Egypt: Some Progress On Release Of Political Prisoners, Dismantling Security State

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On Saturday, after intense protests on Friday, when thousands of demonstrators surrounded the State Security buildings in Alexandria and Giza, demanding the release of political prisoners and the dissolution of the hated State Security agency (which employs about 100,000 of Egypt’s 500,0000-strong security forces, and is blamed for the most severe human rights abuses under Hosni Mubarak), the State Security headquarters in Cairo was invaded by hundreds of protestors, including former prisoners and relatives of the untold number of prisoners “disappeared” during Mubarak’s 30-year rule.

Other State Security buildings in Cairo were also occupied, and in the northwestern city of Mersa Matruh, according to AFP, “protesters surged into the state security headquarters, gathering up thousands of documents before setting the building on fire. Residents of the coastal resort then sat at nearby cafes leafing through the documents for evidence of human rights abuses as smoke billowed from the headquarters.”

The occupation of the State Security headquarters in Cairo

The focus on the State Security buildings on Saturday arose in particular in response to reports from Alexandria the night before by protestors who managed to occupy the building, and who stated that they had discovered evidence that agents had been shredding documents — and in some cases burning them — to destroy evidence that could incriminate them in human rights abuses, although the general spur for the protests was weeks of anger that the dissolution of the agency — a key demand of the uprising — had not occurred.

The Miami Herald reported from Cairo that “Egyptian military tanks were positioned outside the security structure and the army’s elite Thunder Squad pleaded with protesters not to enter the forbidding complex,” but to no avail, as “Egyptians chanting ‘Down with State Security!’ stormed past them and flooded into the building … even as military police fired warning shots into the air.”

The Herald’s report continued:

Outside, several families of detainees gazed at the scene in disbelief, mumbling prayers and shouting the names of the disappeared. They cornered army commanders, demanding to know whether the military had apprehended the agents who’d apparently escaped before the crowds arrived.

“Did you arrest them? Did they come out as prisoners?” a protester asked.

“No, they ran away,” an army officer answered. “Look, I’m not the interior minister. I’m here to help you!”

This appears to be true, as Al-Jazeera reported that the Egyptian army allowed the protestors to “enter at around 8pm on Saturday evening, and arrested many of the state security officers working inside.”

Inside the building, protestors “seize[d] files they hoped would cement Mubarak’s legacy of prisoner abuse and disappearances,” Some, according to the Herald, were also looking for evidence relating to Egypt’s role in the Bush administration’s program of “extraordinary rendition” and torture, in which the government of Hosni Mubarak played a major part, and protesters carted off armloads of files and turned them over to a prosecutor who arrived on the scene.” Protesters who spoke to Al-Jazeera called the buildings proof of “the greatest privacy invasion in history”, explaining how they were “filled with transcripts of phone conversations, surveillance reports and stark reminders of the torture carried out inside.”

Others were looking, in vain, for relatives. Leila Mahmoud, 47, said, “I thought my brother would be found there. He was taken on April 2, 2005, and we’ve been looking for him since then. We haven’t heard a word from him since. Not a word.”

Others, meanwhile, recalled their own torture. Adel Reda, 39, who was held for nine months inside the complex, said, “I saw people’s nails being ripped out and people hung from the ceiling by their arms or legs. They would throw our food in sand before giving it to us and splash us with cold water day and night. Sometimes it was so dark you couldn’t see your hands.” Asked if he had ever been allowed to see a lawyer, he “raised his hands heavenward and replied: ‘My lawyer was God.’”

The actions at the weekend demonstrate the dissatisfaction of a significant number of Egyptians involved in the uprising that toppled Mubarak three weeks ago, who want the ruling military leadership (the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces) “to dissolve State Security and replace it with a scaled-down intelligence force headed by a civilian,” and who “complain that the military has worked slowly and in secrecy to bring about that and other promised reforms.” They also want charges to be brought against all the officers involved in the Mubarak regime’s practice of “rounding up opposition figures and political rivals and holding them without charge,” which was only made possible through the  notorious emergency law that was in operation throughout Mubarak’s reign.

Speaking to the Miami Herald, former prisoners and their families explained how “Mubarak’s security officials would justify the detentions as counterterrorism work,” even though they “almost never provided evidence of extremist cells inside the country.” These witnesses added that “any outward appearance of Islamic devotion — a long beard, for example, or too much time in the mosque — was enough to land people on State Security’s radar.”

As the Herald also reported:

“My brother was detained because he was trying to send food and medicine to Gaza,” said Ingy Qutb, 25. “They kept him three months and tortured him and …”

Her voice broke and tears spilled onto her black veil.

“This place must be destroyed,” she said softly.

The release of political prisoners

While these stories explain, with an alarming clarity, how brutal the Mubarak regime was, how, without checks and balances, the intelligence agencies could pick up, torture and “disappear” whoever they wanted, whether there was anything resembling evidence or not, and why so many people are so angry that the State Security agency has not been dissolved by the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, it is worth noting that there has actually been progress on the release of prisoners both before and after Mubarak’s fall.

In a desperate last-ditch bid to hold onto power, Hosni Mubarak released some political prisoners before his abrupt departure on February 11. According to the state news agency MENA, 34 political prisoners, including members of the Muslim Brotherhood, were released on February 8. MENA stated, “Interior Minister Mahmoud Wagdy issued an order today releasing 34 political detainees considered to be among the extremist elements, after evaluating their positions. They showed good intentions and expressed their desire to live peaceably with society.” Al-Jazeera noted that the report added that “they had handed themselves over to the authorities after escaping from prison during several days of disorder last month.”

Al-Jazeera also reported that, according to its sources, “more than a thousand other prisoners were released … after completing at least three-quarters of their sentences,” and “another 840 prisoners were released from the Sinai province.”

On the release of political prisoners, there has also, crucially, been progress since Mubarak’s departure. Before he resigned on Friday, Prime Minister Ahmed Shafiq promised to release political prisoners, and, according to state TV, 108 political prisoners were released on February 20, including many formerly identified as terrorists. Al-Masry Al-Youm explained:

Prisoners from al-Aqrab, Tora, al-Este’naf and other prisons were let go after activists called for their release. Among the released were 19 activists belonging to a group led by Sheikh Magdy Salem, a leader of al-Jihad [Egyptian Islamic Jihad], according to sources within Islamist groups. The same sources added that the members of Sheikh Magdy’s group … included Sheikh Yehya Khalaf and Sheikh Ahmed al-Gendy. Al-Aqrab prison witnessed the release of 13 detainees, including Sheikh Mohamed al-Lowainy and Sheikh Abdel Hamid Fares, who belong to al-Gama’a al-Islamiyya [the terrorist group who renounced violence in 2003, leading to the release of over 1000 prisoners, and a further 1200 in 2006]. Sheikh Mohamed Aboul Seoud, who served nearly 25 years in al-Este’naf prison, was also released. He belongs to al-Gama’a al-Islamiyya. [...]

Sources said that the Interior Ministry is currently considering the release of Sheikh Aboud al-Zomr and his cousin Tarek al-Zomr, Egypt’s oldest prisoners, as a kind of reward for their decision to remain in prison two weeks ago despite having had opportunities to escape.

Twelve al-Jihad and al-Gama’a al-Islamiyya leaders, who were sentenced to death, hope to be included as part a general amnesty that rewards them for sharing in an initiative to discourage violence.

These releases constitute a bold attempt to start to draw a line under long decades of internal conflict, which were played upon by the Bush administration in its “War on Terror” and also by Omar Suleiman, Mubarak’s choice as Vice President, who was deeply committed to the “War on Terror,” being personally involved in the torture of prisoners rendered to Egypt by the CIA. Despite the seal of approval from Mubarak, however, Suleiman was sidelined by the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces when Mubarak stepped down, and has not been heard from since.

The day before the release of the 108 prisoners, the state news agency MENA quoted Ahmed Shafiq saying that there were 487 political prisoners in total, and that 222 “would soon be freed,” although he did not provide a date for the 114 to be released — or an explanation of who the 265 others were, or why they would continue to be held. According to Al-Masry Al-Youm, however, another 42 prisoners associated with Egyptian Jihadist and Salafist groups were released on February 24.

No one knows if these figures are accurate, as human rights groups have long maintained that thousands of political prisoners were detained by the Mubarak regime. Al-Jazeera noted, “Many fighters remain in jail from the time of Mubarak’s predecessor Anwar Sadat, who was assassinated by soldiers linked to an Islamist group in 1981. According to human rights groups, it is not clear how many people are detained in Egypt for political activities, such as joining banned groups or planning or carrying out acts of violence, but they estimate them to be in [the] thousands.” The Egyptian Organization for Human Rights, an independent nonprofit organization, put the number of political prisoners at around 17,000.

It is also unclear how many of those held were seized during the uprising that toppled Mubarak. Reuters reported that “Shafiq said the number detained during the revolt that began on January 25 did not exceed a handful, and that efforts were underway to find out the fate of those who disappeared during the uprising,” although “Protesters and rights groups say hundreds went missing during the protests, and that some are being held by authorities.” Gamal Eid, a lawyer who heads the Arabic Network for Human Rights Information, told AFP, “There are hundreds of detained, but information on their numbers is still not complete … The army was holding detainees.”

In addition, as I noted in a previous article, there have been reports of prisoners seized during the uprising being tortured (also see my article, In Egypt, Protests Undimmed, as Mubarak Prepares to Cede Power, Torture Stories Emerge and the Revolution Finds a Hero in Wael Ghonim), and last week activist Amr Abdallah Elbihiry, one of the protestors seized, was given a five-year sentence last week by a military court, under the same terrible state of emergency that was in place throughout Mubarak’s reign, and that has not been revoked. (For further information, see this Human Rights Watch news article).

There was, however, additional news about the release of prisoners on March 3 and March 4. On March 3, Al-Ahram reported that two leading Muslim Brotherhood members — Khairat Al-Shater, deputy chairman of the Muslim Brotherhood, and businessman Hasan Malek — had been released from the notorious Tora Prison complex, and on March 4 Imad al-Sayyed, spokesman for the families of Palestinian political prisoners in Egyptian jails, said that the Egyptian army had released 12 Palestinian prisoners — some of whom had spent more than four years imprisoned — from al-Aqrab prison and “called on the ruling military council in Egypt to release the rest of the Palestinian political prisoners who remain in jail.”

According to the Arab Organisation for Human Rights in UK, at least 32 Palestinian prisoners are still held, although Al-Masry Al-Youm reported on February 23 that 96 Palestinians were held in al-Aqrab, and that they had “declared a hunger strike,” because they claimed that “they were jailed without justification.” Lawyer Ibrahim Ali said, “Some of them obtained court release orders after it was proved that they weren’t linked to Hamas or other Islamic movements in Gaza.” Al-Masry Al-Youm also reported that 45 Bedouin tribesmen from the Sinai Peninsula were also held in al-Aqrab.

Why further reform of Egypt’s detention system is required

All of these releases constitute progress, but if the unaccountable secret detention system is to be abolished — facilitated, as it has been, by the endless state of emergency and by Article 179 of the Constitution, introduced in 2007, which gives sweeping powers of arrest to the security forces, allowing Egypt’s leader to totally bypass ordinary civilian courts and instead send people suspected of terrorist offences to military and special courts — the authorities will need to acknowedge that the entire apparatus established to combat terrorism is not only a system that can be misapplied to political dissent, but is also unjustifiable and a legal abomination, involving secret detention, either with or without secret trials, and no accountability or oversight whatseover.

As was explained in a United Nations report on secret detention last year (PDF, p. 109), prepared by Martin Scheinin, the Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of human rights and fundamental freedoms while countering terrorism, Manfred Nowak, the Special Rapporteur on torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment, Shaheen Ali, the vice-chair of the Working Group on arbitrary detention, and Jeremy Sarkin, the chair of the Working Group on enforced or involuntary disappearances:

In his report on his mission to Egypt in April 2009, the Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of human rights and fundamental freedoms while countering terrorism referred to an emergency law framework primarily used to counter terrorism in the country. In the view of the Special Rapporteur, the use of exceptional powers in the prevention and investigation of terrorist crimes reflected a worrying trend in which this phenomenon was perceived as an emergency triggering exceptional powers, rather than a serious crime subject to normal penal procedures.

He also expressed, inter alia, concern about relying on exceptional powers in relation to arrest and detention of terrorist suspects that were then inserted into the ordinary penal framework of an anti-terrorism law, the practice of administrative detention without trial in violation of international norms and the use of unofficial detention facilities, the heightened risk of torture for terrorist suspects, and the lack of investigation and accountability.

I hope to discover more about the released political prisoners — and those still held — in the weeks to come, but if Egypt is to truly effect revolutionary change, it is imperative, as Martin Scheinin noted above, that its state of emergency — and the lawlessness and torture that went with it, and that was so thoroughly and sickeningly embraced by the Bush administration in its “War on Terror” — is brought to an end.


About the author:

Andy Worthington

Andy Worthington is the author of The Guantánamo Files: The Stories of the 774 Detainees in America’s Illegal Prison (published by Pluto Press, distributed by Macmillan in the US, and available from Amazon — click on the following for the US and the UK). To receive new articles in your inbox, please subscribe to his RSS feed (he can also be found on Facebook and Twitter). Also see his definitive Guantánamo prisoner list, updated in January 2010, and, if you appreciate his work, feel free to make a donation.

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