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Monday, August 31, 2015

EGYPT: Secret prison, AZOULI, and torture PART 2/2



Clashes at Rabaa al-Adaiya, August 2013. 
Photograph: Asmaa Waguih/Reuters

Clich here for PART 1/2

At any one time, the third floor can hold well above 300 prisoners, with the total number of inmates likely to be higher, since some detainees have left and others have taken their places.



Amnesty believes that up to 20 have been released from any kind of custody. Lawyers also say that a number of others have “reappeared” in civilian jails, accused of terrorism charges based on confessions extracted after torture and interrogation.



The interrogation and systematic torture of Azouli’s prisoners takes place in a separate building – known as S-1 – a few minutes’ drive from the prison. About 10 prisoners are taken there at the middle of each day. Once their names are called, they are let out of their cells to blindfold themselves and form a line. Each survivor said that at this point they would be beaten then led downstairs to a minibus, where they would be beaten again. Prisoners are then driven the short journey to S-1, where they are usually led up a set of wooden stairs to a first-floor office. There the detainees wait – still blindfolded – until they are called one by one to a next-door room.



When Khaled was first called, on his first full day at Azouli, he remembers the unnerving sound of an officer silently flicking his lighter on and off for several minutes before asking a series of questions about the organisation of protests.



And then the torture started,” Khaled recalled. “It started with electric shocks in every place in my body. [The officer] called the military policemen and told them: ‘Take off his clothes.’ They took me out of the room. I took everything off apart from my boxers. They said: ‘Make yourself totally naked.’ I said no. The officer said: ‘Bring him in.’



 I started to give him some names. He felt I had lied, so he ordered the soldiers to make me totally naked. The electric shocks were in every place in my body, especially the most sensitive areas – my lips, the places with nerves. Behind the ear and lips. Under the shoulders.



After the electrocutions, Khaled’s hands were tied behind him. He then claims he was hanged naked by the ensuing knot from a window frame – a torture technique known as the Balango method, which left his shoulders and wrists in excruciating pain. Two-and-a-half hours later he was taken down and returned to the cells.



Two other former inmates report similar experiences, though one says he was tied in a different position, and the other – Salah, a man in his 20s – said he was allowed to keep wearing his clothes while being electrocuted.



The officer asked me if I knew certain people from a list,” said Salah. “If I said no, he would electrocute me … My answers were, of course, no: I don’t stay very much in [my hometown]. So he would electrocute me.



The electrocution was over my clothes, but on the testicles. I was sitting on the floor, handcuffed. He was sitting on the small table, and would stretch his hands to electrocute me in my testicles.



The victims cannot know for certain who tortured them. But all three believe that the interrogations were led by officers from military intelligence – the army wing headed until 2012 by Abdel Fatah al-Sisi, Egypt’s new president – with involvement from the secret police, known informally in Egypt as amn ad-dawla, or state security.



One interviewee said he had been brought to Azouli by state security, who handed him over to the army.



According to Ahmed Helmy, a lawyer who represents former Azouli prisoners, many detainees are tortured by military intelligence until they memorise specific confessions to acts of terrorism. Then they are transferred to state security offices where they are asked to repeat these confessions to a police prosecutor. Other detainees from civilian jails confirm meeting Azouli prisoners at this stage in their incarceration.



If they repeat their memorised confessions correctly, Azouli prisoners are then “reappeared” in a civilian jail, where torture is less systematic, and where they are allowed visits from lawyers and relatives. But, says Helmy: “If they don’t confess exactly how the security services want, they’re sent back to Azouli for more torture.



Helmy represents some of the detainees who he says have been transferred from Azouli to civilian jails. He says some of them may have committed parts of the crimes to which they have confessed, but because of the way their confessions were extracted it was impossible to be sure.



You can’t know if these people have committed these crimes or not,” Helmy said. “Under the pressure of torture you can admit to anything. It’s clear that some people are admitting to things because of the torture.



The mother of one former Azouli detainee – now transferred to a civilian jail – said it had taken her son Omar four days of torture and three trips to a civil prosecutor before he would agree to recite his forced confession. Omar’s mother said she feared he had died because during his time at Azouli no state institution would reveal his whereabouts.



She only found Omar again when he re-emerged at an official jail weeks later. “The skin on his nose was raw to the bone,” she remembered of their reunion at a family visit inside the second prison.



 There was a cut with the depth of a fingertip on his neck, which came from being beaten with a metal stick. There were two big wounds on his wrists from the hanging.



They electrocuted him on his testicles. He said he was threatened with rape and that they used to hang them naked. He said he was prevented from going to the bathroom for six days and they kept him blindfolded for ten days.



He asked me if we had had any visits, because they threatened that they would arrest his [female relatives], rape them, film it, and then show them the videos.



The three former prisoners interviewed directly by the Guardian said that they were not tortured at S-1 as many times as detainees such as Omar. Over time, officials appeared to lose interest in them, which may partly explain their eventual release.



Summarising the difference between Azouli and notorious civilian jails such as Cairo’s Scorpion prison, Helmy said: “Scorpion is an official prison under the supervision of the prosecution and it’s visible. But Azouli is in a military area. It’s forbidden for any civilians to go inside.



When we ask the civil prosecution to investigate people inside Azouli, they say they don’t have any jurisdiction to go there. So it’s a place where military intelligence can take their time and torture people without any oversight.



At Azouli, prisoners subjected to systematic torture lack even a hypothetical legal redress.



“It gives you an idea of how confident the security forces are today,” said Amnesty’s Mohamed Elmessiry.



They don’t care about the rule of law. They are holding people for over 90 days and subjecting them to ongoing torture without any judicial oversight. These practices are a devastating blow to detainees’ rights, as enshrined under both Egyptian and international law.



As Khaled, one of the three survivors, summarised: “Your whole life there is a living tomb. No one knows anything about where you are.



A senior military officer acknowledged the existence of Azouli prison, but did not respond within a fortnight to specific written allegations, and turned down a request to visit the jail.



Additional reporting by Manu Abdo. All detainees’ names have been changed.



The ‘security solution’



Azouli is one of the clearest examples of a resurgent security state that was never reformed under the successors to Hosni Mubarak (including the Muslim Brotherhood’s Mohamed Morsi, under whose presidency security officials were frequently accused of excessive force and torture) and in the past 12 months has exerted itself in almost unprecedented fashion.



Throughout last summer and early autumn, police and soldiers engaged in six mass killings of alleged Morsi supporters unmatched by any other in Egypt’s modern history. They began with the deaths of 51 Morsi supporters on 8 July 2013 and peaked with the clearance of a protest camp – Rabaa al-Adawiya– at which at least 637 died.



Post-Morsi governments have said the “security solution” is necessary to counter terrorism, a narrative made possible by a wave of jihadist-led bombings and ambushes in the Sinai peninsula – most notoriously, the assassination of 25 police conscripts in August. Islamist-led attacks on churches and police stations in the days after Rabaa also helped to justify it.



According to the interior ministry, at least 16,000 Egyptians have been arrested for political reasons since July 2013, though one independent estimate suggests the figure may be as high as 41,000.



As the interior minister, Mohamed Ibrahim, has admitted, many were arrested arbitrarily. “Every Friday, no less than 500 to 600 get arrested,” he said in January. “At the beginning, we used to wait for the demonstration to turn violent, but now we confront them once they congregate. When we confront them, there are some that run. But whoever we can grab, we detain.



Most of the detainees are Morsi supporters. But the crackdown has widened to include anyone whose beliefs, actions or lifestyle threatens the state. Liberal academics have been banned from overseas travel, while those detained include allegedly gay men, at least 16 journalists and hundreds of secular activists, including figureheads of the 2011 uprising.



‘Bring him in.



 I started to give him some names. He felt I had lied, so he ordered the soldiers to make me totally naked. The electric shocks were in every place in my body, especially the most sensitive areas – my lips, the places with nerves. Behind the ear and lips. Under the shoulders.



After the electrocutions, Khaled’s hands were tied behind him. He then claims he was hanged naked by the ensuing knot from a window frame – a torture technique known as the Balango method, which left his shoulders and wrists in excruciating pain. Two-and-a-half hours later he was taken down and returned to the cells.



Two other former inmates report similar experiences, though one says he was tied in a different position, and the other – Salah, a man in his 20s – said he was allowed to keep wearing his clothes while being electrocuted.



The officer asked me if I knew certain people from a list,” said Salah. “If I said no, he would electrocute me … My answers were, of course, no: I don’t stay very much in [my hometown]. So he would electrocute me.



The electrocution was over my clothes, but on the testicles. I was sitting on the floor, handcuffed. He was sitting on the small table, and would stretch his hands to electrocute me in my testicles.



The victims cannot know for certain who tortured them. But all three believe that the interrogations were led by officers from military intelligence – the army wing headed until 2012 by Abdel Fatah al-Sisi, Egypt’s new president – with involvement from the secret police, known informally in Egypt as amn ad-dawla, or state security.



One interviewee said he had been brought to Azouli by state security, who handed him over to the army.



According to Ahmed Helmy, a lawyer who represents former Azouli prisoners, many detainees are tortured by military intelligence until they memorise specific confessions to acts of terrorism. Then they are transferred to state security offices where they are asked to repeat these confessions to a police prosecutor. Other detainees from civilian jails confirm meeting Azouli prisoners at this stage in their incarceration.



If they repeat their memorised confessions correctly, Azouli prisoners are then “reappeared” in a civilian jail, where torture is less systematic, and where they are allowed visits from lawyers and relatives. But, says Helmy: “If they don’t confess exactly how the security services want, they’re sent back to Azouli for more torture.


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