Mohamed Abdel Hakim Mahmoud, who goes by the nickname Afroto, was hanging out with two friends outside his building in the Winch area in Moqattam’s Zelzal neighborhood around 8 pm on Friday, when police personnel from the investigations unit at the Moqattam Police Station arrived, riding in tuk tuks, to conduct one of their recurring raids on the area.
Two hours later, Afroto, the 22-year-old painter, would be dead.
Saber*, who witnessed the young painter’s arrest, spoke to Mada Masr outside Zeinhom Morgue the next day.
“I was standing on my balcony,” he says. “I saw the police searching Afroto and his friends. They couldn’t find anything [illegal] in their possession. Yet they decided to take them to the station. Things started to heat up when they tried to force Afroto into the tuk tuk and he tried to run away.”
According to Saber, a police officer known as Abu Adham, stuck out his leg and tripped Afroto. He fell, his chest hitting the pavement, and he shouted out in pain.
Why did Afroto try to run, one might wonder, if nothing illegal was found in his possession? “Running away is our automatic response to spotting police officers,” Mostafa, another witness, says. “Police officers from the local police station have repeatedly ordered us to clear the streets after 9 pm. They tell us that we have to run when we see them. Otherwise, we will be ‘all theirs’ and end up being prosecuted [on trumped-up charges].”
Hearing Afroto’s cry of pain, Ismail, an electrician and his neighbor, rushed to defend him. According to Ismail, one of the police officers pushed him down and he fell on his back. “When I fell on my back, they took my flip-flops and used them to beat Afroto repeatedly on the face,” Ismail recounts outside Afroto’s house on Saturday. “Then they grabbed him by his hair and dragged him into the tuk tuk.”
Mada Masr also spoke to a young man named Aziz outside Afroto’s house on Saturday. Aziz was arrested in the same raid on Friday night, before being released after Afroto was pronounced dead. “I was arrested last night,” says Aziz. “They searched me and didn’t find anything. Yet one of the officers decided to take me to the station to run a check and see if I was wanted or accused in any ongoing investigations or lawsuits. At the station, I was detained in the ‘Refrigerator’ [the name of one of the holding cells]. There were four of us. We were all arrested during the same raid. An hour after our arrival, they opened the door and dumped a young man inside, like he was a bag of vegetables. He was drenched, and his body was very cold. There was a blanket in the room. When I went to cover him with it, I realized it was Afroto. He kept saying that he was tired and that he felt like he was dying. He kept saying that he needed to go the toilet. We called the policemen and told them that he was dying. ‘Let him die,’ they said.”
“My chest really hurts, Aziz. I can’t breathe,” were the last words Afroto uttered.
“Help. Someone is dying,” Aziz yelled out again. The “Refrigerator” door was opened, and there was Abu Adham again. “What is it? Does your chest hurt?” he asked Afroto. The young man nodded yes. The policeman, says Aziz, gave him an aggressive kick to the chest, ending his life at once.
Mada Masr obtained a copy of Afroto’s death certificate from his sister. Issued by the Health Ministry on January 6 and signed by forensic pathologist Ayman Ahmed Hassan, the certificate cites “the injury, the resulting laceration in the spleen, and abdominal bleeding” as the cause of death.
Abu Adham dragged the corpse out of the “Refrigerator.” A few hours later, a storm was brewing outside the station. “We heard chants outside,” says Aziz. “Some were cursing the police and others were chanting Afroto’s name. Then we heard gunshots. They continued for hours. When the dust settled, they released all of us.”
At around 10 pm on Friday, Afroto’s family received word from one of their neighbors that the young man had died at the police station and that his body was at the nearby Moqattam Specialized Hospital, so they headed there. The next morning outside the morgue, Mada Masr spoke to his sister and mother, who accused the police of beating and torturing Afroto to death.
“My son was so lovable — friends, neighbors, everybody loved him,” Afroto’s mother says while sitting on the ground by the morgue. She tells us that he had no criminal record.
“Mohamed’s friends, who were arrested alongside him, said that he was tortured with water at the police station,” says his sister. She points out that his body and hair were wet when they received the corpse, and that he was not wearing the same clothes he was wearing at the time of his arrest outside their house.
Enraged by the news of his death just two hours after his arrest, Afroto’s neighbors and friends headed to the Moqattam Police Station.
Shawky was one of these neighbors. He spoke to Mada Masr the next afternoon while he was busy putting out chairs in lines outside Afroto’s family home in preparation for the funeral.
“At the hospital last night, an officer told us that a prosecutor was present at the police station to open an investigation into the incident and that we should go there to give our testimonies,” Shawky says. “There were so many people, and we were all angry. We decided to go to the police station at once to recount to the prosecution what the officers had done outside Afroto’s house. But they refused to let us in [to the station]. We started chanting Afroto’s name.” According to Shawky, police personnel came out of the station and opened fire in an attempt to disperse the protesters, who responded by throwing rocks. Clashes then broke out, which continued for hours into the night, only ending with the arrival of morning and leaving dozens of people wounded.
None of the eyewitnesses to whom Mada Masr spoke mentioned anything about protesters setting fire to private or police vehicles, but several security force staff told newspapers that had occurred.
Mada Masr obtained a 29-second video that shows uniformed police personnel from the Moqattam Police Station firing shots to disperse the crowd that had gathered outside the station to protest Afroto’s death.
Eyewitnesses present at the site of the clashes who spoke to Mada Masr on Saturday say that the wounded were taken to the National Bank Hospital and the Moqattam Specialized Hospital. But reception clerks at both hospitals refused to disclose the number of patients they had received, the nature of their injuries or any other information, per “police instructions.”
Residents of the Winch area, where four of the people injured in the clashes live, took us to visit them after their discharge from the Moqattam Specialized Hospital. On Saturday afternoon, the modest homes of the young men — the oldest is only 23 years old — were overflowing with neighbors who had come to check up on them and wish them well.
One, 16-year-old Mostafa tells us that he headed to the police station after learning of Afroto’s death. There, a member of the police force struck him on the back of his head with the butt of a machine gun. “I lost consciousness and only woke up once I was in the hospital,” says Mostafa. Another injured young man tells a similar story and shows us seven stitches on his head.
At his home, Mohsen, 19, shows us his right leg, where he says he was shot in the tibia. “I was with my friends. We were trying to find out what was going on. Suddenly I fell to the ground and felt a burning in my right leg. I was shot. The bullet went through the tibia and out the calf,” he says.
On the door of yet another injured man’s home is a small revolutionary sticker. “My son put up this sticker,” Nasra, the young man’s mother, says.
Her son was not at home. He was one of dozens arrested outside the police station during Saturday’s clashes. He works at a parking lot next to the Moqattam Police Station. He, too, was shot in the leg. Fearing that he would be detained at the hospital, his mother wanted to put some distance between him and trouble, so she took him to the Demerdash Hospital. But it was not enough to escape arrest.
“An officer came into the emergency room and hit my son, who was just sitting there and already bleeding. He kicked him in his injured leg.” Tears are streaming down her face as she speaks. “I mean, he could have let him receive his treatment first before he took him. My son works at a parking lot next to the police station. He was shot by mistake and arrested arbitrarily.”
Around 4 pm on Saturday afternoon Afroto’s funeral procession took place, and his friends chose a path that would pass by the police station.
On Monday, the South Cairo Prosecution announced that the Moqattam Police Station assistant detective and a police officer at the station had been arrested on charges of killing Afroto, pending the results of an investigation by the Interior Ministry’s Public Security Sector. The officers’ detention orders were renewed on Wednesday, according to the privately owned Al-Shorouk newspaper. The prosecutor also initially issued an order for the detention of 43 people — whom they allege attacked the police station — for four days, pending further investigation, before renewing it on Tuesday on charges of illegal assembly, rioting, damaging public and private property, and attempting to raid the Moqattam Police Station, according to lawyer Karim Abdel Rady.
On Saturday afternoon, dozens of people were waiting outside Moqattam Police Station for information about their loved ones whom, according to the families, had been arrested Friday night and Saturday morning either arbitrarily, merely for being in the vicinity, or for being known for their association with Afroto. The late young man’s friends tell Mada Masr that several other protesters were arrested early morning Saturday from their homes in another Moqattam police raid on the Zelzal neighborhood.
“My son, his fiancée and I were on our way back from Manasra [downtown Cairo] where we were shopping for their furniture. He was going to get married in mid February,” says Mrs. Amina, the mother of Sayyed Hasan Mohamed, one of the detainees.
“A young man on the street was bleeding,” says Mrs. Amina. “He had been shot twice in the arm. He called for help, and he said to my son, ‘I can’t walk. Please take me to the hospital.’ We drove him to the Moqattam Specialized Hospital. Afterward, my son took me home, then took his fiancée home. On his way back, police officers stopped him and saw blood stains in the car, so they arrested him.”
The detainees’ friends and loved ones have been unable to ascertain their whereabouts. Moqattam Police Station officers refused to allow them to visit or deliver any food or clothes. Outside the Zeinhom Morgue on Saturday morning, the father of one detainee received a call from his son who told him that all detainees were being held at the Tora Central Security Forces Camp next to the south Cairo prison complex.
At the time of publication, the Interior Ministry had not provided an official account of Afroto’s death or the clashes outside the police station. On Saturday morning, however, anonymous security sources told several newspapers that Afroto had died from overdosing on Strox, a strand of synthetic cannabinoid.
Upon hearing the claim outside the morgue, Afroto’s mother and her companions all burst out in one breath: “Even if he was a user, why did he die shortly after he was taken to the police station?”
*Upon their request and for their safety, Mada Masr has used pseudonyms for all eyewitnesses and injured people we spoke to.