CAIRO — The video outraged Egyptians, showing riot police strip and beat a middle-aged man and drag him across the pavement as they cracked down on protesters. The follow-up was even more startling: In his first comments afterward, the man insisted the police were just trying to help him.
Hamada Saber’s initial account, given over the weekend as he lay in a police-run hospital, has raised accusations that police officials intimidated or bribed him in a clumsy attempt to cover up the incident, which was captured by Associated Press footage widely shown on Egyptian TV.
“He was terrified. He was scared to speak,” Saber’s son Ahmed told The AP on Monday, explaining his father’s account. Saber himself recanted his story on Sunday after his own family pushed him to tell the truth and acknowledged that the police beat him.
The incident has fueled an outcry that security forces, which were notorious for corruption, torture and abuse under Hosni Mubarak, have not changed in the nearly two years since his ouster. Activists now accuse Mubarak’s Islamist successor, Mohammed Morsi, of cultivating the same culture of abuse as police crack down on his opponents.
The outcry was further heightened Monday by the apparent torture-death of an activist, who colleagues said was taken by police from a Tahrir Square protest on Jan. 27 and held at a Cairo security base known as Red Mountain. Mohammed el-Gindy’s body showed marks of electrical shocks on his tongue, wire marks around his neck, smashed ribs, a broken skull and a brain hemorrhage, according to a medical report.
Blatant abuses by security forces under Mubarak were one factor that fueled the 2011 revolt against his rule. The highly public nature of the new cases put new pressure on Morsi, who hails from the Muslim Brotherhood, which was long repressed by security forces, to hold security officials responsible for any abuses.
Egypt’s presidency said it is following up on the death of el-Gindy, adding that there will be “no return to violations of citizens’ rights.”
The Interior Ministry denied on Monday that el-Gindy was ever held by police. Morsi met Monday with top police officials, but the state newspaper Al-Ahram said his talks did not touch on the beating of Saber or el-Gindy’s death. The paper said Morsi told officers he understands they operate under “extreme pressures” in the face of protests and that he would work for a political resolution to ease unrest.
Morsi’s administration has said it is determined to stop what it calls violent protests that causing instability.
Morsi’s prime minister, Hesham Kandil, indirectly warned the opposition and media not to raise public outcry against security officials. “This should not be used as a match to set fire to the nation … to demolish the police,” he said.
Interior Minister Mohammed Ibrahim warned that if police “collapse” Egypt will become “a militia state like some neighboring nations.”
Many activists believe Morsi sought a tougher police line when he removed their previous boss, Ahmed Gamal Eddin, and installed Ibrahim as interior minister.
According to officials close to Gamal Eddin, he was fired because security forces did not intervene against anti-Morsi protests outside the presidential palace in Cairo in December. Islamists attacked those protesters, prompting clashes that left around 10 people dead. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the subject.
In contrast, police struck back heavily when several firebombs were thrown into the palace grounds during protests outside the compound Friday, part of a wave of nationwide anti-Morsi unrest the past 10 days that left more than 70 dead. Hours of clashes ensued, leaving at least one protester dead and dozens injured.
During Friday’s clashes, Saber, a 48-year-old who works as a wall plasterer, was beaten.
Footage shows him writing naked in the street. Black-clad riot police yank his pants around his ankles, kick him with their heavy black boots and lean over to hit him with batons. They drag him by the legs across the pavement and bundle him into a police van.
But in interviews with Egyptian television from a police hospital the next day, a smiling Saber said it was protesters who had shot him in the leg with birdshot, then stripped and beat him. He said the riot police were only trying to help him afterward.
He even blamed himself for any rough police treatment, saying that in his confusion he was resisting them.
“I was afraid … They were telling me: We swear to God we will not harm you, don’t be afraid,” Saber said, adding, “I was being very tiresome to the police.”
His wife also praised the police, telling state TV, “they are giving him good treatment” at the police hospital.
But his children said he was forced to give the story.
“There are pressures on my mother to say that he is fine,” his daughter Randa told independent Dream TV. “The government is the one pressing him.”
In a statement, the Interior Ministry voiced its “regret” about the assault and vowed to investigate.
But Interior Minister Ibrahim echoed Saber’s account and said initial investigation results showed it was protesters who stripped and beat Saber. He said riot police found Saber and tried to get him into the van — “though the way they did it was excessive.”
On Sunday, Saber told investigators that it was indeed police who beat and stripped him. Speaking to Al-Hayat TV, he said he gave his initial account because was afraid, then broke down in tears as he recounted begging the policemen for mercy.
“But no one gave me mercy,” he wept. “My whole body was smashed.” He has now been moved to a civilian hospital.
Rights activists say police intimidation of victims and their families to prevent complaints was rife under Mubarak and continues unabated. In a report last month, the Egyptian Initiative For Personal Rights documented 16 cases of police violence in which 11 people were killed and 10 tortured in police stations. Three died under torture during the first four months after Morsi took office on June 30, it said.
The rights group said officers increasingly act “like a gang taking revenge.”
In one case it documented, police in the Nile Delta town of Meet Ghamr stormed a cafe and beat up patrons in September. When one woman who was beaten went to the police station to complain, the man accompanying her was arrested and tortured to death, the report said.
The sister of the slain man told AP that her brother’s widow was paid the equivalent of around $25,000 to say that he was killed by a rock to his head during a protest.
“The main issue is that nothing has changed about the police. No change about accountability. There is just as much impunity as there was under Mubarak,” said Heba Morayef of Human Rights Watch. The past two years “we’ve seen an increase in the police’s likelihood to use lethal force … in the context of regular policing activities.”
In the case of el-Gindy, the activist who died Monday, fellow activists say he disappeared during the Jan. 27 Tahrir protest and they later learned from people who left the Red Mountain security camp that he was being held there. Soon after, el-Gindy was brought to a hospital in a coma and on Monday he died.
After his burial Monday in his hometown of Tanta in the Nile Delta, angry mourners marched on police headquarters and clashes erupted, with protesters throwing firebombs and stones and police firing back with tear gas.
At a funeral ceremony held earlier at a mosque in Cairo’s Tahrir Square, there was widespread skepticism anyone would be held accountable for el-Gindy’s death.
“So this blood will be wasted so easily?” one woman in black screamed.
“It will be lost,” an elderly man responded. “Like others were before.”