‘The pattern of deaths in custody emerging at Mattareya Police Station is distressing’ - Hassiba Hadj Sahraoui
A string of deaths in custody has thrown the spotlight on torture and horrific detention conditions at a police station in the Mattareya district of Cairo where at least three people died last week, said Amnesty International.
Two of the deaths took place on the same day last week and according to the forensic authority in Cairo one of the bodies bore marks consistent with torture or other ill-treatment. The head of the forensic authority in Cairo confirmed to Amnesty that the bodies of three men who died at Mattareya Police Station had been received by the morgue last week.
Since April last year at least nine detainees have died at Mattareya Police Station, according to information gathered by Amnesty, yet so far investigations have been half-hearted and no one has been held accountable. And according to a list compiled by local activists and the Egyptian Commission for Rights and Freedoms organisation, there have been at least 121 deaths in custody in Egypt since the beginning of 2014. The causes of death vary between deprivation of medical care, natural deaths and torture.
The head of the forensic authority in Cairo said that there has been a rise of deaths in police stations as many detainees sentenced to one year or less serve their sentences in police stations rather than prisons, due to chronic overcrowding in prisons. Egyptian police stations are not equipped to hold high numbers of detainees who suffer as a result of poor detention conditions. He added that deaths of those in custody have included detainees held on both criminal and political charges.
International law and standards require that pre-trial detention be the exception, not the rule. Other means, including release on bail, should be considered to ensure that persons charged but not convicted are available for trial. Detainees should also be held separately from convicted prisoners. Egypt has denied that torture occurs “in prisons”, also claiming that perpetrators of torture have been held to account.
Amnesty International Middle East and North Africa Deputy Director Hassiba Hadj Sahraoui said:
“The pattern of deaths in custody emerging at Mattareya Police Station is distressing.
“The authorities cannot continue to sweep rampant abuses under the carpet, and families are growing frustrated with the authorities’ unwillingness to hold perpetrators to account.
“Rather than opening genuine investigations to shed light on the circumstances of the deaths, the authorities have announced investigations with the sole purpose of deflating criticism while at the same time shielding security forces from any criticism, let alone accountability.
“Years of impunity have emboldened the Egyptian security forces who have effectively been granted the green light to continue torturing and otherwise ill-treating detainees without facing any consequences.”
The case of Karim Hamdy
Last week, 28-year-old lawyer Karim Hamdy died at Mattareya Police Station just 48 hours after his arrest. He appears to have been tortured to death during an interrogation by two officers from the National Security Agency who questioned him at the police station.
The head of the forensic authority confirmed to Amnesty that Hamdy’s body bore marks consistent with torture, including broken ribs. An eyewitness who saw the body at the morgue said it was covered in red and brown bruises, with blue marks around his eyes and a broken right arm. Hamdy’s lawyers have insisted that an autopsy be carried out to establish the cause of death after the morgue offered to allow them to take the body without an autopsy. According to media reports, the forensic report sent to the Public Prosecutor stated that his body sustained ten broken ribs and internal bleeding in his brain. The Public Prosecutor has opened an investigation and ordered the detention of two National Security Agency officers in relation to his death, but a gagging order has been imposed on the case.
Hamdy had been arrested on 22 February during a raid on his home by security forces. A friend who witnessed the arrest described the scene to Amnesty:
“Around eight armed members of the security forces broke down the building gate. They were banging on the door of his apartment. When Karim’s mother opened the door the armed men rushed into the house and seized Karim, who was still barefoot. His mother tried to ask why he was being arrested but they did not respond. She tried to prevent them from taking him but they pushed her out of the way and threatened her, pointing a gun at her face.”
Although the armed men said they were taking Hamdy to the Marg Police Station to implicate other suspects, his friends and lawyer could not find him there. After a lengthy search they eventually discovered he had been taken to Mattareya Police Station. Hamdy was accused of belonging to a terrorist group, protesting without authorisation, possessing weapons and using them against the police during protests. He denied the accusations and told the prosecutor during questioning that he had been tortured in order to extract a videotaped “confession”. Instead of investigating his claims of torture, the prosecutor sent Hamdy back to Mattareya Police Station where he was subjected to further torture. The next day he was due to return to the prosecutor’s office for further questioning but he never arrived. When his lawyers went to the police station to look for him, they discovered he had died.
The case of Emad el-Attar
On the same day, 24 February, Emad el-Attar also died at Mattareya Police Station. The head of the Forensic Authority told Amnesty that his death was due to poor ventilation in an overcrowded cell. An eyewitness who did not wish to be named for security reasons said:
“Emad was a conservative religious person and that’s why he was targeted by the security forces. The officers would force him to sleep in the bathroom of the cell. They would pour cold water on him at night and would prevent him from seeing his family during visits. As a routine practice, security forces insisted that his family give cash and cigarettes to the guards to allow them to visit him. On the day of his death he felt suffocated from the poor ventilation and excessive cigarette smoke in the cell. His fellow detainees banged on the door of the holding cell warning the security forces that Emad was very sick. They responded by saying: ‘When he is dead let us know and we’ll take him out’.”
Security forces eventually removed him from the cell after other detainees continued to insist. He died before he reached Mattareya Hospital.
Hassiba Hadj Sahraoui said:
“The claims that Emad el-Attar was so cruelly deprived of life-saving emergency medical care may violate the prohibition against torture and other ill-treatment and have to be investigated. Those found responsible for criminal wrongdoing must be brought to justice.”
El-Attar had been arrested on 30 January following a protest against military rule. He was taken to Mattareya Police Station where he was reportedly beaten and given electric shocks, and was accused of belonging to a banned group, calling for protests and using violence against the police. His lawyers and family were not told of his whereabouts and searched for him for seven days before they eventually discovered he was held at Mattareya.
The case of Mostafa Mahmoud
According to the head of the forensic authority, the third death at the police station last week was that of 28-year-old Mostafa Mahmoud on 22 February. According to media reports, he had been held in a stress position for eight hours before he was taken to hospital where he died. The cause of his death has not yet been confirmed.
Horrific detention conditions
According to former detainees in Mattareya Police Station, the police station is composed of three floors. Three cells, around 2x3-square metres each, are located on the second floor. Interrogation rooms known to locals as the “torture chambers” are on the third floor.
According to a former detainee who was held at the police station for 45 days last June, the holding cells are severely overcrowded and detainees are often held in inhumane and squalid conditions. At least 70 people are held in poorly-ventilated rooms designed to hold up to 20 people. Detainees are usually only wearing their underwear due to the sweltering heat inside. The eyewitness said that at least four people died of suffocation while he was detained there and that the police failed to respond quickly enough to save them. He said that not all the deaths are reported.
Detainees were also forced to pay 20 Egyptian pounds (£1.70) per day to secure a space in the cell to stand otherwise they would be beaten and confined in or in the vicinity of the toilet facility. If a detainee wanted more space - even to be able to lean their back against a wall - then the fee would rise to 50 Egyptian pounds (£4.30). The money was collected by a cell ringleader who passed it to low ranking security officers. He also reported excessive smoke of cigarettes and drugs.
A Egyptian Commission for Rights and Freedoms representative who visited detainees at the police station, said visiting time was limited to five minutes. He also witnessed officers beating a detainee and forcing him to crawl on the floor to return to his cell.
The case of Ezzat Abdel Fattah
Karim Hamdy and Emad el-Attar’s deaths are not the first alleged to be as a result of torture, other ill-treatment or poor detention conditions at Mattareya Police Station. Ezzat Abdel Fattah, a 46-year-old officer at the Ministry of Finance, died at the station in May 2014 after he was tortured by police officers. His family told Amnesty that his body bore bruises and cigarette burns. Fingernails had been pulled out and he had at least six broken ribs. A forensic report concluded he had died as a result of internal bleeding in the brain, broken ribs, and other injuries as a result of beatings. His son told Amnesty he had been arrested after he argued with neighbours who have strong ties to Mattareya Police Station officers.
The case of Mostafa Al Aswany
Mostafa Al Aswany, a 25-year-old student, also died in Mattareya Police Station as a result of torture and beatings in April 2014. Mostafa was arrested at an internet café alongside others and was accused of creating a Facebook page that incited violence against the police and army. His mother said she saw bruises on his face and body when she visited him in detention. He complained to her that he was beaten by other prisoners who did not allow him to sleep. He also reported that he was tortured during interrogation. Mostafa died a few days after his arrest and his mother said that his body showed marks of beatings all over.
The case of Ahmed Ibrahim
Ahmed Ibrahim died in Mattareya Police Station in June 2014 after he was transferred from Borg Al Arab Prison to Mattareya in preparation for his release. He had repeatedly complained to his father about the poor conditions in which he was held, saying the cell was too crowded and filled with cigarette smoke so he was not able to breathe. On the day he died, Ahmed Ibrahim called his father and told him that he was suffocating and urgently needed help. His father tried to have him transferred to another police station but the authorities refused and forced him to leave the police station. He then tried to call an ambulance for his son but police station officials refused to allow anyone inside as the ambulance had not been called by the police.