Police torture and public anger in Luxor

Friday prayers in mosques across Luxor ended uneventfully on December 4. They weren’t followed by street demonstrations demanding retribution for Talaat Shabeeb, who was tortured to death a few days earlier at the police station. There were no chants demanding the restructuring and cleansing of the Interior Ministry, as had dominated the streets following Friday prayers a week earlier.

A security patrol from Luxor police station’s investigation unit was passing through the village of Awameyya on the evening of Tuesday November 24, a few meters from Khaled Ibn al-Walid Street, which separates the village from the police station and the security directorate.

These police patrols are normal in the poorest and most marginalized areas and neighborhoods: They break into cafes and other gathering sites and detain people. One such incident concerns a papyrus seller outside Karnak temple, Shabeeb, who is in his forties and married with four children.

Eyewitness accounts of what happened that day are similar: a patrol officer orders Shabeeb to climb into the police car. He declines. The situation escalates into an argument, upon which the officer is determined to arrest him. He asks one of his sergeants to give him a strip of “tablets” — a term given to a combination of narcotic drugs in Egypt. The officer announces that he will charge Shabeeb of possession of this “evidence” as punishment. Shabeeb submits and climbs into the car, especially after senior members of his family assure him that they will follow immediately behind.

We don’t know why Shabeeb was initially targeted by the police officer. We’ll probably never know. But, according to eyewitness accounts, it was the way he resisted his arrest that led to his assault.

Hamada al-Rashidy, Shabeeb’s cousin, says that the head of investigation contacted a family elder an hour later to ask if Talaat suffered from any health problems. When the relative asked what the basis of the question was, he was told Shabeeb was feeling faint and had been transferred to Luxor international hospital.

“We immediately went to Luxor hospital, only to discover that Talaat had died and that his body was being kept in the hospital morgue,” Rashidy recounts.” When we asked the doctor, he said Talaat was dead before reaching the hospital.”

It took a day before forensics finished the autopsy. After he was prepared for burial and taken out of his house on Wednesday evening, some friction began between angry youth and security forces in the streets surrounding the police station and on the outskirts of the village. Police used excessive force in response.

According to several testimonies from Awameyya residents, security forces chased young people and used tear gas and live bullets, as well as breaking into several village homes. The tense evening ended with the arrest of 24 young people from the village. The police accused them of rioting. However, the following morning the prosecution ordered their release.

The following day, after Friday prayers, hundreds walked through Luxor in angry protest, demanding retribution for Shabeeb, with the participation of many from Awameyya. Luxor MP Ahmed Idris participated at first, under pressure from locals, but then withdrew when the angry chants were directed at the Interior Ministry itself.

Two days later, in a phone conversation with Manchette TV program, Shabeeb’s sister highlighted broader policing issues. She explained that she had followed the torture case of another citizen in Ismailia in the same week, and appealed to the president to consider the matter, suggesting the Interior Ministry “is causing havoc.”

When asked about what measures would satisfy her, she said she would accept a court ruling, “as long as it is fair and not just a tranquillizer,” and added that she doesn’t want retribution for Shabeeb alone, but for all his “brothers” who died at the hands of police.

The topic of police practices and systemic brutality were prevalent on the streets of Luxor for several days following Shabeeb’s death, amid a surge in anger nationwide against police torture.

One activist who participated in the protests told Mada Masr, “Friday’s demonstrations created a great sense of optimism, especially with the many calls on social media for protests on the fifth anniversary of the revolution.”

Human rights lawyer and former director of EIPR’s office in Luxor, Mohamed al-Nubi, believes the state dealt with Shabeeb’s case in the same way it is used to dealing with others. He says the fact that Shabeeb died only one hour after his arrest, and there was a delayed response from police, only served to increase public anger.

Containing public anger

Mahmoud al-Hawary, a human rights lawyer who attended the investigations with Shabeeb’s family, says the familial structure of the local community allowed the Ministry of Interior to contain the crisis through communicating with family elders and convincing them not to escalate.

Luxor Security Directorate additionally decided to organize a vigil to pay condolences to Talaat’s family, and transferred the officers outside Luxor.

This wasn’t enough to contain the anger of a large number of young people in Luxor, but it did indicate the level of fear of escalation among the authorities.

Despite Shabeeb’s family elders denouncing calls for protest on Friday December 4, anger prevailed on the streets and at sessions in the family’s house.

Although the initial reaction by the police and prosecution fueled the call for demonstrations, it also made the case local and deflected from criticism of widespread police abuses nationwide. It did result, however, in the arrest of several policemen.

Angry calls for demonstrations continued, but the demands this time were limited to retribution for Shabeeb and the trial of the officers responsible for his death. In a statement circulated among the youth in Luxor last week, a number of protesters announced a call for protests until the officers are arrested, with no mention of the police apparatus or the state more broadly.

Mahmoud Abdel Hakim, one of the family’s lawyers, believes public pressure and media focus drove the prosecution to conclude its investigation and reach a decision before the planned date of the demonstration.

The forensic report was released on Thursday December 3, in the afternoon. It stated the likelihood of criminal suspicion in Shabeeb’s death. The prosecution continued its hearings throughout Thursday into the early hours of Friday, when it ordered the arrest of four officers for four days, and then extended their detention pending investigation for a further 15 days on December 6.

On Thursday December 10, before the 15 days were over, the general attorney of Luxor prosecution referred four officers and five sergeants to criminal court on charges of manslaughter.

With other similar cases not much has happened, but authorities sped up bureaucratic procedures in Luxor in response to public mobilization and made limited concessions. Although the case remained local, Shabeeb’s death is not an isolated incident and the anger it stirred could be replicated in other contexts across the country.

Mohamed Hamama 

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