A Year Since Khaled Said’s Death, Egypt Still Waits for Justice

By Nicholas Piachaud, North Africa Team

Outrage at Khaled Said's death paved the way for Egypt's '25 January revolution' ©Sarah Carr

I can still remember the shock when I first saw the pictures. The young man’s face was barely recognizable from his beating at the hands of the security forces, and from an autopsy that, we would later learn from forensic experts, had been rushed and botched.

I cannot imagine what Khaled Mohammed Said’s family must have felt when they saw the body.

I know that, today, one year after his death, they are still waiting for justice.

On June 6, 2010, Khaled Said, 28, was beaten by two plain-clothes police officers in an internet café in Egypt’s second city, Alexandria. He was then dragged out into the street where, eyewitnesses say, the beating continued until he died.

Pictures of his body, taken by his family in a morgue, caused public outrage that paved the way for the January 2011 uprising.

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Egypt: New Regime, Some Old Abuses

Nearly a month after Egyptian demonstrators first took to the streets to demand political change, we’re only now finding out about some of the actions taken by the government to fight back.

Amnesty International received reports that some members of the Egyptian security forces have intimidated victims and their families following the overthrow of President Mubarak to prevent them seeking justice and making complaints about the forces’ actions during the unrest. This is the kind of behavior that was closely identified with the Mubarak regime: Ending impunity is essential for Egypt to move forward toward a just regime.

In addition, Amnesty International researchers reported this week that Egyptian prison guards in watchtowers shot dead scores of inmates and a visitor during unrest beginning Jan. 29 at a prison near Cairo.

As many as 43 inmates were killed in the action, inmates at the al-Qatta al-Gadeed Prison told Amnesty researchers.  Another 81 inmates were injured in incidents at the prison.

The report follows on the heels of information that recently released detainees in Egypt told Amnesty International that members of the armed forces used beatings, whipping and other forms of torture and other ill-treatment to intimidate protesters and to obtain information about plans for the protests.

Amnesty International is urging authorities to immediately issue clear instructions to all security forces and members of the army that torture or other ill-treatment of detainees will not be tolerated, and that those responsible for these abuses will be held to account.

Likewise, Amnesty International insists that authorities at the al-Qatta al-Gadeed prison stop the use of lethal force against inmates and allow all those injured to receive medical treatment immediately.

While President Mubarak has stepped down, Amnesty has joined with Egyptian human rights defenders in urging the new leadership to take decisive and immediate action to ensure that the country continues on its road to greater human rights.  Ending the killing, torture and ill treatment of prisoners is a vital step in this process.

To take action on this report, click here.

Obama and Egypt: The Window for Action Remains Open

Note: This post was updated at 12:30 p.m. EST)

US President Barack Obama makes a statement on the situation in Egypt on Feburary 1, 2011. TIM SLOAN/AFP/Getty Images

Hosni Mubarak’s stubborn pride and imperious manner made change in Egypt personal, but he was right in his speech Thursday when he said it was not about him.  It is about bringing about institutional and constitutional change that will embed and protect democratic and human rights for all of Egypt.

That means that after a day of celebrating Mubarak’s resignation, the protesters are cognizant enough that there is hard and important work to be done.  And that means President Obama still has one more chance to do what’s right for Egypt and for the United States.

Human rights activists and the Egyptian protesters have been rightly disappointed so far in his muddled and wavering message and policy.  His call for an “orderly transition” to democracy has been met by Mubarak with stinging rebukes and excuses for further delays.

If one is inclined to have some sympathy for the administration, you can point to this: For 30 years, every American president has known the day when payment for compliance with the region’s autocrats would come due.  Each has at best hoped that they could delay that day to the next president.

Obama is that next president and reversing that history and making it right requires change of our own. It is up to him to stand up to the Washington army of paid hacks and Mubarak retainers who whisper caution, to the other allies in the region who fear change and to the wise men, serious-thinking pundits and religious leaders who see Arab democracy as a phony front for a global caliphate.

Amnesty International’s Human Rights Agenda for Change provides a guide for what he needs to do.  He should make a clear statement that the window for delay has gone, and only specific and immediate action, not promises for down the road will be acceptable.

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Q&A: Human Rights And Unrest In The Middle East

What is Amnesty International doing about the protests in Egypt and elsewhere in the region?

We’ve sent a delegation to Egypt to help witness, record and expose human rights abuses being committed during the uprising, as we did during the unrest in Tunisia earlier in the year. We’re doing this in close cooperation with local human rights activists, defenders and NGOs, most of whom we have worked with over many years to address human rights violations and campaign for reform.

We are mobilizing the 3 million activists, supporters and members who make up the global Amnesty International movement to put pressure on the Egyptian and other governments to respect all of the rights of their citizens – whether it is the right to speak freely and to peacefully protest without fear of being jailed or attacked, or the right not to be tortured, or the right not to suffer sexism or racism, or the right of everyone, including slum-dwellers, not to be evicted and left homeless.

These activists organize mass events, publicize human rights crimes and help bombard state officials with messages on behalf of men, women and children at risk of abuse.

They put pressure on regional and international bodies to take action and provide training and material so that people are aware of their human rights and better equipped to defend them. And they lobby and campaign for their own governments to exert what pressure and influence they can directly on the Egyptian government to end violations and to respect the right of Egyptians to peacefully protest and to deliver in practice on their other human rights obligations.

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Egypt: The Change Has to Be Institutional, Has to Be Now

The protests in Egypt erupted in the context of more than 30 years of severe repression © Sarah Carr

In Egypt these days, feelings of elation and dread, are often close together.  Today, elation that Google executive Wael Ghonim was released after almost two weeks of incommunicado detention; dread from news from reporters and other credible sources that former Amnesty International prisoner of conscience Karim Amer had been arrested.

Even as the protesters in Tahrir Square say they feel protected, arrests by security forces occur around the country.  And in the background, negotiations continue to seek a solution to the political crisis. Talks continue between the Mubarak government and opposition groups and between the U.S. government and all Egyptian players.  For many protesters, these talks seem distant from their ability to influence.

It’s easy to understand the protesters concerns. For three decades, this government has muzzled civil society, made torture systematic, restricted the free press and free political association, attacked an independent bar and judiciary and given impunity to police officers.  After all that, the protesters are hearing from many sources, including the U.S. government, that they must give these same people an opportunity to reverse all that.  With the arrests of Amer and others continuing, it’s easy to understand why they believe that won’t happen.

Nevertheless, with the negotiations continuing, Amnesty International’s message remains focused on institutional change that will prevent human rights abuses. We continue to call for solidarity with the Egyptian protesters.  Amnesty International UK is spearheading a Global Day of Solidarity this coming Saturday, Feb. 12.  We hope Amnesty International members around the world will participate in events in their community or sponsor events of their own.  (Contact your regional office to get an Egypt Activist Toolkit.)

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On A Mission Through Cairo

By Amnesty International staff in Egypt

Yesterday, reunited with our two colleagues, we saw flashbacks of the denouement of our last hours of separation. Our night time chase across Cairo’s ghastly streets late on Friday and in the early hours of Saturday morning to become reunited with them after their release could have appeared almost comical and reminiscent of poorly made action films. But at the time, we were too worried about their safety and eager to end this uncertainty and in reality it was deadly serious.

While incredibly relieved by the news of their release after 32 painful and sleepless hours of anxiety, and excited by our few quick phone conversations with them, we could not rest until they were in a place of safety and were able to get a much needed meal, shower and clean beds. Our anxiety was heightened by the fact that they were released some four hours after the curfew began. We weren’t sure where they were being dropped off by the military police who had detained them, without any proof of identity – taken from them at the time of arrest.

The last point was particularly worrying as Cairo at night is an endless maze of checkpoints manned by Egyptian youth patrolling the streets after curfew which had started at 5pm. Police in uniform, security forces in plain clothes and the armed forces reinforced by what felt like half of the Egyptian military arsenal of tanks and armoured vehicles, added to the eerie atmosphere. It didn’t help that the presidential palace was obstructing our way; and we finally discovered that in some parts of Cairo a curfew could actually be enforced and respected.

We made our way through the city, being stopped every few minutes for ID checks and searches of the vehicle, and we made many detours around roads that been  blocked off. As we were going towards them so they were making their way towards us, facing the same problems of roadblocks and risk. Our meeting destination kept changing as we and they sought to find the best place to rendezvous and find shelter for the night.

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Critics of Egyptian Democracy: Fear of Muslim Brothers

Warnings that democracy will turn Egypt into a dangerous theocracy has been heard for a long time, but with the Egyptian people strongly intent on winning back their rights, those concerns seem this week to be everywhere.  Nowhere is this fear of Egyptian democracy is being heard loudest than here in the U.S. media.

This concern isn’t limited to the American right: In today’s Washington Post, liberal columnist Richard Cohen expresses his fears that Islamist influence in a democratic Egypt would endanger Israel.

The problem is, to all these critics, the only options facing Egyptians are Mubarak or Islamists. That is simply wrong.  Egyptian aspirations for democracy have simmered for too long for outsiders to block it by playing on the same fears that have helped maintain an autocrat in power for three decades.

Let’s start with the obvious: For Amnesty International, this is not a relevant issue.  As a human rights organization, we focus on preventing and documenting human rights abuses.  That is one reason why we don’t call for Mubarak’s resignation; our interest is stopping the torture, unfair trials, arbitrary and prolonged detentions and abuses of freedom of speech, association and religion that fall under his or any other regime.

Secondly, the fears expressed about the Muslim Brothers overstate the group’s current position.  After decades of attempts to muzzle civil society, the Egyptian government has effectively handcuffed most political parties and secular institutions.  One result was to make room for Islamist opposition.  The Muslim Brothers have publicly renounced violence and pledged to work within the political system.

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Video of Today's 'Million Man' Protest

Today in Egypt, hundreds of thousands of protesters have gathered for what is being called the ‘Million Man’ protest, calling for President Hosni Mubarak to step down and corruption, poverty and police abuses to end.

Amnesty International is urging the Egyptian military to respect the rights of protesters as Cairo demonstrators held their biggest protest yet.

If you haven’t already, take action by calling the Egyptian Embassy.

Torture and Abuse in Egypt: The North Carolina Connection

N227SV plane used in rendition flights.

N227SV plane used in rendition flights.

News that after five days of protests Omar Suleiman has been named vice president of Egypt is a reminder that the abuses that drove the people into the streets there had too much assistance from America, including right here in my home of North Carolina.

According to journalist Stephen Grey, Suleiman was the Egyptian conduit for the US extraordinary rendition flights closely linked to torture.  Many of those flights took off from an airport in Johnston County, NC, less than an hour from my home in Durham.  Grey’s book Ghost Plane starts with the journey of one such Johnston County flight that led to the rendition and torture of two Egyptian men, one of who was later released without ever being charged with a crime.

Grey writes that Suleiman approved these flights, part of a system of torture that Amnesty International calls systematic.  “Egypt then came in for much criticism,” Grey writes.  “Its record both on human rights and on repressing democracy was lambasted annually by both Congress and the State Department.  But in secret, men like Omar Suleiman … did our work, the sort of work that Western countries have no appetite to do themselves.”

I was also reminded of the Johnston County flights when I received reports this week from people in Cairo of the tear gas canisters being used against them.  Made in the USA, the canisters said.

When you are watching the footage of the Egyptian people in the street, showing their frustration of 30 years of tyranny and abuse, it’s safe and appropriate to feel solidarity with them.  But it’s not enough.  To support the people in Cairo trying to change those abuses, we in the US and in North Carolina must end our own policies and acts that have sustained them.

Take Action and Support the Egyptian People

Update: Tell US Government to press Egypt to rein in security forces

The number one request made by Egyptian activists of allies in other countries is to have their voice heard in solidarity at various Egyptian embassies and consulates.

It’s pretty hard to do when the Egyptian government has shut down the Internet in Egypt and its US embassy public email address isn’t functioning.

Protesters face police in Alexandria. Photography by : Ahmed Ramadan -- Clashes between demonstrators and Egyptian police in Alexandria, because of their opposition to the hereditary rule. They are showing their dissatisfaction with the intention of President Hosni Mubarak to hand over power to his son.

But allies around the United States are not remaining silent, and Amnesty members are looking to assist. With tens of thousands of Egyptians hitting the street across the country today on “Angry Friday,” this is an ideal moment to contact the embassy in the US to express our concerns:

1. For the Egyptian government to allow peaceful demonstrations and rein in their security forces to prevent further deaths and injuries to protestors. No official death total has been released, but the latest reports today have two women being killed when hit in the head by tear gas and another died in Tahir Square. That would bring an unofficial death toll over the past four days to over 10.  In one instance, Amnesty has learned that 22-year-old Ahmed Atef was killed yesterday in North Sinai when security forces in the town of Sheikh Zuweid opened fire on a crowd of more than 1000 demonstrators.

2. Independent legal observers count the number of detained as of Thursday at around 1,200 people.  Many more are being detained today.  These people must have immediate access to legal counsel, family members, be formally charged or release.  They must not be tortured or mistreated.

3. The government must cease all efforts to block the Internet, social media tools or impede the normal flow of communications. In addition, security forces must end reported assaults on numerous reporters, both Egyptian and foreign.  Such actions constitute an outrageous violation of the freedom of speech.

4. End the State of Emergency, which facilitates other human rights abuses such as unfair trials, prolonged administrative detention and the systematic use of torture.

Demonstrations have already been held in San Francisco, New York and DC.  AIUSA’s office has organized a rally outside the consulate in Chicago at noon Saturday, Jan. 29.  For more information on that rally, contact shaunharkin@gmail.com and dickreilly@aol.com.  Information about other rallies will be posted as information is available.

But if you don’t live near a consulate, please call and call today to the Egyptian embassy.  Emails sent to its public address are bouncing back, but telephone is working. The address is 3521 International Ct. NW Washington DC 20008. Phone: 202.895.5400.  Fax: 202.244.4319.

A complete list of consulates can be found here.

Finally, there is also US government work to do.  We are receiving reports from Egypt that tear gas canisters and other weapons used against the protesters have been made in the United States.  It is imperative that the U.S. government investigate whether any of this material has been used in a manner that would violate the Leahy Law or other regulations that prohibit the use of US aid to violate human rights.