Egypt fails to curb torture by police: Muslim militants rounded up are being subjected to violent interrogation. Robert Fisk reports from Cairo

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THERE IS mounting evidence in Cairo that Egypt's state security police are routinely torturing hundreds of arrested Islamic radicals with electricity, beatings and even rape - to the despair of lawyers and human rights groups who have tried to bring the practice to an end.

As many as 3,000 prisoners picked up in police raids against el-Gamaat el-Islamiya (the Islamic Group) over the past six months are now said to have been subjected to violent interrogation in Aswan, Assiut, Fayoum, Port Said and Cairo, in some cases suffering more than a week of questioning at the hands of torture 'specialists' at the state security headquarters in Cairo.

The Egyptian Human Rights Organisation (Ehro) lists a series of tortures that are now inflicted on suspects. They include burning on the chest and legs with lighted cigarettes, electrical shocks to the tongue, chest and genitals, hanging upside down and rape.

In a Cairo military court nine days ago, all 43 Islamic militants accused of attacks on tourists and attempts to overthrow the government complained of prolonged torture, prompting the army officer in charge of the tribunal to demand an explanation for their treatment after inspecting the wounds of one of the defendants.

According to the Ehro, many of the tortures are carried out in a series of four heavily guarded prisons 22 miles south of Cairo - Tora Istikbal, Tora Liman, Tora Mazraa and Tora Makhoum - where prison conditions were condemned last year by the human rights group, Middle East Watch. Hisham Mubarak, one of the Ehro's leading officials, claims Egyptian prisons now specialise in different forms of torture.

'Every place now has its own 'creations',' he says. 'In Assiut, the police flood a prisoner's cell with water a foot deep. The prisoner is made to stand in the water and then the police electrify the water, making the inmate jump into the air.

'In other parts of Upper Egypt, they have a refinement of this. They soak a mattress in water, force the prisoner to lie (on it) then place an electric lead against the mattress. In Fayoum, prisoners have told us they are made to lay on a table and hot wax is dripped on to sensitive part of their body. In Port Said, they suffer rape.'

Mr Mubarak alleges that two police detective constables have regularly raped suspects in Port Said but that on other occasions 'specialists' have forced wedges of wood into the anus of prisoners at the interrogation centre on the fourth floor of the state security police headquarters in Cairo, only a few hundred yards from the People's Assembly.

'They also use all the old methods of the Nasser days; beating on the feet, lashing with coiled wire, electricity to the finger tips and genitals. The most feared treatment is hanging from a door by the armpits, blindfolded and with arms tied behind the back - it is very painful and in 15 minutes, the victim is paralysed,' Mr Mubarak says.

Both the Islamic militants and their lawyers - who are in many cases sympathetic to their cause - are, of course, well aware of the propaganda value of their claims. One of the most prominent of el-Gamaat's defence council, Montasser el-Zayat, said he was tortured with electricity on the tongue, nipples and genitals when he was arrested in the aftermath of president Anwar Sadat's assassination in 1981.

Mr Zayat was subsequently jailed for three years and endured another period of interrogation after inviting Sheikh Omar Abdul-Rahman - currently in New York - to preach in his home town of Aswan in 1986.

Western humanitarian workers in Egypt say privately that they have no doubt the claims of systematic and widespread torture are true.

'Torture in Egypt now aims at two objectives,' Mr Mubarak says. 'First, to get information from the victim about the activities and the inner organisation of the el-Gamaat . . . Second, torture is punishment; very often, the police investigators continue to torture the prisoner after he has answered all their questions.'

Lawyers representing Mahmoud Abouhalima say he was beaten with wire coils before being deported to the United States to face charges for the World Trade Center bombing. At least one legal authority in Cairo says the Americans, who used to exercise pressure on President Hosni Mubarak to halt police torture, gave up any attempt to stop the abuses after the New York bombing.

Defence counsel visiting the Islamic prisoners have established that although most are held in the 'Tora' complex, they are also kept in a series of police camps at Qena in Upper Egypt and along the Cairo-Alexandria desert road. Even here, prisoners claim that torture is routine. And Egyptians who fought the Soviet Army as volunteers in Afghanistan were arrested on their return to Cairo and allegedly tortured.

'The police officers who carry out the torture learned from the men who practised torture under Nasser,' Mr Zayat says. 'They, in turn, had learned these techniques from the Soviets. So torture is institutionalised here. This is not just a crime committed by some officers. When the police talk about 'investigation', they mean torture. It's routine daily work. If you go to prison, you will be tortured.'

Officially, the government denies the thousands of detailed claims of torture. Mr Mubarak says he and the Ehro have sent dozens of complaints to successive interior ministers.

'We never received a single reply,' he says. 'Our job is to investigate all these tortures. We release reports and we always write to the authorities. But we are totally ignored. We have relations with all the international human rights organisations but neither they nor we have stopped torture. We have totally failed in our job.'

(Photograph omitted)