Egyptian group accuses government of torture: Robert Fisk reports from Cairo on the efforts of a human rights organisation to catalogue the gradual erosion of justice

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MOHAMED SHARIF'S family faxed his medical records to Cairo only days before he was due to climb the gallows. Documents showing that the 25-year-old Palestinian had been treated for schizophrenia in a Kuwait hospital, a personal appeal to President Hosni Mubarak of Egypt from Sharif's family in Illinois - all but the young man were naturalised Americans - and a further list of mental problems were sent to the Egyptian government. His family claimed he had been wrongly convicted.

It was pointless, of course. Of three men hanged in Alexandria last week, two were convicted after secret trials. When lawyers for another six condemned men in Cairo heard of the Alexandria executions, they knew their own clients were doomed. States that routinely allow suspects to be tortured are not going to worry about secrecy or Palestinian appeals. So six more Islamic radicals were duly hanged on Monday for murder and 'conspiracy to overthrow the government'. Sharif, who held an Egyptian passport, was among them.

Today, he is just another name on a file in the offices of the Egyptian Organisation for Human Rights (EOHR), the brave little group of intellectuals, lawyers and ordinary citizens who are cataloguing the gradual erosion of justice in a nation that Washington regards as one of its closest Arab allies. Not that the human rights group favours the Muslim fundamentalists, whom they have condemned for the killing of Christians in upper Egypt and attacks on foreign tourists, as well as the murder of policemen.

According to Mohamed Mandour, of the EOHR's board, 12 men have died this year after torture in state security prisons: nine from the el-Gamaat el-Islamiya (the Islamic group) armed fundamentalists and one, Omar Abdul-Hamid, in a mental hospital after being tortured with electricity. Since 1986, the EOHR says, torture has been carried out against journalists, doctors, engineers, lawyers, Palestinians, men and women suspected of belonging to Nasserist and Communist parties, Muslims accused of converting to Christianity and Christians accused of evangelising among Muslims, as well as against Islamic fundamentalists.

In its latest report, the EOHR catalogues tortures, most of them routinely inflicted on radicals about to stand trial before military courts. They include kicking and beating, whipping with electric cables, suspension with hands tied behind the back, electric shocks to the tongue, nipples, fingertips and penises of prisoners, cigarettes extinguished on sensitive parts of the body, threats of sexual violation and actual rape by police officers.

The human rights group says that torture is carried out on the third and fourth floors of the security police headquarters at Lazoghly Square in Cairo, at central security force camps at Qena, Assiut, Hurghada, Fayoum, Shallal camp near Aswan and at a police encampment known as 'Kilo 25' on the Cairo-Alexandria desert highway. In the past four years, the EOHR has sent 78 reports to the attorney-general on 334 detailed cases of torture by state security and Ministry of Interior forces. No replies have been received.

Even though fundamentalists appearing before military courts have shown ample evidence of abrasions and terrible burns on their bodies, the authorities have gone out of their way to make it difficult to prove allegations of torture. Dr Mandour, for example, was one of three EOHR board members who have been arrested and - by their own detailed account - tortured by the police. 'I was arrested two years ago by an officer calling himself Colonel Amra Abdul-Fatah and taken to the fourth floor at Lazoghly,' he says. 'I was blindfolded, beaten and subjected to electrode shocks on my body. I was also threatened with rape. They kept asking me if Palestinians asked me to do illegal things. Then after 10 days they realised I knew nothing. So they transferred me to the civilian prison at Abu Zabel and on the police papers my date of arrest was changed to the day I was transferred to the new prison. So the days when I was being tortured in Lazoghly did not happen. Those 10 days disappeared from the record.'

The EOHR has complained of the persistent reluctance of prosecutors to investigate documented cases of torture. Delays by the prison service in sending torture victims to the forensic science authorities mean that marks of torture have largely disappeared by the time the investigation starts.

This past weekend in Egypt, 14 people were killed, including a police brigadier, two other policemen, Muslim fundamentalists and civilians. 'We don't deny the problems that our government faces in Egypt,' Abdullah Khalil, the head of the EOHR's legal committee, says. 'Terrorism has helped to create a state of turmoil, but there is no contradiction between public safety and the need to respect human rights. Egyptian legislation is falling short because it lacks a mechanism to prevent torture.'

According to Mr Khalil, the government almost managed to prevent publication of the EOHR's latest report by threatening several printers who were offered the group's contract. The document - Crime Without Punishment: Torture in Egypt - has now appeared without a printer's name.

(Photograph omitted)