Alaa Al Aswany: My country discusses human rights, even as it tortures

I have a suggestion for some videos that President Mubarak might like to watch

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Two great leaders, President Hosni Mubarak and President Barack Obama, met in Washington this week for friendly and fruitful talks in which they dealt with critical matters of interest to their two countries – Iran's nuclear programme, peace with Israel and the situation in Darfur.

With equal vehemence the two presidents said how upset they were about the deterioration in the human rights situation in Iran, the repression of demonstrators, election rigging, the torture of innocent people and other horrendous crimes perpetrated by the Iranian government, all of which the international community and the Egyptian government are making intensive efforts to expose and prevent.

In the end President Obama received assurances from his friend President Mubarak that democratic reform in Egypt is a long and complicated process, but it is continuing and hopefully will never come to a halt. Obama reiterated his admiration for President Mubarak's wisdom, moderation and courage. All of that is well-known, understandable and to be expected.

But I was thinking of something else: the journey from Washington to Cairo takes more than 10 hours, so how does President Mubarak spend that time? I suggest he watch some good videos, which I hope he likes. Not long feature films, but short documentaries in which the performers are not professional actors or even amateurs, but just ordinary Egyptians with nothing to distinguish them except that, like millions of other Egyptians, they face a bitter daily struggle to feed their children and provide them with a decent life. Here are the videos I suggest:

In the first video we see a young Egyptian from Port Said being horribly tortured in a police station. The young man appears in the first shot with the skin on his back and stomach flayed from a beating, lifted up and hung from the ceiling by his hands. The man starts to beg the police officers for mercy, saying: "Enough, Mohamed Bek! I'm going to die, Mohamed Bek." In the second shot the young man appears blindfolded, weeping and imploring the officer in a broken voice: "I beg you, Mohamed Bek. We're human beings, not animals."

We can't see Mohamed Bek in the shot but we can hear his angry voice as he shouts "Shut up!" at the man and then hurls the most vicious insults at him. Why does Mohamed Bek seem so angry? The reason is that the young man has been screaming under the torture, and Mohamed Bek sees this as an affront to his status because, by the rules as he sees them, no one has the right to speak up in front of a police officer even if the officer is beating and torturing him.

The second video has a woman as the main character – an Egyptian woman in her thirties, her hair uncovered, wearing blue jeans and a dark T-shirt. The officer appears with a big stick, beating her mercilessly. He is beating her all over with all his strength – on her feet, her arms and her head. The woman screams and then falls silent and then in the next shot we see her strung up horizontally with her hands and feet tied to a metal pole.

This is the position people say is used in police stations and State Security premises and is known as the "chicken position". It causes horrific pain, tears the muscles and can lead to bone and even spinal fractures. Not content with stringing her up in the "chicken position", the policeman carries on hitting her with his big stick until she cries out at the top of her voice: "OK, pasha, it was me who killed him, it was me who killed him." At this point we realise that the policeman is investigating a murder and that by this very effective method he has identified the murderer and justice has been done.

In the third video we see a man in his forties trembling in fear in front of a police officer, who is hurling the most vile insults at him. The policeman then raises his hand and brings it down forcefully towards the man's face. Just as the man shuts his eyes against the blow, the policeman freezes his hand in the air, then wiggles his fingers obscenely. Then the policeman breaks out into sustained laughter and walks around the room triumphantly as though he has just pulled off some clever trick.

Then the policeman gets serious again, approaches the man with a cigarette in the corner of his mouth, and starts slapping his face repeatedly with both hands. When the man raises a hand instinctively to fend off the blows, the policeman stops, insults the man's mother and tells him to put his hand back down at his side. Then he starts slapping him again.

In the fourth film we don't see the policeman because he's sitting behind the camera. Instead we see a man more than 60 years old, frail and evidently poor and malnourished. A muscular police informer has grabbed him and we hear the officer saying to the informer: "Hit him, Abdel Rasoul." Abdel Rasoul carries out the order and starts to lay into the old man. But the policeman, whose voice sounds serene and playful, says: "That's very gentle, Abdel Rasoul, too gentle. Hit him hard." Abdel Rasoul hits the man more and more violently as the policeman tells him where to strike. "Give it to him on the back of the neck, Abdel Rasoul. Now hit him on the head."

Abdel Rasoul tries hard to please the officer and hits harder and harder, but the officer tut-tuts and says: "Your performance is very feeble, Abdel Rasoul." At that point another informer comes into the room to help Abdel Rasoul do his job, and the two of them beat up the old man, trying to prove their competence to the officer. The old man submits to their blows to the extent that he cannot raise his hand or even scream. He looks vacant, as though he is dead.

Mr President, I chose these films from the many available on Wael Abbas's blogsite Egyptian Awareness and many other blogsites on the internet. All of them are authentic visual and audio records of the terrifying crimes of torture to which Egyptians are subjected daily.

In many cases the names of the officers and the places where they work are available along with the video. In most cases the faces of the officers are clearly visible in the picture, which would make it easy to identify them. All of these videos were recorded on mobile phones by people who happened to be present during the torture sessions, and somehow leaked to the blogsites. Sometimes the police officer himself photographed himself as he was doing the torturing, to show the pictures to his colleagues or for use in humiliating the victims or intimidating them in the future.

Humans are normally inclined to record the happy moments in their lives. It makes sense that one would photograph one's wedding or graduation ceremony, but to record oneself as one tortures people is bizarre behaviour, the motives for which psychiatrists might help us to understand.

Mr President, I am not asking you to intervene to stop this degradation to which dozens of Egyptians are subjected daily in police stations and State Security premises. I am not asking you to investigate the crimes of torture committed against innocents by people who represent the regime which he heads. I am not asking you to intervene because, like all Egyptians, I have learnt from experience the limits of what is possible in Egypt. I only wanted to recommend some films to entertain Your Excellency on your long journey. Mr President, have a safe trip... Democracy is the solution.

Alaa Al Aswany is an Egyptian author whose most recent novel is 'Chicago'

© 2009 Shorouk Newpaper - All rights reserved

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