The family of a Coptic Christian who died in police custody last week have called for legal action to be taken against the two arresting officers, who they accuse of torture and murder.
Gamal Kamal Aweida, 41, died in a room at Manshiyat Naser police station, in central Cairo, on Wednesday 19 July. Relatives said his body had signs of torture, though police claimed his death was suicide. Amnesty International has requested a report from the authorities.
Aweida, who was married with 13-year-old twin boys, had been accused by the police of forging driving licences.
Aweida worked as a Zabbaleen (the name for Cairo’s informal garbage collectors, who are mostly Coptic Christians). He traded waste plastics and cartons used in recycling. He also used to help some drivers in his area with the process of getting or renewing licences for the trucks used to collect the garbage by paying the licence fee, plus extra money, to contacts who worked in the Manshiyat Naser traffic department – a common practice used when dealing with government bureaucracy in many African countries.
On the night of his arrest Aweida was at a café in Manshiyat Naser.
His brother-in-law, Arian Hanna, told World Watch Monitor what happened: “On Tuesday evening (18 July), two officers from Manshiyat Naser police station arrested Gamal and his friend, Ashraf Samy, while they were at a café. They searched Gamal and found two driving licences. They then also arrested the two men named on the licences – Fares Samaan and Adel Saad – and took them all to the police station for questioning.”
When Hanna heard of the arrests, he went to the police station but was repeatedly told Aweida wasn’t there. However, Samy, Samaan and Saad later told Aweida’s family what had happened.
Samaan and Saad said one officer tried to get them to testify that Aweida had forged their licences. They refused and were beaten up, as was Aweida, because he denied forging the documents. They said the officer was also “cursing Gamal, his religion and Gamal’s mother while he was beating him up. Gamal asked the officer not to curse his religion and his mother, but the officer only increased the beating”.
Later, Aweida was taken to a separate room, from where the three other men all said they heard him screaming as he was tortured by the two officers.
The next morning (Wednesday 19 July), while he was being escorted to the bathroom, Samy saw his friend Aweida lying on the floor. He said he couldn’t tell whether he was dead or alive.
Also on Wednesday morning, Aweida’s brother, Nabil, went to the police station with other friends and family to protest. An officer denied Aweida was being held, but an assistant had further news.
“One of the police assistants took me aside and told me that my brother, Gamal, had hanged himself. I said to him Gamal wouldn’t do that… Why would he hang himself? He was a religious man, he wasn’t suffering from anything, and he was wealthy,” he said.
Nabil Aweida says he wonders if his brother was killed because he was a Christian. He has made a formal complaint against the arresting officers, accusing them of arresting his brother without reason, holding him in custody and torturing him to death, and he wants the Interior Minister to intervene.
Bakheet Abdo, Gamal’s cousin, also went with Nabil Aweida to the police station on 19 July and asked to see the room where the alleged suicide took place.
“When I entered the room,” Abdo said, “I found the distance between the window, where they said Gamal had tied a rope to hang himself, and the floor was about 1.5 metres. My cousin was taller than that, so how had he hanged himself, and where had he got the rope?”
Abdo found other discrepancies. He was told by one officer that his cousin hanged himself with some cord he was using to hold up his trousers, while another told him the cord used had been tied round Aweida’s wallet. But Abdo couldn’t make sense of either of those explanations, saying, “My cousin was wealthy enough that he didn’t tie his trousers with a cord instead of a belt, that’s illogical speech” and, to the second suggestion, “that’s unreasonable as well: how long was the length of the rope used to tie up his wallet? Could he use that to hang himself?”
When the family went to the morgue, they were asked to hand in their mobile phones before they could see Aweida’s body. “They were afraid that we would take photographs of the body with our mobiles and then show them to the media,” Abdo said. They say they saw signs of torture on different parts of Aweida’s body – bruises on his shoulder, under his arms, on his knees and bruised and swollen testicles, which they say is a sign of electric shock. They photographed the injuries after his body had been released to them: Abdo said they will publicise them if the forensic report is not accurate.
(A medical report said the cause of death was a severe drop in blood pressure: the forensic report will be issued in a month.)
Maged Adel, the lawyer presenting the case, told World Watch Monitor that the arrest came against a backdrop of forged driving licences. “Gamal was a young, wealthy man, had two children and there wasn’t any reason for him to commit suicide,” he said. “His arrest came because someone, who appears to have ties to the police station, was at odds with Gamal because he was helping some people to get their driving licenses.”
In a similar case in November 2016 police officers were charged with torturing to death another Copt, Magdy Makeen, at a police station in nearby Amereya, about 20 minutes’ drive from Mashiyat Naser. All the officers have been released on bail, pending trial, the most recent on 10 May. According to Makeen’s lawyers, there is a body of evidence against the police: an autopsy report confirmed that Makeen died from torture; witnesses detained at the same time said he was tortured to death; and surveillance tapes from the station showed officers beating him.
Rights groups say police brutality is widespread in Egypt, enabled by a culture of impunity, and a string of incidents have triggered protests and riots in the past year. Anger at police was also a major factor in setting off the 2011 uprising that ended dictator Hosni Mubarak’s 30-year rule.
Egyptian security forces have faced further scrutiny over the killing of Italian researcher Giulio Regeni in Cairo this year. Human rights groups say his death bore the hallmarks of torture by Egyptian security services. They deny involvement.