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Egypt's missing stir doubts on vows for change

While Egyptians have cheered the military for pledging to oversee a transition to democracy, rights groups accuse it of involvement in recent disappearances and torture.
Ramadan Aboul Hassan, left, and Ahmed Aboul Hassan vanished with a friend last month and ended up in a far-off prison.
Ramadan Aboul Hassan, left, and Ahmed Aboul Hassan vanished with a friend last month and ended up in a far-off prison.Ed Ou for The New York Times
/ Source: The New York Times

Ramadan Aboul Hassan left his house one night about three weeks ago to join a neighborhood watch group with two friends and did not return. The next time their relatives saw the three men they were emerging Wednesday night from a maximum security prison, 400 miles from home, run by Egypt’s military. Some family members said they bore signs of torture, though others denied it.

While many here have cheered the military for taking over after last week’s ouster of President Hosni Mubarak and for pledging to oversee a transition to democracy, human rights groups say that in the past three weeks the military has also played a documented role in dozens of disappearances and at least 12 cases of torture — trademark practices of the Mubarak government’s notorious security police that most here hoped would end with his exit.

Some, like Mr. Aboul Hassan and his two friends, were not released until several days after the revolution removed Mr. Mubarak.

Now human rights groups say the military’s continuing role in such abuses raises new questions about its ability to midwife Egyptian democracy.

“The military is detaining people incommunicado, which is illegal, and so it is effectively disappearing people,” said Heba Morayef of Human Rights Watch, which has documented four cases that it describes as involving torture. Amnesty International has documented three such cases, and the Front for the Defense of Egyptian Protesters has documented five.

Human Rights Watch has also documented one case in which the military transferred a prisoner to the country’s feared State Security forces, where it says he was tortured.

Ms. Morayef said the cases of detention and torture did not appear to be “systematic,” but added, “It is enough to set off alarm bells and call for an investigation into abuses by the military police.”

Most victims were arrested by the military, she says, though two were detained by neighborhood watch groups and then handed over to soldiers. The interrogations accompanying abuse all revolved around victims’ suspected participation in the antigovernment protests that toppled the Mubarak government.

Hundreds of unidentified bodies have shown up at hospitals around the country, says the Front for the Defense of Egyptian Protesters, deepening the uncertainty. On Wednesday, Egypt’s Health Ministry reported that 365 had died during the uprising and that 5,500 were injured.

Military officials said at a meeting of youth activists on Monday that they would search for those who had disappeared during the uprising, and confirmed that at least 77 people had been detained in fighting in Tahrir Square, according to notes of the meeting published on Facebook.

Local media reported that the army chief of staff, Sami Enan, had agreed to release all of those detained during the revolution, but rights groups complain that he did not commit to a timetable. They have seen little movement toward fulfilling the pledge.

Ramadan Aboul Hassan, 33, vanished well after the battle with the police around Tahrir Square had ended. On Jan. 29, after the police fled the city and the military stepped in, Ramadan left home with his nephew Ahmed Aboul Hassan, 22, and their friend Mostafa Mahrous Mostafa to join neighbors in fending off looters. Then they disappeared.

For 18 days Mohamed Aboul Hassan, 51, Ramadan’s eldest brother, worked the phones, each call introducing him to a new lieutenant or government bureaucrat offering a different story about the men’s whereabouts and counseling a different course of action.

The family combed hospitals and police stations and begged military officials they managed to get on the phone. They asked the national prison authority if the men’s names were in the country’s database of inmates, and were told they were nowhere to be found.

Five days after the disappearance, their families learned that the men had been arrested by the military under a bridge on nearby Revolution Street close to the local headquarters of military intelligence. Mohamed was called in to the intelligence office, given their national ID cards and asked to sign for them before he could take the cards home. He was not told why they had been arrested or when they would be released.

'Not prepared'
“I don’t understand why the government is doing this,” Mohamed said Tuesday, the height of the search. “If they would just give me some piece of information about them, it would mean so much for me.”

The military has little experience directly governing and policing the civilian population, leaving it ill equipped for tasks like notifying families of arrests or detentions, said Ahmed Ragheb, the executive director of the Hisham Mubarak Law Center, a human rights organization. “The army is not prepared to operate an incarceration system or facilities.”

Early Tuesday afternoon, a contact in the military told the Aboul Hassan family that the three men had been released from Wadi Gedid maximum security prison in a distant southern province and put on a military train bound for Cairo. A short while later a cousin with friends working in the train station told them no such train existed, and an official at Wadi Gedid said the prison had no record of them.

Later, another prison official told Mohamed that the men were in the custody of the civil police in Upper Egypt, while a military official told another brother, Rabie, 36, that the men were awaiting military trials on unknown charges.

On Wednesday, Rabie hired a taxi and made the 400-mile journey to Wadi Gedid prison to ask about the men himself. He found them awaiting release with several hundred others, and said they bore the physical and psychological scars of torture.

The men had been detained at Hikestep Military Base, in the desert outside Cairo, before being sent to Wadi Gedid. They were beaten, whipped, exposed to electric shocks and suspended from the door frames of their cells, Rabie said. They were offered bread doused in gasoline and had guns held to their heads, he asserted. “They treated them like a herd of sheep,” he said.

After their release, Mohamed said, “They are psychologically traumatized and physically ill,” although he denied that they had been tortured. Because of concerns for their well-being, the Aboul Hassan family did not allow reporters access to the three men after their return to Cairo and none were interviewed for this article.

The Aboul Hassans are a poor family in an upper-class neighborhood. Ramadan, Ahmed and Mostafa are the children of men who tend the gardens and guard the doors at upscale apartments in the Heliopolis district of Cairo. Their homes are a grim warren of windowless concrete rooms in the building’s basement, sparsely furnished and bursting at the seams with children.

For weeks, the men’s recovered national ID cards were the only clues family members had about their fates.

“We joined the protests to liberate the country and end the problems of the regime,” said Rabie, who had accompanied his brother to Tahrir Square in the days before his arrest. His family’s ordeal at the hands of the military, an institution he said he respected, has shaken his faith in the revolution.

“After 18 days the regime is gone but the same injustices remain.”

Mohamed Fadel Fahmy, Enas Muthaffar and Dawlat Magdy contributed reporting.

This article, , first appeared in The New York Times.