Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Police in Case That Fueled Protests Escape Jail

Two policemen accused of brutally killing Khaled Said, the young man whose death helped trigger Egypt's popular uprising, have escaped jail and are at large.

The escape occurred when police fled their posts during clashes on Jan. 28, and police stations throughout Alexandria, Egypt's second largest city, were set on fire, the defense and prosecution lawyers told The Wall Street Journal Sunday.

Gruesome photographs of Mr. Said's misshapen, unrecognizable deathmask, after he was arrested in June and, witnesses say, beaten by police in an Alexandria Internet café, helped turn a Facebook page protesting his treatment into a rallying point. It was that Facebook page that called for Egyptians to take to streets the against the government last month.

The defendants say Mr. Said choked to death on a bag of marijuana that he tried to swallow when he saw the policemen come into the Internet café. The lawyer for the defense says the damage to Mr. Said's face occurred during autopsy.

The state charged the policemen who allegedly killed Mr. Said with unlawful arrest and torture—and state prosecutors have since dropped the torture charge. The limited charges symbolized to many the impunity with which police in Egypt have abused their power over decades.

Prosecutors rested their case on Jan. 22, just days before the latest protests began. The defense is due to begin its arguments on Feb. 26.

The family's lawyer, Mohamed Raeft Nawar, says the charge of unlawful arrest is inadequate and means the policemen would be free within weeks even if convicted. He said the family is trying to persuade the court to add the charge of murder.

Reaffat Abdelhamid, who heads the defense team for the two policemen, confirmed Sunday that they escaped from the security police base in Alexandria where they were being held. He said one of the defendants, Mahmoud Salah, called him and said police opened the detention center gates when the base was overwhelmed by "thugs." He said he believed the two men would turn themselves in.

A spark for Egypt's revolution came when Mr. Said, a slight 28-year-old, walked into the tiny Spacenet Café, his regular haunt just yards from the apartment where he lived with his mother in Alexandria's Cleopatra district. Seconds later, the café's owner, 63-year-old Hassan Mossbah, heard shouting.

When he looked up, Mr. Mossbah says, he saw two men in plainclothes with pistols on their belts hitting Mr. Said. Then they picked him up and started swinging him head first against the marble shelf that makes a bar along the side of the café entrance, he said.

Mr. Mossbah says he and his sons then ran to push the policemen out. The policemen left dragging Mr. Said by the hair, into a lobby entrance next doors, he said. A crowd gathered to watch as the two men smashed Mr. Said's head repeatedly against the edge of the stone stairs, he says.

"A doctor in the crowd said to the policemen: 'What are you doing? He's already dead'," as the beating continued, says Mr. Mossbah.

According to the family lawyer, Mr. Nawar, the policemen were exacting revenge. Mr. Said, he said, had posted a video clip on Youtube that purports to show the policemen—Mr. Salah and Awad Ismail Suleiman—dividing a bag of confiscated marijuana with others for resale on the street.

The clip was found on Mr. Said's personal computer after his death, according to Ali Kassim, the Said family patriarch, who is leading the family's case. He says Mr. Said surreptitiously downloaded the video to his cellphone using Bluetooth while one of the policemen was showing it to friends in the Spacenet Café. It wasn't possible to verify that claim.

The defendants, backed by two coroners' reports, say Mr. Said choked to death on a 3 inch x 1 inch bag of marijuana.

According to the defense lawyer, Mr. Abdelhamid, the video is irrelevant to the case. The policemen were looking for Mr. Said in connection with two cases for which he was wanted, on charges of draft dodging and theft, but he resisted arrest.

He said he would produce witnesses to testify that Mr. Said's face was unblemished until he arrived at the morgue.

Mr. Said's family and lawyer say the choking claim was faked. Senior forensic pathologists from Denmark and Portugal dismissed the two coroners' reports' findings.

Mr. Kassim says the two alleged police investigations into Mr. Said were forged after his death. The family have produced what appears to be a certificate confirming Mr. Said's military service.

Mr. Said's killing sparked a series of demonstrations in Alexandria and Cairo last year, demanding an end to torture and to the emergency powers under which Egypt has been ruled ever since 1981, allowing the government to jail suspects without charge.

The government has renewed the powers every two years, saying it needs the powers to combat terrorism. Egypt has been the subject of significant terrorist attacks in recent years, including attacks on tourist resorts and Christian minorities, most recently on New Year's day.

Victims' rights groups here say police abuses have rarely been pursued or successfully prosecuted. A Human Rights Watch report released on Jan. 30 described torture in Egypt as "an epidemic." The report estimated that 5,000 people were being held in jail without trial, some for a decade.

Source http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052748703989504576127643959647716.html

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