Conflict & Justice

Protecting evidence in Egypt

by Matthew Bell

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The rumors spread among protestors a few days ago: documents were being destroyed in state security centers all around Egypt. So on the night of March 4, demonstrators stormed the police building in Alexandria. By Saturday afternoon, activists had surrounded state security police headquarters near Cairo.

The concern of both groups was that government agents were destroying evidence of human rights abuses under the regime of former president Hosni Mubarak.

Blogger and activist Hossam el-Hamalawy, who was among those entering the security building, says the group found "tons" of documents inside.

"We managed to find also underground prison cells. We found luxurious offices of state security police officers and the minister of interior," el-Hamalawy said.
Secret police

The activists secured the documents and handed them over to the public prosecutor and other current officials, according to el-Hamalawy. El-Hamalawy says going into a torture center used by Mubarak's secret police was "extremely creepy." But he added that it was also powerful "to destroy in the moral and political sense this fearful institution."

"Mubarak's base of support and his main tool and weapon against dissidents and against the Egyptian people in general had been state security police," el-Hamalawy said. "So we wanted to storm those facilities and assure everybody that we are in control, not the regime's figures anymore."

Secret police officers in Mubarak's Egypt could detain and torture people at will, along with wire-tapping phones and monitoring email accounts.

Cairo human rights activist Amir Salem says he spent more than four years in prison for his political activities. He says Egypt's state security apparatus destroyed most political life in the country and nearly destroyed his life along with it. So he could hardly believe his eyes when he saw activists take over police headquarters.

"I was in a dream," Salem said. "Very, very strange, I was there, with my body, with my head, with my eyes, but I was somewhere else."
Posting the documents online

Within hours of getting into state security headquarters, activists were posting online videos of documents, detention cells and implements of torture. 23-year-old demonstrator Hicham Abou-Chabana, says Egyptian soldiers stood by and let it happen.

Abou-Chabana says the group later "delivered the building" to the military.

But two nights later, soldiers and activists squared off at another state security building in downtown Cairo.

A video reportedly shot at the scene shows soldiers apparently firing into the air to disperse crowds. There were also clashes between demonstrators and groups of men armed with sticks, knives and Molotov cocktails.

It's the kind of scene that has Egyptian playwright and columnist, Ali Salem, worried. Salem's latest op-ed is titled, 'Yes to the Revolution, No to the End of the State!"

Salem says he was targeted by state security officers for years, and that he despised Mubarak and his secret police. But he's afraid the demonstrators are getting out of control. And he fears what might happen to him if he writes something critical of them.

Salem says he would urge the young revolutionaries to protect the institutions of the state, because without the state, he says, there will be no protections or freedom for individuals.

In the meantime, potentially embarrassing and even incriminating details are expected to emerge from the seized security papers, many of which are being posted online. The Egyptian military has ordered news organizations not to publish the documents and to immediately to return any seized documents.

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