Are Egyptian police officers duly punished for torture?

The Upper Egyptian city of Luxor was swept with protests following the "death by torture" of 47-year-old Talaat Shabib while in police custody

Sonia Farid

Published: Updated:

The Upper Egyptian city of Luxor was swept with protests following the "death by torture" of 47-year-old Talaat Shabib while in police custody. Following the forensics report that confirmed he had received blows to his neck and back that cut his spinal cord, four police officers and five assistant police officers were referred to criminal court.

Before the report was issued, President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi said in a speech at the Police Academy that any police officer found guilty of a violation would be held accountable. Meanwhile, the Luxor Security Directorate pledged to conduct a thorough investigation, and a group of security officials, including the head of the directorate, personally paid condolences to the victim’s family.

Such prompt responses have stirred debate about whether the state is taking a firm stand against police brutality, and have left many wondering about the status of previous cases and the handling of future ones.

While this case seems to have received special attention, political analyst Osama al-Sayyad says it is unlikely to trigger the same indignation that followed the beating to death of young Alexandrian Khaled Saeid, who became an icon of the Jan. 2011 revolution.

“People who think that Talaat Shabib can be another Khaled Saeid are extremely naïve and are deceived by their nostalgia for the time of the revolution,” he wrote. “The state has learnt the lesson and this can be shown in the fast reaction to the case and which was meant to prevent the matter from escalating.”

Sayyad said while similar incidents took place in the same week, the Shabib case was treated differently because of where it happened. “Luxor is a very important governorate for the state for many reasons. It is mostly loyal to the regime and anti-Islamist as well as extremely tribal and heavily armed,” he said. “That is why the state will never allow one single incident to affect its influence there.”

Writer Nevine Malak said the Interior Ministry is only trying to “save face,” adding: “The prosecution is charging the officers with the offence of beating to death which is not the case with Shabib. It was not a street fight where someone accidentally died. If the issue is not dealt with as a systematic process not an individual mistake, it will never be solved.”

Human rights activist Negad al-Borei said he prepared a draft anti-torture law. “This law is based on unifying all legislations dealing with the act of torture into one law that includes a clear definition of torture in accordance with the U.N. Convention against Torture, to which Egypt is a signatory,” he said. The law lists the penalties officers should receive accordance to the offence, including capital punishment in case of death, and takes into account political responsibility.

“For example, if a prisoner is tortured in jail but could not identify the culprit, the prison manager would be held accountable, and so on.” The law stipulates that investigations into torture should not exceed six months, and that the victim is to receive full medical care until full recovery.

Taking advantage

In response to the link established between the Luxor case and the revolution, political factions in the governorate warned against “politicizing” the incident. “We call upon the authorities to take quick action in this case so that conspirators will not be given the chance to take advantage of the incident to further their own goals against Egypt,” said a joint statement issued by the Luxor bureaus of Al-Wafd Party, the People’s Republican Party, and the Popular Committee for the Support of National Causes.

The signatories cited the April 6 Youth Movement, the “banned group” (referring to the Muslim Brotherhood), and “other organizations that receive foreign funding” as parties that would “take advantage of the torture incident to incite riots and destabilize security.” The statement praised Luxor residents for stopping their protests as soon as the officers were referred to court.

First deputy interior minister for South Upper Egypt, General Adel Abdel Azim, said some political factions found in the incident an opportunity to spread chaos. “The ministry vows to punish every officer involved in the incident, but it will also never allow saboteurs to compromise national security,” he said.

Dalia Ziada, head of the Center for Free Democratic Studies, said the timing of the incident, before the fifth anniversary of the Jan. 2011 revolution, would allow some factions to organize protests against the Interior Ministry, as was the case in 2011.

“However, the situation is different now because the ministry did go a long way in attempting to redress the mistakes it had committed” during the era of former President Hosni Mubarak, she said. “In the past, it was definitely systematic torture, but now we see individual cases.”

Ziada said the police, like any other institution in Egypt, had suffered from corruption for decades, so could not be expected to be fully reformed immediately. “But we can see progress. We have a president vowing to penalize guilty officers, and an Interior Ministry taking quick action against those officers. We only need more time.”