During the late hours of Sunday the 6th of June, two police informers stormed an internet cafe in the coastal city of Alexandria. The attack left Khaled Said, a 28-year-old man dead.
At that point, the crime could have not made headlines, and could have gone unquestioned like many other police torture crimes in Egypt, but a picture of an innocent-looking, premortem Khaled and another of his body showing a swollen, badly bruised face and mangled jaw, were circulated on the internet, particularly Facebook, like wildfire.
Luckily for systematic torture victims, unluckily for the Egyptian government, the picture sent shockwaves across Egypt, and internationally as well. Amnesty International was quick to urge Egypt to investigate the brutal killing of Khaled. Word was out on AlJazeera too, the Egyptian government's bitter enemy, if you may. On Thursday a group of activists demonstrated in front of the Sidi Gaber police station, the station which sent the informers and where reportedly a police officer oversaw the killing. Puzzling news was spread of an acquittal of the informers and an accusation of protesters of "insulting a government body."
The reasons for the gruesome murder have been questioned, but to date there is no confirmed explanation. The few eye witnesses present first said that the informers asked Khaled roughly for his ID and wanted to search him. When he protested and asked about their search warrant, they tied him up, beat his head against a marble shelf, dragged him out of the cafe and continued beating his head against an adjacent iron door. They then took his lifeless body to the police station for a few minutes, only to return and leave it in the crime scene. Another more popular story was circulated, according to which Khaled had a video dating to late 2009 showing a police officer and a group of informers distributing money and weed after capturing them from a dealer.
The shameless Ministry of Interior issued a phony statement to explain Khaled's death. They said Khaled died of asphyxia after he swallowed a drug joint. Adding insult to injury (in this case brutal murder), they also spread rumours that Khaled, whose name literally translates to "immortal happy", was a drug junkie who escaped mandatory military service. In response, the certificate of the military service was scanned and widely circulated to show that the MOI's side of the story is a badly orchestrated spoof. People on twitter wondered how asphyxia can cause undeniable damage to the skull as shown in the picture. One twitter user, Wael Abd El-Fattah, sarcastically noted that Khaled actually died of Egyptian regime asphyxia. More importantly, even if he is a drug addict, what law or even logic is there which allows beating addicts to death?
The murder became the talk of the country and the virtual community. But activists decided to take it to the streets as well, not in front of the press syndicate, lawyers' syndicate, People's Assembly, Shura Council or Attorney-General's office as has been the norm in the past few years for most protests in Egypt, but in front of the MOI headquarters in Lazoughly. The in-your-face protest of around 200 people was predictably kettled. Downtown Cairo where the MOI is was "occupied by the police" as activists described it. Many activists were verbally harassed, beaten, injured and detained. Mobile phones and cameras were confiscated. They expressed a direct link between the Emergency Law which provides unlimited power to law enforcement authorities and the murder of Khaled. The Ministry has been described as "the ministry of torture", and protesters screamed for the killers to go to trial. Under Emergency Law and the systematic use of torture, any one of us could be Khaled, this was their claim. Apparently, the MOI had expected people to be too horrified by the picture to protest in fear of facing a similar fate, but was surprised by their resilience.
Hopes were hung on a not-very-reliable authority to bring justice to Khaled; the media. Saturday night satellite talk shows showed reports on the murder, but still focused mainly on the MOI statement. On Sunday night, the popular Ashera Masaan showed the video from the police station which allegedly caused Khaled's untimely death. Announcer Mona El-Shazly asserted that the video is authentic, but that it is a celebration of the capture of the dealer, contrary to other views which accused the police of distributing the money and the drugs. Frustratingly enough, El-Shazly did not show the other side of the story and did not report with Khaled's brother. She in other words acquitted the MOI of a corruption case in the eyes of millions of viewers as far as the video is concerned. However, she wondered if informers actually have the authority to arrest people, not to mention beat them up in such a brutal way. Mona's comment poses even more questions on the motives, making it even scarier that Khaled possibly died for no reason at all, not that any reason is acceptable. Instead of dedicating a time slot in her programme to the crime, she interviewed someone about the alleged hacking of AlJazeera world cup satellite transmission.
Newspapers were divided according to their very own allegiances. The government mouthpiece Al-Gumhuriya published yesterday a joke of an article by the editor-in-chief sarcastically describing Sunday protest as a "protest for a junkie." Interestingly, he "accused" the protesters of "gaining strength" from international "authorities." It is an unintentional, subconscious reference to the fact that Egyptian authorities, namely the Ministry of Justice, are often too weak to punish police criminals. Independent Al-Shorouq newsapaper, on the other hand, published balanced timely updates on the crime and the aftermath, as well as the pictures of both life and death, making it impossible for readers to buy the story of the Ministry.
As if it could get any worse, journalist Ahmad Ragab posted on twitter news on yet another death by torture in a police station. The details are all too familiar. Saber Abd El-Semei, 58, protested when informers tried to remove a kiosk for selling sandwiches. He was kidnapped and taken to Nasr City police station. His family found his body five days later in Heliopolis hospital. His daughter was told by the doctors in the morgue that he was beaten with a BB gun on his head until he died.
Ethical concerns were voiced about the spread of the picture of Khaled's lifeless body. Not only because it was probably published prior to his family's consent, but it is also a horrific, shocking picture, unwillingly seen by Facebook users and newspaper readers. The dramatic twist in the story is that, had the picture not been published, Khaled's murder might have received minimum to zero attention, not to mention legal prosecution. Unless families of victims and supporters speak up, this will be the case with Saber for example.
After five tense days of shock, anger and hurt, the first sigh of relief came when blogger and journalist Hossam El-Hamalawy, who was also injured in the Lazoughly portest, tweeted that family lawyers and prosecutors were then investigating the crime scene one day after the Attorney-General ordered the case to be reopened. Thankfully, the few witnesses were present as well to testify.
As expected there are calls for the stepdown of Minister of Interior Habib Al-Adly. Systematic torture in Egypt (as a republic) has been practiced since the fifties. The only development is that whereas in the past it was exclusive to political opponents such as the Muslim Brotherhood, now innocent people are not immune from it. Not even women and children are. It is a cruel regime that can only be cured by being uprooted. We are crushed under the weight of political oppression and poverty and vent out anger among ourselves. Nonetheless, a change of names is not the only answer. Egyptians need to know their self-worth and legal rights. We need to know that save for instances of war and self-defence, no one deserves to be physically assaulted. We now engage in scuffles over everything from a minor threat of a car accident to theft or burglary. Furthermore, even when victims of torture or their families insist on persecuting the police criminals, the sentences are often disproportionate with the harm done. Take the case of Emad El-Kebir, who was sodomised, beaten and humiliated, and in return his bully/policeman Islam Nabih received a fleeting three years in jail sentence and was not suspended from his job. In any case, it is left for the hands of a slow and frail justice system to lessen the brunt of torture in Egypt.