Mubarak has forgotten a word: 'Torture'

By Hossam Bahgat

Tuesday, September 06, 2005

Whatever you think of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak's policies for the past 24 years, there is certainly something fresh about his re-election campaign this time around, as Egyptians prepare to go to the polls on Wednesday. The new team of young men and women who are running the 76-year-old Mubarak's campaign seem to be working as hard as they can to forge a new image and a different discourse that, they hope (to give them the benefit of the doubt), will set a new tone for their candidate's fifth term in office - assuming he wins, which seems more than likely.

One major feature of this discourse is the prominent place given to constitutional and political reform. Yet one cannot help but notice the conspicuous absence in Mubarak's re-election platform of what many would agree is Egypt's number-one human rights problem: the prevalence of torture and ill-treatment of citizens in police stations and other places of detention all over the country.

This is no small or excusable omission. Unlike many other human rights issues that Egypt's rights movement could be blamed for not integrating into the country's political debate, torture stands out as the best documented violation since the birth of the movement in the mid-1980s. Rights activists have been persistent and creative in reporting torture incidents and have used every available tool and mechanism to publicize this ugly phenomenon and pressure the government into stopping it.

This activism has resulted in a consensus inside Egypt and abroad that the country has one of the worst records in the world when it comes to torture. The phenomenon is often described as widespread and systematic and as a law enforcement policy rendering all citizens vulnerable to physical abuse if they are detained. The Egyptian Organization for Human Rights documented at least 22 cases of death in detention in 2004 alone, compared to eight documented cases in 2003. The exact number is expected to be much higher as families often do not report suspicious death for fear of retribution by the police.

During the 1990s, the Mubarak regime gave a green light to security agencies to resort to all means in their confrontation with militant Islamists. This margin has now expanded beyond control to include abuse of men, women and even children, without discrimination, whether detained in connection with political or criminal charges. Detainees often report being hanged, beaten, kicked, electrocuted and sexually assaulted while in detention. Of 139 states that are parties to the International Convention against Torture, Egypt is one of only five against which the United Nations Committee against Torture has launched a special investigation following allegations of the "systematic" use of torture. The government has never allowed the committee's members into the country, just like it has rejected for nine years the repeated requests by the UN Special Rapporteur on Torture to conduct a fact-finding mission in Egypt.

The Mubarak regime's response to the endemic use of torture has been grossly inadequate and complacent. The government has ignored for years all calls for torture equipment to be confiscated from police stations and offices of the State Security Intelligence (SSI). It has refused to amend the law to bring the definition of the crime of torture in line with that of international law. It has also refused to grant citizens the right to directly launch criminal proceedings against their alleged torturers, restricting this privilege to the Office of the Prosecutor General, which has only indicted a handful of police officers, mostly in cases where torture led to the victim's death, never when the case involved an SSI officer.

Egyptian and international rights groups have been calling on Mubarak for years now to issue a clear and explicit condemnation of the hideous practice of torture and to announce a zero-tolerance policy against its perpetrators. As chairman of the Supreme Police Council, Mubarak could easily be held personally responsible for the atmosphere of impunity that allows torture to persist and kill more citizens every year.

Mubarak's re-election campaign has included encouraging pledges on human rights, namely amending the pre-trial detention system and abolishing imprisonment for press crimes. But the motto chosen for the democratic reform section of the president's platform - "A Free Citizen in a Democratic Country" - remains unattainable for as long as citizens run the risk of losing their life every time the police locks them up.

It is not too late for Mubarak's new team to convince him that he will never win the hearts and minds of Egyptians until he recognizes the pain and harm his police agents have caused them and their loved ones. Torture is a key word if Egypt is to ever turn a new page in its behavior on human rights, and it's a word that Mubarak has yet to pronounce.

Hossam Bahgat is director of the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights and vice president of the Egyptian Association against Torture. He wrote this commentary for THE DAILY STAR.

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