparked public anger that is unusually vocal, given that media have for two years effusively praised the police and avoided any criticism and tough laws have all but eliminated street protests. In recent weeks, doctors held large protests after two hospital staffers were beaten by police; when a policeman shot and killed a driver in a dispute over a fee, protests broke out by residents from the driver's Cairo neighborhood; several staunchly pro-government TV commentators have said police are going too far.
The Interior Ministry has repeatedly denied that abuses like torture and forced disappearances are systematic, saying any instances are isolated acts. After the shooting of the driver last month, the government promised reforms that would hold abusive policemen accountable. Those reforms, however, focused on low-level policemen in the street, whom officials depicted as the source of all problems.
Rights activists, however, say abuses are an intentional tool used by all levels in the security forces.
"Practices of forced disappearances, extrajudicial killings, and torture are on the rise," said Sherif Mohy Eldeen, a researcher in human rights and terrorism with the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights.
He said police "act with total impunity." Some officials seem to publicly encourage tough police action. Two days after Hamdan's body surfaced, Justice Minister Ahmed el-Zind vowed on TV, "My fire will only be quenched when 10,000 Muslim Brothers are killed for every martyr" from the security forces.
Human Rights Watch said in a January report that while the militant threat in Egypt "is real," the "heavy-handed response" by authorities creates more divisions. It said the government "has made it clear dissenting opinions will be crushed."
"Egypt's government should learn from the country's own decades-long experience that grinding oppression can plant seeds for future upheaval," the group's deputy Middle East director, Nadim Houry, said in the report.
Police abuses were one of the complaints fueling the 2011 uprising that ousted autocrat Hosni Mubarak. His elected successor, Islamist Mohammed Morsi, was removed by the military in 2013 after massive protests against Morsi and his Muslim Brotherhood. The head of the military, Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi, then left his post and was elected president in a landslide.
Since Morsi's ouster, militants have stepped up their insurgency, killing hundreds of police and soldiers.
The Egyptian Association for Rights and Freedoms says at least 314 people in 2015 and 35 people this year were subjected to "forced disappearances," in which police detain a person in secret. The tactic, activists and lawyers say, is a way for security agents to interrogate — and often torture — someone before notifying prosecution officials of their arrest, something that under the constitution is supposed to take place within 24 hours.
Most turn up alive when authorities finally formalize their detention. But the association has documented at least two deaths this year, including Hamdan's, and at least five last year, including one with marks from burns and electrical shocks.
The allegations are one reason that many rights activists suspect security agents in the death of Italian Ph.D. student Guilio Regeni, who disappeared in Cairo on Jan. 25. Regeni's body was found nine days later dumped by a highway with torture marks. The Interior Ministry has denied security agents were involved and said he was likely killed in a personal dispute.
Hamdan was known to be a Brotherhood member and once served as a guard for the group's leader, Mohammed Badie. Announcing Hamdan's death on Jan. 25, the Interior Ministry said he was part of a Brotherhood cell that had killed at least three policemen. It said police on the same day also raided an apartment on the outskirts of Cairo and killed two other men working with Hamdan.
Hamdan's family, however, says he had already been in custody for two weeks.
One of his brothers, Hussein, and his father, Qenawi, said Hamdan's co-workers from an Agriculture Ministry department alerted them on Jan. 10 after he was arrested.
In the offices of the Agriculture Reform Department, employees were visibly afraid to speak to the AP and did so only on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisals.
One said Hamdan "was arrested" but would not elaborate. He said he testified about the arrest to the prosecutor.
"I can't speak or else I will be in trouble," he said. "I can only say I was shocked and remain shocked till this day."
Another employee said, "this is a political case," but would not explain.
As proof of when Hamdan actually disappeared, his brother Hussein shows a series of official reports the family filed over his reported detention. The first they made immediately on Jan. 10 to the Beni Suef prosecutor's office. Others to police, prosecution and the Interior Ministry are dated over subsequent days.
As the family continued to speak up against the arrest, one of Hamdan's brothers was detained for four days without charge in what the family says was an attempt to intimidate them.
The Beni Suef prosecutor, Sherif el-Gammal, refused to comment, saying the investigation is still ongoing. The officer on duty at the Beni Suef police station, Capt. Ahmed Musharraf, referred the AP to a local security agency media department, which in turn refused to comment.
Hamdan's father described how a police officer summoned him to the police station on Jan. 25 to inform him of his son's death.
The officer started off saying, "You're a strong man, Sheikh Qenawi. How many children do you have?"
Nine sons and six daughters, Qenawi said he replied.
"Praise the Lord," the officer said.
"Just tell me outright that you killed my son," Qenawi said he told the officer.
The officer, he said, replied: "Only God is immortal."