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Egypt crackdown brings most arrests in decades

Monday - 3/17/2014, 7:54am  ET

FILE - In this Sunday, Oct. 6, 2013 file photo, supporters of Egypt's ousted President Mohammed Morsi are detained during clashes with riot police in Cairo, Egypt. Egypt’s crackdown on Islamists has jailed 16,000 people over the past eight months in the country’s biggest round-up in nearly two decades, according to previously unreleased figures from security officials. Rights activists say reports of abuses in prisons are mounting, with prisoners describing systematic beatings and miserable conditions for dozens packed into tiny cells. (AP Photo/Nameer Galal, File)

HAMZA HENDAWI
Associated Press

CAIRO (AP) -- Egypt's crackdown on Islamists has jailed 16,000 people over the past eight months in the country's biggest round-up in nearly two decades, according to previously unreleased figures from security officials. Rights activists say reports of abuses in prisons are mounting, with prisoners describing systematic beatings and miserable conditions for dozens packed into tiny cells.

The Egyptian government has not released official numbers for those arrested in the sweeps since the military ousted Islamist President Mohammed Morsi in July. But four senior officials -- two from the Interior Ministry and two from the military -- gave The Associated Press a count of 16,000, including about 3,000 top- or mid-level members of Morsi's Muslim Brotherhood.

The count, which is consistent with recent estimates by human rights groups, was based on a tally kept by the Interior Ministry to which the military also has access. It includes hundreds of women and minors, though the officials could not give exact figures. The officials gave the figures to the AP on condition of anonymity because the government has not released them.

The flood of arrests has swamped prisons and the legal system. Many are held for months in police station lockups meant as temporary holding areas or in impromptu jails set up in police training camps because prisons are overcrowded. Inmates are kept for months without charge.

"My son looks like a caveman now. His hair and nails are long, he has a beard and he is unclean," said Nagham Omar, describing to the AP the conditions that her 20-year-old son Salahideen Ayman Mohammed has endured since his arrest in January while participating in a pro-Morsi protest. He and 22 others are crammed in a 3-by-3 meter (yard) cell in a police station in the southern city of Assiut, said Omar, who visits him once a week. Mohammed has not yet been charged.

"He is my son, but the stench in that place makes me want to leave immediately," she said.

The government says the police, run by the Interior Ministry, have changed their ways from the era of autocrat Hosni Mubarak, when the security forces became notorious for torture and corruption. Now, officials say, there is no tolerance for abuses.

The assistant interior minister for human rights, Maj. Gen. Abu Bakr Abdel-Karim, told the newspaper Al-Watan in an interview last month that "it is possible that there is some use of cruelty" and said anyone claiming to be maltreated should file a complaint with either the ministry or the general prosecutors' office. But he said so far there had been no proof presented of maltreatment.

"If we have anyone (in the police) who made a mistake and broke the law, he will be held accountable under the law," Abdel-Karim said in a separate interview with private broadcaster ONTV.

The new military-backed government is determined to crush the Muslim Brotherhood and its Islamist allies. They present the campaign as a fight against terrorism, accusing the group of cooperating with Islamic militants in a wave of bombings and assassinations since Morsi's ouster. The violence has killed dozens of police and soldiers.

The Brotherhood denies any link to the militants, and says authorities are using terrorism as an excuse to eliminate the group as a political rival. Some 2,000 Brotherhood supporters have been killed by police in crackdowns on pro-Morsi protests that Islamists have held for months around the country.

Hatred of police abuses was a major factor fueling the 2011 uprising that overthrew Mubarak. However, the new arrests have seen broad support among the public amid a wave of nationalist feeling. Millions rose up in protests last summer demanding Morsi's removal before the military ousted him.

Since then, much of Egypt's media have fed the fervor, depicting the Brotherhood as terrorists and the police and military as heroes. That same fervor seems likely to lift the head of the military, Field Marshal Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi, to the presidency in upcoming elections. As a result, there is little public tolerance for criticism of the military or police. Human rights activists' reports of abuses by the police have caused little public outcry.

The result is the biggest wave of arrests since the 1990s, when Mubarak's security forces jailed at least 20,000 people, mostly Islamists, while battling a bloody militant insurgency.

Most of those detained in the crackdown since Morsi's July 3 ouster are Islamists detained during street protests, when police arrest dozens at a time. They also include Brotherhood members arrested in raids on their homes. But there have also been frequent arrests of individuals found carrying posters or other literature seen as supporting the Brotherhood or critical of the military. Secular, anti-military activists -- including some of the biggest names of the 2011 anti-Mubarak uprising -- have been arrested for violating a draconian new law that bans all protests without a police permit.

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