Egypt: Investigate apparent torture and death in custody of Coptic man

The Egyptian authorities must conduct an independent, thorough and impartial investigation into allegations that police officers tortured a man to death this week at a police station in Cairo, Amnesty International said today, urging them to ensure that witnesses who testified against the suspected perpetrators are protected from any threats or harassment.
On 18 July, police officers arrested Gamal Aweida, a 43-year-old Coptic Christian man, along with a friend, from a local café and took them to Mansheyet Nasir police station for questioning in relation to a minor offence. Around 15 hours later, his family received a phone call informing them he was dead.    
“The evidence strongly suggests that Gamal Aweida was tortured to death by Egyptian police. Such brutality is shocking and far too common.  Years of impunity have emboldened perpetrators of such abuses in Egypt, giving security forces free rein to torture and ill-treat detainees without fearing any consequences,” said Najia Bounaim, North Africa Campaigns Director at Amnesty International.
“The authorities must immediately open an investigation to shed light on the circumstances of this death.”
The use of torture and other ill-treatment by security forces in Egypt is widespread, most often to coerce suspects into “confessing” during criminal cases. Deaths in custody after torture are a common occurrence.
Just days ago an EU country report on Egypt, published ahead of high level talks due to take place in Brussels next week, highlighted torture and death in police custody.
“It is shameful that, even as Egypt and the EU are set to hold their highest level talks in years, the authorities could not stop torture and death in policy custody. The EU must raise this case with Egyptian officials during their meeting in Brussels next week and demand that such violations are effectively investigated and punished,” said Najia Bounaim.
Amnesty International spoke to three members of Gamal Aweida’s family, the family’s lawyer and a human rights lawyer who attended the prosecutor’s questioning of the witnesses. The information gathered strongly suggests that he was tortured to death and the police have tried to cover it up as a suicide.
The police who arrested Gamal Aweida accused him of using fraud to illegally procure driving licences for truck drivers. When the police searched him, they found two driving licences in his possession and immediately summoned the men named on the licenses for questioning.
Family members spoke to a friend who was arrested with Gamal Aweida and the two other witnesses who were arrested later and held in custody alongside him. All three men said that the police had tried to force them to testify against Gamal Aweida. They said police officers started to beat them because they denied that he had broken the law and that they wanted Gamal Aweida to “confess” and the other men to testify against him.
Gamal Aweida got into a verbal altercation with the police officer in charge because he was cursing him and his religion while beating him. At this point, the officers took him to a different part of the police station. The next morning, when he was being escorted to the bathroom, one of the witnesses saw Gamal lying on the floor of a nearby room. He did not know whether Gamal was alive or dead.
On 19 July at around 13:00, the family of Gamal Aweida learned about his death from a neighbour who happened to be at the police station. When they asked about his whereabouts at the police station the officers at first told them that he was being prepared to be taken to the prosecutor’s office for questioning. Around an hour later, however, officers in the police station told them that he had committed a suicide by hanging himself.
The prosecutor later informed the family that the Medical Forensic Authority report stated the cause of death to be as a result of “suspect criminal action and a severe drop in blood circulation”.
One of Gamal Aweida’s family members also told Amnesty International he saw bruises on the upper part of his body and legs suggesting he may have been tortured. He also cast serious doubt over the allegation that he would have been able to get hold of a rope given he had been searched and all his belongings were seized upon his arrival in the police station.
His brother also told Amnesty International: “Gamal is doing well financially, happy man in his life and father of two, there is no way he could have committed a suicide. We want justice for him and we want those responsible to his death to be punished.”
The prosecutor and the police had tried to pressure the family to receive the body, but they refused initially to do so until they were told the reasons for his death because the church would not hold funeral prayers if his death was ruled a suicide. The family received the body yesterday and funeral services were held by the church.
The three witnesses were released on evening of 19 July after testifying before the prosecution alongside the police officers in connection with the death. Later that night they were called back to the police station for further questioning, which they failed to attend, fearing this was an attempt to pressure them to change their testimonies. The family also filed a complaint with the office of Public Prosecutor stating that Gamal had been tortured to death.