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Probe ordered into alleged torture death at Egyptian prison

October 29, 2011 |  9:34 am

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REPORTING FROM CAIRO -- Egypt's general prosecutor has ordered an investigation into the death of an inmate who family and human rights activists claim was tortured and beaten to death by police officers at Cairo's Tora Prison.

Essam Ali Atta, 23, was serving a two-year jail term for thuggery when he was reported dead from "unknown poisoning" after he was taken to hospital by a prison guard late Thursday. Egyptian media quoted a security official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, as saying that Atta had swallowed a packet of drugs and was suffering from exhaustion.

Another inmate said he also saw Atta swallow a packet. But Atta's family lawyer and human rights advocates have disputed that account, blaming prison officers for killing Atta by beating him and forcing water into his mouth and anus with hoses.

"We accuse the officers of the Tora prison of being behind the victim's death," the family's lawyer, Malek Adli, said.

The case has highlighted activists' allegations that human rights violations by police against prisoners and detainees persist even after the Jan. 25 revolution that overthrew President Hosni Mubarak. It has also raised questions over the rights of 12,000 civilians tried by military courts since the Supreme Council of Armed Forces took over the country after Mubarak's toppling.

After an autopsy, Atta's body was taken Friday to Cairo's Tahrir Square, where several thousand protesters were demanding that the military cede power to a civilian government. Hundreds of demonstrators marched with Atta's body and chanted slogans denouncing the military and police and vowing to fight to bring "his killers" to justice.

Atta's family say that they were not informed of his death, adding that some of his fellow prisoners managed to get in touch with them and told them that their son had been tortured and moved to the hospital as his condition deteriorated.

"They [Atta's fellow prisoners] called us on Thursday at around 7 p.m. and told us that Essam is at the hospital," Atta's brother, Mohamed, said.

Atta's father said that his son called the family a day before his death, telling them he was afraid of police officers' reprisal after they found out that his mother smuggled him a phone SIM card during her visit to the prison Tuesday. 

The autopsy ordered by the prosecution and doctors for the state stated that a packet of drugs was found in his body. Dr. Aida Seif Dawla of the El Nadeem Center for the Rehabilitation of Victims of Violence, who viewed Atta's body after the autopsy, criticized the procedure and said the exact cause of death could only be determined if certain microscopic samples were taken.

"The drug package forensic doctors claimed was found in Atta's body didn’t look to me like anything that came out of a human body's stomach," she said.

Photos purportedly showing Atta's body -- his mouth filled with foam -- have been circulated on Facebook. The case is reminiscent of the killing of blogger Khaled Said, who was beaten to death by police in 2010. Said's death sparked nationwide anger that became a catalyst leading to the revolution that overthrew Mubarak.

Said's death was initially blamed on him choking on a packet of drugs before further autopsy reports proved he was beaten to death. Atta's death came less than two days after the two officers charged in Said's killing were found guilty of manslaughter and sentenced to seven years in jail.

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-- Amro Hassan

Photo: Protesters demand an end to military rule in Tahrir Square on Friday. Credit: AFP/Mahmud Hams

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