Wednesday, December 14, 2005

The lessons of torture

America is finally having a debate on torture.Intellectuals and journalists such as Charles Krauthammer are stepping forward and forcing it. As long as the Bush Administration denied that America is engaging in torture (but at the same time pushing policies that would enable and even encourage it), this debate could not happen. It requires someone to say, “It is necessary to torture sometimes.” Now that is happening, a real discussion can be held.

So while I applaud Mr. Krauthammer and others for having the courage to state what others have tried to deny, I have to strongly disagree with him. Anyone who cares about Egyptian human rights must disagree with him because Egypt can teach us a thing about torture. The lesson here is, you may think that it’s acceptable to torture terrorists, but you end up with a process where torture is systematic, and everyone is vulnerable.

This is often derided as a “slippery-slope” argument, but there is no philosophical hair-splitting. Torture occurs in Egypt because State of Emergency legislation – enacted following the assassination of Sadat – enables and encourages it. The purpose of this legislation is to stop violent activities by armed groups. The mechanisms it sets up – special courts, prolonged administrative detention, detention without access to family or attorneys – were set up to fight terrorism. This is why the CIA allegedly kidnapped Egyptian national Osama Nasr Mostafa, and drugged him and flew him to Egypt to be tortured. Mostafa allegedly has ties to armed groups and apparently was closed to be arrested by Italian officials at the time of his abduction. That is one reality of torture, one many people clearly can live with.

Here is another reality:

“They accused us of stealing bicycles and said that we had formed a gang to steal bicycles. When we denied this and told them that we had not done those things, they tortured us and they did bad things to us. They beat me with a cane and gave me electric shocks.”

These are the words of a 14-year-old Egyptian boy, Ahmad Mahmud Mohammad Hamed, a student at a secondary school in al-Zaqaziq, Egypt. On 26 March 2000 Ahmad and his 26-year-old brother Mustafa were arrested by police officers at their home. They were taken to the police station of al-Zaqaziq’s second precinct along with a teenage friend. This is a beginning of a nightmare which continues to haunt the boy.

Following a brief questioning, they said they were taken to a cold room, referred to as al-Tallaga (the fridge), where they were left for about half an hour. From there, the youths were taken for interrogation one by one, beginning with Ahmad.

Ahmad said he was blindfolded, his legs and arms were tied and he was suspended by his knees on a horizontal pole. In this position, he was whipped and subjected to electric shocks for about 30 minutes until he lost consciousness. Ahmad was coerced into signing a confession regarding several cases of theft. After signing the confession Ahmad was returned to the Tallaga. After all three young men had been tortured and coerced into signing a confession they were taken back to the custody cell.

Here is yet another reality:

When she entered a Cairo cab on Feb. 8, 2002, Umm Hashim Abu al-‘Izz was going visiting with a friend. Within hours, she was on the floor of the Agouza police station in Cairo being beaten over her face by a police officer with a belt.

“What happened to me was something I could never have imagined,” Abu al-‘Izz, a young Egyptian actress, told Amnesty International. When her cab driver was stopped by the police and failed to produce required document, the driver and all passengers were taken to the police station. At the station, Abu al-‘Izz protested. The police response was immediate.

“He took off his belt and began to beat me … on the side of my face. So I lost my balance and fell to the ground unconscious. Instead of leaving me he brought dirty water and poured it over me to revive me. He told me to stand so I did and then I found he was beating me with the belt again. Of course, he didn't stop until my mouth was bleeding and my eyes were messed up and my whole body was in a terrible state and I wasn't even able to get up off the ground. Then he kicked and punched me. He pointed his gun at me as if to kill me and he threatened to do so. He put the gun into my side and pulled the trigger but it turned out to be empty...”

Of course, occurrences such as these happen in America already, all too regularly. But there are still legal processes in place that stops torturers and even bring them to justice. The difference so far in Egypt, the difference that makes torture systematic, is there is no impunity for torturers. Despite frequent requests for public investigations into allegations of torture, the number of arrests of policemen and security officials can probably be counted on one hand. Torturers do their work knowing that they will not be punished.

A few months after the 9/11 attacks, I was in attendance when the Egyptian ambassador to the United States came to speak at my university. “Listen to us,” said Ambassador Nabil Fahmy, “we know how to fight terrorism.” But the Egypt experience shows the rules of torture may start to fight armed groups, but it always ends up going after 14-year-old kids.

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