CAIRO (IPS) — Anti-torture activists in Egypt scored a rare win this week when an Egyptian judge handed down three-year prison sentences in a high-profile case to two police officers filmed last year abusing and sodomizing a man in custody with a broomstick.
Torture is not uncommon in this country whose regime is known for its brutality, but what shocked the nation of 74 million people was that this act was caught on a mobile phone camera, and deliberately distributed by the police in the victim’s neighborhood to humiliate him.
The video clip was posted online, and later picked up by independent Arab media outlets and rights activists.
A search on the word “Egypt” on youtube.com will turn up several copies of the torture film along with other documented cases. Entire blogs, such as “‘kefaya7aram” were created to follow the case.
Dozens of Egyptian columnists have rallied around 22-year-old taxi driver Emad al-Kabir seen victimized on the tape. Lawyers volunteered to defend him and bring the case before court.
The infamous video clip dates back to 2006 when police officer Islam Nabih arrested the victim; a young man in the poor Cairo neighborhood of Bulaq, who was known for challenging police officers and standing up against their harsh methods.
To break his will and make an example of him before others, the officer and his assistant, Reda Fathy from Bulaq Dakrur police station in Giza governorate, decided to sexually abuse the man on tape and show it around.
The graphic tape shows the two men handcuffing the victim behind his back and using a broom stick on his anus. They ordered the victim to call himself names and to say that he was actually a woman.
Kabir’s loud screams for mercy inspired several documentaries and TV shows on pan-Arab TV stations on torture and abuse in Egyptian and Arab prisons.
On Monday, as dozens of media cameras and reporters looked on during the hearing, Kabir made an emotional appeal for justice, and broke into tears as he recounted to the judge how he was unlawfully arrested and abused.
When the judge finally sent the police officers to three years in prison — previously unthinkable punishment given the immunity abusive police officers enjoy — Kabir shouted in jubilation, “Long live justice. Long live justice.”
“That’s all I wanted; for my rights to come back to me. I want nothing more,” he said as he shouted the traditional cries of elation, Allahu Akbar (God is the Greatest).
International human rights organizations say torture in Egypt is well documented and is widespread in police stations, sometimes even for traffic violations.
Groups like Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch point to the infamous State Security Investigations (SSI) services for most of those violations. The SSI has wide powers under the state of emergency that the government has maintained almost continuously for the past 40 years.
The human rights groups say that punishing abusive officers is the exception, not the rule.
“Trials of alleged torturers before criminal courts are mainly restricted to cases where the victim died, and only in criminal, not political, cases,” said Malcolm Smart, director of the Middle East and North Africa program at Amnesty International. “In most cases, security forces have been allowed to act with virtual impunity.”
The Egyptian interior ministry, which oversees the SSI forces, has routinely denied the allegations. Officials from the ministry were not immediately available to return calls from IPS for comment.
Egyptian human rights activists say the regime may have felt compelled to act this time as this case has unleashed a wave of media reporting on torture. But they said the ruling is likely to give their cause a new impetus given the broader crackdown on Egyptian rights activists, journalists and other government critics.
“This is a very beneficial ruling,” said Ahmed Seif, a lawyer with the local rights group, the Hesham Mubarak Centre for Law. “The timing is particularly important because it gives us moral support in the face of the government’s attack against rights and anti-torture activists.”