Victims of Egypt's old regime still await justice
CAIRO – Tied to a bed, Nasr al-Sayed Hassan Nasr was tortured for days with electric shocks during his 2010 detention for membership in the outlawed Muslim Brotherhood — one of tens of thousands of political prisoners under Hosni Mubarak's 29-year rule.
Stripped and handcuffed in a painful position, Nasr described how security agents shocked his genitals, chest and other bodies parts. "They hadn't asked me a single question at this stage. They seemed to just want me to collapse," he told Human Rights Watch.
And, as with virtually all the abuses under Mubarak's regime, the perpetrators were never brought to justice.
The mixed verdict in Mubarak's trial Saturday is a painful reminder that 15 months after the authoritarian leader's ouster in a popular uprising, there has been no move to bring about full accountability for wrongdoing under his regime.
Mubarak, 84, and his ex-security chief Habib el-Adly were both convicted of failing to stop the killings of some 900 protesters during last year's uprising and were sentenced to life in prison. However, six top police commanders were acquitted of ordering the killings and chief Judge Ahmed Rifaat criticized the prosecution for failing to provide evidence that police killed protesters.
In addition, Mubarak and his two sons were acquitted of corruption charges because the statute of limitations had expired.
The verdict has brought a new sense of urgency to bring justice to victims of abuses under Mubarak's regime.
On Sunday, lawmakers presented to parliament a "revolutionary justice" bill drawn up by rights activists that would create special courts to try members of Mubarak's regime for crimes including torture and corruption. Judges on the special courts would be required to have no ties to the old regime, and judicial bodies would be created to collect evidence and testimony.
"For me, the big takeaway of yesterday's verdict is that the human rights community should have pushed for torture prosecutions from Ministry of Interior officials in the immediate aftermath of the uprising because that was our one opportunity before the system started pushing back," said Heba Morayef, a researcher for Human Rights Watch in Egypt.
"The problem was that we were all busy dealing with new cases of torture and other abuses at the hands of the military. But the result is that Ministry of Interior impunity for torture is intact," she said.
Under Mubarak, tens of thousands of political prisoners were detained under emergency laws that expired last week after 31 years in force. And while there were no mass killings along the lines of South Africa during apartheid, torture was systematic, and often extreme, and corruption was endemic.
"Torture is the official state policy and not only the responsibility of an officer here or there," al-Nadim, an Egyptian rights group that chronicles torture cases, said in a 2007 report.
The same torture practices were repeatedly used in detention centers, it said, including "beatings, flogging, burning with lit cigarette butts, rape threats, covering eyes, stripping the detainees naked."
Detainees were forced into painful positions, including the "crawfish," in which a detainee's toes, fingers and head were tied together with electric wires or "grilling," where detainees were hanged on a steel pole, it said.
Sexual abuse and rape were common, particularly in fighting Islamists such as the outlawed Muslim Brotherhood, said Human Rights Watch's Morayef.
"They were quite good at torturing," she said. "You would get medical treatment in the midst of torture. They tried not to kill people in torture. ... If someone died, it was a mistake."
The numbers of those who died from torture are not believed to be large. The total for Mubarak's three-decade rule may be less than the approximately 900 killed in the 18-day uprising, rights activists say.
One of the extreme cases of brutality ended in the death of 28-year-old Khaled Said, in Alexandria. Beaten to death by two police officers in June 2010, his name became a rallying call of the uprising. "We are all Khalid Said," was the name of the Facebook group that helped organize the early protests.
Between 1990 and 1995 alone, there were 15,000 people detained under the emergency laws, which gave police sweeping powers to arrest and hold people with few or no rights, said Nasser Amin, a prominent rights lawyer.
The total number of political prisoners during the entire regime is believed to be as high as 100,000, said another rights lawyer, Mohammed Zarei, adding that in 1997 alone, there were 23,000 detainees in Egyptian jails. Some spent as much as 20 years in prison without trial.
Zarei said there are 300,000 complaints filed by detainees that have never been addressed.
Egypt's ruling military and the politically influenced judiciary have done "as little as possible" to hold the old regime accountable since Mubarak was ousted in February 2011, said Shadi Hamid, director of research for Brookings Doha Center.
"They had to sentence Mubarak as a political concession to mass opinion," he said, adding that the convictions could be overturned by an appeals court free of political influence.
"What is so troubling about the (Mubarak) judgment is that no one is being held responsible for ordering the killings of hundreds of Egyptians," he said.
There is no officially sanctioned South African-style Truth and Reconciliation Commission that could thoroughly investigate wrongdoing and seek justice for the regime's abuses. And taking on corruption in Egypt is difficult, due largely to the entrenched power of the military.
The generals who took over after Mubarak's ouster never had the political will to vigorously go after the old regime, which they were an integral part of. The head of the ruling military council, Field Marshal Hussein Tantawi, was Mubarak's defense minister for 20 years.
And things aren't likely to change under either of the two candidates in this month's presidential runoff.
Ahmed Shafiq, Mubarak's longtime friend and last prime minister, has himself faced allegations of corruption, though he has never been charged, and would not be inclined to prosecute senior figures of a regime he was an integral part of.
The Muslim Brotherhood, if elected, will have bigger priorities and pressures to prove itself, such as righting the economy and restoring security. Nevertheless, it may seek some limited accountability, perhaps focused on the deaths in the uprising. Mohammed Morsi, the Brotherhood candidate, said Saturday he would order a Mubarak retrial if elected.
Hamid said he sees virtually no hope that those responsible for abuses under the Mubarak regime will be brought to justice, at least in the short term.
"As long as the old regime is in power, there won't be transitional justice," Hamid said. "There can't be. That would implicate the very people in power now and who will be in power behind the scenes for the near future."
Still, he said he thinks it is necessary in the long term.
"Democracy is ultimately about accountability and it is hard to have accountability for the future if you don't have accountability for the past."
For many Egyptians, the verdict drove home the reality that the revolution has only removed Mubarak, while leaving intact the old system.
Ahmed Ragab, a lawyer who helped draft the transitional justice bill, said the judicial system is corrupt because it is an integral part of the regime. The chief prosecutor was appointed by Mubarak in 2006.
"This is why it is dangerous to use it in order to prosecute itself," he said.
Police torture, widespread corruption, nepotism and sweetheart deals under the table are still a fact of everyday life here.
Though el-Adly, the head of the reviled security apparatus, has been removed, the body of the security forces is largely untouched. There has been no genuine reform and many of the senior security officials in charge during the uprising continue to go to work every day at their old jobs.
Any comprehensive process of transitional justice would have to focus on the Ministry of Interior which oversees the police and other security forces and the intelligence services.
"A lot of this has to do with the secret police that is an unaccountable state-within-a-state in Egypt," said Hamid. "We don't know how the Mukhabarat (intelligence service) operates."