‘We’re next’: Prisoner’s secret filming appears to show torture in Cairo police station

A video obtained by the Guardian appearing to show Egyptian police torturing detainees in a Cairo police station confirms the extent to which officers appear able to inflict violence on civilians with near total impunity, according to human rights groups.

The video, covertly recorded by a detainee through a cell door, appears to show two inmates hung in stress positions. The detainees are naked from the waist up and suspended from a metal grate by their arms, which are fastened behind their backs.

“Watch how they are torturing us and our colleagues. They came and told us we’re next,” one detainee says. Addressing the Egyptian president, Abdel Fatah al-Sisi he says: “Mister president, we want to ask why the police in el-Salam First police station are doing this to us.”

The video is one of two believed to have been recorded in November last year inside a police station in the working-class el-Salam neighbourhood of northern Cairo.

In the second, which the Guardian is not showing to protect detainees’ identities, inmates in an overcrowded cell line up to display injuries they say were inflicted by police officials and investigators, including open wounds on their heads and bruises across their chests and backs. “They are hitting us with sticks,” they say.

Humans rights groups said the videos are visual evidence of widespread abuses that they have been documenting in police stations and detention centres across Egypt for the past decade.

The Guardian has taken steps to verify the videos where possible, including requesting an assessment of the videos by a trusted expert. Detainees shown in the video also name multiple police officers who are listed in news reports as serving at el-Salam First police station.

The videos surfaced nearly 12 years after the death of Khaled Said, a 28-year-old civilian, in police custody in Alexandria in June 2010. Said’s death proved to be a watershed, inciting public anger at the impunity of security forces and their treatment of Egyptian citizens, and sparking the protests that began on 25 January 2011, a national day traditionally honouring the police force. The 18 days of nationwide protests that followed ended the decades-long reign of autocrat Hosni Mubarak, where abuses by security bodies were widespread.

Yet 11 years after the uprising, testimonies and evidence collected by rights groups allege that abuses by Egypt’s security services are once again out of control. Since coming to power after a military coup in 2013, Sisi has presided over a renewed era of impunity for security forces, down to the lowest ranks of the police.

Despite a clear prohibition on all forms of torture in Egypt’s 2014 constitution, trials and convictions of security officials for torture or deaths in custody remain extremely rare, while abuses are regularly documented. Domestic organisations monitoring torture and abuse in detention now struggle to continue their work, amid a prolonged crackdown on civil society activity.

“Police stations are even worse than prisons,” said Aly Hussin Mahdy, a former detainee and now exiled activist, describing his experience in detention. “The revolution happened because of this, and 11 years later we see it happening again.”

Amr Magdi, an expert on Egypt at Human Rights Watch who reviewed the videos for the Guardian, said that the detainees’ injuries and the use of stress positions are consistent with documented examples of torture in detention centres. “They all show signs of severe beatings, and they mention batons and wooden sticks which are routine torture tools,” he said. “These videos show the sad and horrifying reality of Egypt’s detention system as the police enjoy near-absolute impunity.”

Magdi said that abuse was common in police stations, where mistreatment can occur away from public view. “We know that most physical torture happens in police stations and secret NSA [National Security Agency] detention centres during the initial days or weeks after arrest, and before detainees are taken to larger prisons,” he said.

Human Rights Watch detailed the use of stress positions and the systemic use of torture in police stations in a report in 2017, describing the issue as a potential crime against humanity. The report cites 19 individual cases where detainees “were tortured in police stations and national security offices across the country, including Alexandria, Aswan, and cities in the Nile delta”. For some, torture occurred in multiple places of detention.

“The basic tools of torture were electrocution and stress positions, accompanied by beatings with fists, wooden sticks or metal bars,” they said.

Police and NSA officers “handcuffed suspects’ arms behind their back, pulled up their arms, placed their handcuffs over the top edge of a door, and hung them above the floor, an unnatural position that caused excruciating pain in the back and shoulders, sometimes dislocating them. Some officers pulled suspects’ legs downward to increase the pain,” they said. They added that detainees were often left in stress positions for long periods.

Rights groups have also documented frequent deaths among those detained. In 2015, Amnesty International provided evidence of at least nine deaths in custody in the Mattareya police station in Cairo. Three years later, it demanded an investigation after the suspicious death of 43-year-old Gamal Aweida in custody in the Mansheyet Nasir district of the city.

In rare cases of accountability, a small number of police officers have been sentenced for shooting civilians in public over the past decade. In 2016, Sisi publicly instructed the interior ministry to prevent abuses by police following an outcry after an officer shot dead a taxi driver. Last year, a police officer from the al-Salam Second police station was sentenced to three years in prison with hard labour for shooting a civilian in the chest and wounding another.

Yet convictions for deaths in custody are rare, even for low-ranking police officers. Four noncommissioned officers were imprisoned by prosecutors in 2020 for torturing a man to death at a police station in Giza. In December 2020, nine police officers were sentenced to three years in prison for beating a street vendor to death in custody in Cairo in 2016.

The Egypt State Information Service, interior ministry, and current and former officials at the interior ministry either declined to comment or did not respond to requests for comment when contacted by the Guardian to discuss video evidence of abuses and the issue of torture in police custody.

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