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Egypt tortures for the US, so why not on its own account?

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  • Zafar Khan
    Egypt tortures for the US, so why not on its own account? Human rights cannot be regional or selective: Guantánamo, Belmarsh, Laz Oghli and Facility 1391
    Message 1 of 1 , Mar 9, 2006
      Egypt tortures for the US, so why not on its own

      Human rights cannot be regional or selective:
      Guantánamo, Belmarsh, Laz Oghli and Facility 1391
      stand or fall together

      Ahdaf Soueif
      Thursday March 9, 2006
      The Guardian


      The story of Maajid Nawaz, Ian Nisbet and Reza
      Pankhurst, the three British Muslims who travelled to
      Egypt with their families, their detention there,
      their trial and their release now, almost four years
      later, encapsulates several elements in the
      "east-west" or "war on terror" story. Media coverage
      in the UK has focused on the men's Britishness and
      whether the British government did enough to help
      them. As usual, events outside the western hemisphere
      are presented as though in a void. So here's a
      pencilling in of the local background.

      Twenty-six young men were arrested in Cairo and
      Alexandria on April 1 2002, accused of membership of a
      banned group. This was not an extraordinary event.
      Over the past three decades, such arrests, detentions
      and kidnappings have become fairly common. People
      disappear. Friends hunt for them. Usually they are in
      the State Security Investigation Bureau in Laz Oghli
      Square in Cairo. They are generally held long enough
      to extract a confession. Their treatment ranges from
      insults, threats and beatings to fairly evolved
      methods of torture. Sometimes the person is not
      required to confess to anything; they are given a
      warning and let go.

      Sometimes the person dies. Mostly, they are sent to
      jail to await trial. Once in jail, they are generally
      not ill-treated, but conditions are basic. There are
      about 15,000 political detainees in Egyptian jails.
      Some have been found innocent years ago. Some have
      never been brought to trial. Some have been there more
      than a decade. The young men arrested in April 2002
      were accused of membership of the banned and avowedly
      non-violent Islamist group, Egyptian Hizb ut-Tahrir.
      Among them were the three Britons. They were members
      of British Hizb ut-Tahrir - a group that is not (yet)

      The defence team for the men consisted of 15 Egyptian
      lawyers from across the political spectrum; from
      Muntassir el-Zayyat, eminent legal counsel of the
      Muslim Brotherhood, to Ahmad Sayf, popular leftwing
      head of the Legal Aid Centre, who served pro bono
      along with two lawyers from the Civil Liberties
      Committee of the bar association.

      The case was tried in the state security emergency
      court, part of the apparatus supporting the emergency
      laws. These laws were first introduced to Egypt by the
      British occupying power during the first world war.
      They were reinstated, again by the British, for the
      second world war - and successive governments have
      used them as an instrument of oppression ever since.
      The state security emergency courts allow no further
      legal recourse - their decisions are not open to
      appeal, except directly to the president. Some are
      seen as vulnerable to political pressure. The
      dismantling of the emergency laws is a central demand
      of the opposition movements, which made their presence
      felt in the streets and in elections last year.

      The evidence seized from the men's homes took a year
      to examine. It was mainly books and articles, many
      published by the prestigious al-Ahram Centre for
      Political and Strategic Studies, by mainstream
      publishers and by human rights organisations.
      Submitted to the court were some 200 reports from the
      Higher Council for Islamic Affairs, the state
      adjudicator on religious matters on the religious
      content of the material - all declaring it innocent.

      Sayf (who has himself spent time in jail) is convinced
      that none of the young men did more than discuss and
      publicise theoretical ideas about alternative forms of
      government. I attended a summing-up session at court,
      in June 2003. Here are the impressions I noted down
      that night: "Reza Pankhurst's Iranian mother and
      English father are here. There's a lot of sympathy for
      them as foreigners and parents - their lad caught up
      in this mess ... What struck me was the difference
      between the accused and the rest of us: the security,
      the relatives, even the lawyers looked worn, dusty and
      frayed. Inside the cage, the young men were collected
      and dignified ... Mrs Pankhurst said to me: 'I get my
      strength from him, from Reza' ... The judge, Ahmad
      Izzat al-Ashmawi, has clearly lost patience with the
      prosecution. He declared that he will deliver his
      verdict on December 25. Everyone believes he will
      throw the case out."

      On December 22, Egypt's foreign minister, Ahmad Maher,
      paid a highly unpopular visit to Jerusalem. On a visit
      to the al-Aqsa mosque, shoes and slippers were thrown
      at him and some of his attackers managed to slap him.
      The Egyptian media blamed the Palestinian Hizb
      ut-Tahrir. In Cairo, Judge Ashmawi postponed declaring
      the verdict for three months. On March 25 2004, he
      declared the men guilty and handed down sentences
      ranging from one to five years.

      Egypt is an important regional power. It is critical
      to US and British policy in the region: officially the
      spreading of democracy. But a real democracy in Egypt
      may not deliver what people perceive to be US and
      British aims: to secure strategic and economic
      interests, push ferocious free-market "reforms" and
      promote Israel. So the US and Britain support the
      status quo and its apparatus, while offering
      patronising lip-service to democracy.

      The debate about whether the British government did
      enough to help its citizens is disingenuous. Why
      should Egyptian authorities pay heed to British ones?
      In Britain, we allow extraordinary rendition flights
      to stop-over in torture trips. The prime minister
      calls Guantánamo an "anomaly". He appoints to the
      Foreign Office a lawyer who advised Israel to block a
      UN investigation into Israeli army activities in
      Jenin. In Egypt, our government tortures - presumably
      - at the behest of the US. Why not, then, on its own

      Egypt's judges are convening on March 17 to demand,
      yet again, the reinstatement of the judiciary's
      independence. Opposition voices have called on
      citizens to hold a vigil in their support.

      The 23 Egyptians and Palestinians arrested and jailed
      along with Nawaz, Nisbet and Pankhurst are still in
      detention. They remain, according to their lawyers and
      to precedent, subject to torture. The young sister of
      one of the Palestinians is dying in a Jerusalem
      hospital. Her hope of survival is a bone marrow
      transplant for which the only candidate is her willing
      brother. And he doesn't even have a Tony Blair to not
      speak up for him.

      Human rights cannot be regional. The rule of law
      cannot be selective. Guantánamo, Belmarsh, Laz Oghli
      and Facility 1391 in Israel are part of the same
      configuration; they stand together or - one hopes -
      fall together.

      © Ahdaf Soueif

      · Ahdaf Soueif's latest book is Mezzaterra, Fragments
      from the Common Ground


      More about Egypt at:
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