Monday 21 February 2011

Egypt files: (Part 2) Seeking justice and help in Egypt? It’s a farce.

With the tyrant dethroned, the search for justice begins but can it be found in Egypt?

The morning after Hosni Mubarak was toppled; Galal Faisal walked into the attorney general’s office and filed a complaint about the killing of his brother, Nasser. He named the only two police officers he says could have fired the bullet in Cairo’s downtown Tahrir Square that lodged in the 18-year-old’s brain, causing a slow and painful death.

“I want to see justice for my brother,” Faisal said Saturday. “In the new Egypt, there must be justice.”

As Egyptians continued to celebrate Mubarak’s overthrow by an unprecedented popular uprising that lasted 18 days, brigades of young people with brooms held high marched to attack piles of rocks and garbage while chanting, “Hold your heads high, Egyptians, hold your heads high.”

No one doubted the massive cleanup was symbolic. They were sweeping away the rubbish of an authoritarian regime that ruled by fear and abuse for three decades. Democracy requires a clean slate and that includes an improvement on how justice is made available to the people of Egypt.

All vowed to remain vigilant, none more so that the families of the 300 people killed during the uprising by Egypt’s hated security forces. They’re considered martyrs of the revolution and Tahrir Square is dotted with shrines to their memory, including a massive stone slab lowered by crane, For many, whether their killers—or those who sent them—are prosecuted will be a crucial test of the revolution’s success.

In interviews with families of victims, the Toronto Star discovered concerted efforts by medical bureaucrats to stifle evidence of death at the hands of security forces. Autopsy requests were refused, attempts were made to obscure the cause of death and some families were asked to sign away their right to file complaints against security forces in return for their loved one’s body.

Yasser Hijazi, a doctor at Kasr al Ainy hospital near Tahrir Square, said he witnessed the evasive practices in the case of a 13-year-old boy, whose death certificate made no mention that he died of a gunshot wound during the protests. “It’s a new policy ordered by the head of the hospital—don’t give the relatives of the dead the true story,” Hijazi said bluntly.

That tactic wasn’t just restricted to the Kasr al Ainy hospital. Bassem Basiony confronted it when his search for his brother’s body took him to 15 hospitals and a morgue.

His brother, Ahmed, was a 32-year-old artist and musician. He was killed Jan. 28, during a violent day of clashes between protesters and riot police.

Eyewitnesses told his family that Ahmed saw a friend killed by a rooftop sniper. He turned to get a close-up of the sniper with his video camera when he was felled by rubber bullets, and then run over by a vehicle apparently driven by police.

Basiony, 25, found his brother’s body after a five-day search of hospitals. He says his face had the impact marks of what he describes as four rubber bullets.

The family wanted the body for burial. The official at the morgue near the Giza pyramids said a document would first have to be signed stating “his death was not caused by beatings or bullets,” Basiony says. The family refused.

Ahmed’s body was transferred to another morgue, called Zinhom, where the family demanded an autopsy. Basiony said that officials refused, saying the attorney general had put a halt to them. When the family insisted, they were told there were no doctors to perform it.

They eventually received what Basiony calls a preliminary report stating Ahmed died of crushed internal organs, injuries that “occurred during the looting, The family got the sentence deleted that implied that Ahmed may have died while looting. The family’s persistence resulted in a full autopsy being conducted. They’re waiting for results.

In the poor neighbourhood of Imbaba, Gamal Shaban, 23, has a rubber pellet lodged in his right eye. He says he was watching police clash with protesters when he was overcome by tear gas. He raised his head, once he stopped choking, and says he saw a police officer fire the pellet.

He has a medical report from the Kasr al Ainy hospital. It says he has “a foreign object in his eye.” Below that diagnosis, a hospital administrator has written by hand, “This report can not be used with, or submitted to, the attorney general, the courts or the police.” I am naturally curious as to what would happen if such a report ended up on the desk of the attorney general.

In the same neighbourhood, Nasser worked driving a tuk-tuk, a three-wheeled taxi, earning about $3.50 a day. He used it to help support an extended family of eight people living in an apartment with two small bedrooms, a kitchen and a living room smaller than a prison cell.

On January 29, the teenager got a bullet fired into his head. The day he was shot, he was walking home from the grocery store with his brother Mohammed, 20, carrying a bag of falafels, milk, and a container of mashed fava beans. Police had been clashing nearby with protesters who wanted to walk to Tahrir Square. Mohammed says he saw two neighbourhood police officers suddenly start shooting randomly on their street. Nasser fell to the ground.

Mohammed and friends carried Nasser, who was still alive, to a nearby ambulance. But it was being used as a paddy wagon by police. Then they were overcome by tear gas, and dropped the wounded teenager.

With their help, Nasser was able to struggle to his feet. They walked him to the neighbourhood hospital, where doctors said they didn’t have the means to treat him. What kind of hospital can’t help a person who has been shot? Is it a veterinarian hospital for pets?

His friends put him on a motorcycle and drove him to another hospital.

Administrators there wouldn’t admit him either. So they took him home, helped him up four flights of stairs, and put him on a small red couch. His left eye was out of its socket.

A third hospital bandaged his eye and transferred him to Kasr Al Ainy hospital. By then, four hours had past since Nasser had been shot. He was admitted, fell into a coma for four days and then died.

The family requested an autopsy but hospital administrators told them they were too busy. Galal Faisal says the hospital also refused to provide a medical report that said Nasser died of a bullet to the brain—even though Faisal says a doctor had told him that was the cause of death.

Muslim tradition requires burial as soon as possible. When Faisal asked for Nasser’s body, he says a health department official told him he would have to sign a document waiving his right to file a complaint about the death with the attorney general.

Faisal initially refused, but begged by his mother to bury Nasser, he eventually relented. “I felt I had to do it. It was my brother and he needed to be buried. It was very, very difficult,” said Faisal, 32, who works laying floor tiles.

When the Star reporter first met Faisal, Mubarak was clinging to power. Faisal was convinced the police officers would not be investigated for his brother’s death. Then Mubarak resigned so despite the waiver Faisal had signed; he went to the attorney general’s office. He says that they promised to investigate and asked him to return in two days to confirm that the process had started. I don’t know if they ever did begin an investigation but I doubt that they did.

Mr. Saad Eddin Ibrahim, a sociologist who holds dual Egyptian and American citizenship, was convicted and imprisoned for training his fellow Egyptians in voter registration and election monitoring—apparently it is considered as seditious conduct in Egypt. The Ibn Khaldun Center, which he founded in 1988 at the American University in Cairo, was one of the few independent research institutions in the Arab world. Instead of relying on the state for its funding, it obtained grants from a number of sources, including the European Union. This was too much for Egypt's president, Hosni Mubarak, especially when Mr. Mubarak and his family's political ambitions came under Mr. Ibrahim's withering scrutiny.

Mr. Ibrahim, who is 64, and two dozen of his staff members were rounded up and charged in state security court, a parallel judicial system run under special rules.

In that kangaroo system, which has been criticized by the American State Department, he was convicted of taking outside funds without permission, disseminating information harmful to Egypt's interests and defrauding the European Union. The guilty verdict was handed down even before the defense had a chance to finish its case. The sentence was seven years of hard labor.

After spending most of the past 18 months in prison, Egypt's most prominent advocate for democracy and human rights, Mr. Ibrahim was freed by the country's highest criminal court. His freedom came not a moment too soon because of Mr. Ibrahim's declining health and Egypt's declining reputation.

Continued repression and injustice may force the populace of Egypt into the arms of organized extremism.

I was shocked when I learned of the decision of the State Council, Egypt’s Administrative Court, to defer the appointment of female judges, although consensus of the Special Council was reached, allowing women to be appointed to judicial positions. The State Council attributed reason for the delay in approving the appointment of female judges to regulation problems, including a lack of safe and secure places for women to stay when presiding over a trial and a lack of nurseries for their children. That’s what is commonly referred to as hog wash.

These justifications are unacceptable. It is a violation of justice and equal rights under the pretext of regulating these rights. It would be better if the State Council told applicants about the circumstances of the position they are applying for and the requirements of the job, then let female applicants choose for themselves to accept or refuse these circumstances.

The justification of the council is not logical with regards to women's effective participation in all aspects of life, in addition it prevents women’s participation in positions that demand more intellectual and physical effort than those positions within the State Council itself that offer luxurious offices to female judges and nurseries for their children.

The Egyptian army may be the key to a successful transition of power, if one is to occur. But will those presently in power bring proper justice to the people of Egypt?

There is some hope that some justice in Egypt will prevail. In January of this year, in an unprecedented verdict, Hamam El-Kamouni was sentenced this week to death by hanging for the murder of six Coptic Christian parishioners and a Muslim policeman a year ago as they celebrated the Coptic Christmas mass. The judges obviously chose their timing carefully. The verdict was meant to act as a deterrence to militants determined to strike terror in the Coptic Christian community and to sow the seeds of hatred and sectarian strife with the attendant threat to national unity.

David Tolbert, President of the International Center for Transitional Justice has in my opinion said it best when he said, and I quote;

"Egyptian officials should seize the opportunity to start a national debate on establishing truth and ensuring justice for past violations. Justice and accountability strategies are the only way for Egypt to break with its past and ensure a successful transition based on the rule of law. Egyptians should look at how other post-authoritarian transitions have been handled in recent decades. They must then consider taking steps to ensure that the perpetrators for grave human rights violations—such as torture—are held accountable, and initiatives are taken to ensure justice for victims. It will also be vital for Egypt to reform abusive institutions, and so prevent violations from recurring." unquote

One can determine the wellbeing of the people of a nation by the way the nation accepts justice for all as being an important feature in governance.

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