About Us | Country Profiles | Themes | International | Home
Home :::

About Us ::
World News ::
Country Profiles ::
Themes ::
International ::
Web Links ::
Search ::


Contact Us :::
 

You are in: Home :: News Story

NEWS STORY

Torture trail to September 11.

By Owen Bowcott, January 24, 2003.

 
By day, Lazoghly Square is a fume-filled circus of honking taxis and frustrated drivers. By night, the heavily guarded entrance to the ministry of the interior is one of the most feared addresses in Egypt.

Through a black marble arch lies the headquarters of the state security investigation unit (SSI) where political dissidents and Islamists rounded up in pre-dawn raids are interrogated. Detainees, according to innumerable accounts, are routinely tortured.

Punishments reportedly involve prisoners being beaten, suspended over the edge of doors by arms tied behind their backs, subjected to cigarette burns and electric shocks, sexually harassed, deprived of sleep and food, and forced to watch relatives being tortured. In some cases heavy weights are put on inmates' legs or detainees are subjected to extreme cold.

"When they come to us after being released they are in post-traumatic stress," says Dr Suzan Fayad, a psychiatrist, who works with Nadeem, an Egyptian organisation which rehabilitates victims of violence. "They panic, have tremors, look yellow and pale. They feel angry and insulted, humiliated because they think no one believes them to be innocent.

"Later they have symptoms of insomnia, flashbacks of what happened under torture. There's depression, anger and anxiety. They can be paranoic, suspecting someone is following them. Some have suicidal thoughts... and feel guilty, asking why they yielded, or didn't defend themselves, or begged [the interrogator] to stop."

Culture of revenge
 

Last November, Egypt was again condemned by the UN's influential committee against torture in Geneva. The committee concluded there was "widespread evidence of torture and ill-treatment in administrative premises" under the control of the SSI.

Such denunciations are not new, but after September 11 there is a fresh sense of urgency, because human rights activists are beginning to wonder whether prisons and detention centres such as Lazoghly Square have played a role in transforming Islamist groups into violent extremist organisations such as al-Qaida.

"Torturing radical Islamists makes them more violent," Dr Fayad maintains. "Islamists don't believe too much in psychiatry and rehabilitation. They believe God will help them.

"In the early 1990s, the government began to torture Islamists. People said, 'Don't torture them; you will make them seek revenge, especially in upper Egypt where there is a culture of revenge killings.'

"It's torture that makes them angry and take up terrorism."

Hafiz Abu Sa'eda, the head of the Egyptian Organisation for Human Rights, supports Dr Fayad's claim. He believes the main reason that another Islamist group, the Muslim Brotherhood, became more extreme was the torture inflicted on its members.

"Torture demonstrates that the regime deserves destroying because it does not respect the dignity of the people," he said. "They began to argue that society should be destroyed and rebuilt again on the basis of an Islamic state."

Mr Abu Sa'eda himself was hauled off the streets by SSI officers and taken to Lazoghly Square when he was a student at Cairo University.

"Four officers beat me for a long time," he recalled. "The first hit me, then pushed me to the next one who hit me and pushed me on again, until I grew dizzy. They beat me for an hour. Eventually I lost my balance and they shoved me into a window; I was badly cut," he said, indicating two scars on his left temple.

The experience set him on the path to human rights activism. Others never overcame their bruised resentment, he suggested. For Egypt's Islamists, their time in prison was formative in forging the ideological framework of al-Qaida.

Many members of Egyptian Islamic Jihad fled to Afghanistan in the late 1990s to avoid the mass arrests and public revulsion which followed the massacre of western tourists in the southern resort of Luxor. Foremost among them was Dr Ayman al-Zawahiri, a surgeon who became Osama bin Laden's deputy.

Dr Zawahiri had been imprisoned and, according to friends, beaten frequently after the assassination of President Anwar Sadat in 1981. The humiliations - including, reportedly, the betrayal under torture of a fellow Islamist - marked him for life.

He left prison with renewed commitment to the Islamist cause, and began making regular trips to Afghanistan to support the mojahedin fighting the Soviets.

Montasser al-Zayat, a lawyer who was imprisoned with Dr Zawahiri and wrote a damning biography of him, described how traumatic experiences during three years in prison transformed Dr Zawahiri from a relative moderate in the Islamist underground into a violent extremist.

Others also remarked on the change. Saad Eddin Ibrahim, a sociologist at the American University who met Dr Zawahiri after his release, told the New Yorker magazine recently: "Many who turn fanatic have suffered harsh treatment in prison. It makes them extremely suspicious."

It was Dr Zawahari who formally merged Islamic Jihad with al-Qaida in June 2001, providing Bin Laden's organisation with an influx of Egyptian recruits and reinforcing its hatred of secular, pro-western Arab governments. Of the nine-member leadership council, six were Egyptians.

Al-Qaida recognises the significance of torture. A handbook, Military Studies in the Jihad Against the Tyrants, seized by police in Manchester several years ago, was accepted as evidence in the New York trial of those who bombed America's east African embassies.

The manual lists gruesome tortures, and then notes: "Let no one think the techniques are fabrications of our imagination, or that we copied them from spy stories. These are factual incidents in the prisons of Egypt, Syria, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, and all other Arab countries."

The book recognises the propaganda value of such injustices in undermining the legitimacy of pro-western regimes.

"At the beginning of a trial," the handbook says, "the brothers must insist on proving that torture was inflicted on them by state security [investigators]."

A similar cycle of humiliation and mistreatment fomenting hatred has been observed by the Palestinian psychiatrist Dr Eyad el-Sarraj, who studied suicide bombers.

"Most of them had suffered serious trauma when young, often that involved close relatives being tortured by the Israelis," he said.

"Children grow up wanting to take revenge for their trauma. Torture is an integral part of that cycle of violence. More oppression is making people more violent, in the way that abused children become abusive fathers.

"What happened to the Jews in the Holocaust has been exported to the Palestinians; what happens to Muslims at the hands of Arab regimes has been exported to Afghanistan and the west."

The London-based Medical Foundation for the Victims of Torture cautions that the effect of torture on any individual is difficult to predict.

"Responses are very varied. Some have their lives destroyed," said a spokesman for the organisation. "There's a link with suicide: a number of victims say they have nothing left to live for. Others are strengthened by the experience."

British role
 

Ahmed Seif, an Egyptian civil liberties lawyer who was arrested and tortured by the police in the early 1980s, insists Britain is partially responsible for what occurs in Cairo's detention centres.

"We have lived under emergency law for 46 of the past 50 years," he explained in his office near Cairo's supreme court. "This law contains legislation introduced during [British] occupation in the first world war.

"Police officers don't know how to work in a normal way. They only know how to treat people under torture. [Islamists] use this violence to mobilise their membership: torture for them is a sign the regime has lost its legitimacy. Since September 11 there's been a green light for governments like Egypt to arrest Muslim groups. Torture has become more common."

The fear among human rights groups now is that Arab and Muslim states are storing up a fresh generation of resentment that will lead to more suicidal onslaughts.

The September 11 attacks on the World Trade Centre and the Pentagon triggered a sharp increase in the number of Islamists being arrested.

One of three British prisoners currently being held in Egypt on charges of membership of the Islamic Liberation party even reported interrogators telling a suspect they were beating him up "on behalf of the Americans".

Amnesty International says many countries which frequently use torture or have poor human rights records have launched mass round-ups of Islamist suspects since September 11 2001. They include Uzbekistan, Yemen, Saudi Arabia, Morocco, Kyrgzystan, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Malaysia and the western Chinese province of Xinjiang.

The Egyptian government denies that torture takes place systematically in its detention centres and prisons.

A spokesman for the embassy in London asked: "These fundamentalists, these terrorists, what do you want to do with them, put them in a five-star hotel, give them political asylum?

"They should have tough measures for these people to control security. We say prevention is better than treatment if it stops them using violence to destabilise the country."

Story url


WARNING: The Children and Armed Conflict Unit is not responsible for the content of external websites. Links are for informational purposes only. A link does not imply an endorsement of the linked site or its contents.


::: External Links
 :: The Guardian
::: Countries
 ::Iraq
© 1999- The Children and Armed Conflict Unit