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Beating, torture fuel sense Egypt police unchanged

Monday - 2/4/2013, 6:12pm  ET

FILE - In this Friday, Feb. 1, 2013 file photo, Egyptian riot police beat a 48-year-old Hamada Saber after stripping him, and before dragging him into a police van, during clashes next to the presidential palace in Cairo. Video of the incident outraged Egyptians. The follow-up was even more dramatic: Speaking later, Saber insisted police were helping him. His account, which he since admitted was false, has raised accusations that police officials intimidated or bribed him, fueling an outcry that security forces notorious for corruption, torture and abuse under Hosni Mubarak are being used the same way by his Islamist successor. (AP Photo/Khalil Hamra, File)

MAGGIE MICHAEL
Associated Press

CAIRO (AP) -- 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."

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