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Magda Hassan
12-22-2009, 08:12 AM
CAIRO, Dec 21 (IPS) - People might expect fresh-faced Noha Atef to spend a lot of time writing blogs and perusing social networking sites, but they are often surprised by the content of her posts and tweets. The 25-year-old Egyptian journalist uses the Internet to expose police abuse and torture in her home country.

Atef’s blog, 'Torture in Egypt', is the most comprehensive site of its kind in the Middle East, with reports, photos, video clips and a library of articles aimed at exposing the brutality of Egypt’s police and security forces.

"Torture is commonly used in Egypt because police officers are not punished if caught," she says. "Reports of punishment are merely government propaganda. At the most, officers receive light punishment, which is usually appealed."

Atef, a reporter for a local, independent newspaper, says her interest in the dark subject dates back to 2005 when she read a report by an Egyptian human rights organisation on women subjected to abuse and torture in Egyptian police stations. Some of these women were never charged with a crime, others were allegedly tortured by police officers hired by families to avenge personal vendettas.

"Torture was being used as a weapon for hire," Atef, who wears a veil, says.

In 2006, Atef began chronicling incidents of police abuse in a blog. As the content grew, she linked victims’ accounts of torture to the police officers allegedly involved in carrying out the acts. More than two dozen officers are now profiled in her blog’s ‘Torturepedia’ section.

"Each entry includes a list of their crimes and a photo, if one is available," Atef explains. "If someone is tortured or beaten by police or state security agents, they can go to the album and identify the officer who beat them."

Egyptian bloggers began profiling abusive police officers after what became known as ‘Black Wednesday.’ On May 25, 2005, plainclothes security agents and pro-government thugs assaulted opposition protestors and journalists during a national referendum, groping and tearing the clothes of women in the group in an apparent attempt to humiliate them.

Infuriated activists responded by posting photos of police and state security officers on Flikr, a photo sharing site. Captions provided details of the officers’ alleged offences - everything from excessive force to rape and torture.

"You have to expose these people; you have to name and shame them," explains labour activist Hossam El-Hamalawy, the driving force behind the Flikr group. "You can’t just torture someone, or beat them at a demonstration, and then go home to your wife and kids and go about your life without everybody knowing what you did to a fellow human being. You’re a monster and it needs to be exposed."

The ‘Piggipedia’ Flikr album has grown to include over 165 photos from more than half a dozen regular contributors.

"The good thing about social networking is that it allows room for others to contribute," El-Hamalawy says. "It’s one thing if I collect pictures on my blog, but it’s another if I launch a Flikr group that allows others, even random Egyptians, to take a photo and add to it."

Torture became widespread in the early 1990s as a tool to extract confessions from and intimidate Islamist militants. It has been used increasingly on political detainees and suspects in criminal cases, as well as their families.

"Everyone who falls in the grasp of the police, particularly the poor, is in imminent danger of torture and bodily harm inflicted through various means, including beatings, kicks, floggings, burning with cigarettes, sexual harm... electroshocks to the feet, head, sexual organs and breasts, and hanging from iron bars or the door of the cell," a report published last month by 16 local human rights groups said.

Egyptian bloggers have posted dozens of incriminating photos and videos on the Internet.

In one video clip, police officers verbally abuse a detainee and sodomise him with a wooden stick. The victim, identified as 21-year-old microbus driver Emad El-Kebir, was arrested after intervening in a dispute between the police and his cousin. Officers shot the video using a mobile phone, then distributed it to other microbus drivers, presumably to intimidate them into paying the ‘fines’ routinely demanded by the police.

But when Mohammed Khaled, who blogs as Demagh MAK, got hold of the clip and uploaded it on YouTube in late 2006, it provoked a public outcry. Images of El-Kebir’s ordeal soon appeared on other blogs and in independent Egyptian newspapers. Arab satellite channels picked up the story, and it eventually found its way to the foreign press.

The publicity propelled the case to court, where prosecutors used the video footage as evidence to secure a rare verdict against the two police officers who supervised the torture.

"We’ve been working in human rights for more than 20 years and always talking about torture, but not everyone believed or knew about it," says Gamal Eid, executive director of the Arabic Network for Human Rights Information (ANHRI). "But after the case of Emad El-Kebir, people were shocked and realised what we’ve been saying all along is true. We usually talk about torture, but the bloggers are providing the physical evidence."

But blogging about police brutality carries its own risks. Some online activists have become targets of the very abuse they have sought to expose.

El-Hamalawy has been lucky. So far, only his cameras have endured police beatings.

"We’re definitely jeopardising our security," he admits. "No one is immune, but I’d say blogging using our real names has given us some degree of protection. When bloggers become well known the government recognises that detaining them will cause more troubles than it’s worth."

Atef says security officials have harassed her family, summoned her to the police station, and repeatedly bullied her employers. Despite the intimidation, she vows to continue her blog.

"If they want to put me in prison they have enough information," she says. "I don’t think they will arrest me, but the police officers I write about might retaliate."
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