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Open secrets

by Joseph Miller
On 25 January, Egyptian police did not manage to disperse protests on Tarhir Square

On 25 January, Egyptian police did not manage to disperse protests on Tarhir Square

From Morocco to Iraq, there is great variety of political systems. Almost all Arab nations, however, have some kind of secret police that is prone to terrorise the people. Human-rights organisations provide ample information on these matters. By Joseph Miller

On 5 January, agents from Egypt’s SSI (State Security Investigations) took Sayyed Bilal into custody in Alexandria. By the next day, he was dead. His family filed a complaint with the Alexandrian public prosecutor. SSI agents intimidated them, threatening them with imprisonment and death. Amnesty International has documented this case.

The most powerful weapon of the “mukhabarat”, the secret police agencies in Arabic, is fear. The scare-tactics used by agents in many countries are meant to keep people in check and prevent them from rising up against authoritarian regimes. Leaders in the Arab world say this is necessary to provide stability, and far too often, the donor community goes along.

Unrest on the Nile

At the moment, Egypt is the most prominent example of police abuses. A state of emergency was declared in 1967 – and in February this year, demonstrations demanded that it finally be lifted. The emergency gives the Interior Ministry the power to suspend citizens’ basic rights, as the UN Committee against Torture reports, so indefinite detention is possible with no charges pressed or trial given. Protest, of course, is illegal too.

In the past, the Egyptian government was very successful in preventing demonstrations or put an end to them fast. Historically, demonstrations were always quickly squelched by force. It helped the police, that turn-out at demonstrations was normally quite low, not least due to fear of the mukhabarat and torture. When breaking up demonstrations, furthermore, the police used excessive force. Whether participants were armed or peaceful didn’t matter to the authorities. Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International reports abound with examples.

The recent uprising took the government and its security services by surprise. International newspapers were full of reports about people’s frustration and anger having built up to the point where they lost their fear. The first protests in Cairo in late January were also encouraged by the Tunisian example, where the dictator had fled.

The international media covered the different violent strategies the Egyptian police used to stop the protests. First, they cracked down on demonstrations. Failing to stop the protests in this way, they next withdrew from the public completely. Apparently, they also set many violent criminals free. The idea must have been to create chaos and disorder in order to rally people behind the government again.

That approach failed too, and the police devised yet another strategy, as international media reported. Suddenly there were violent pro-government demonstrations that attacked anti-government protests. Police identifications were found on many of the assailants that were captured by the pro-democracy movement. Does anybody believe people felt reassured when police officers in uniform returned to the streets in the second week of February?

Egypt, however, is not the only authoritarian government in the Arab nations. According to Amnesty International, the agents of Algeria’s Department of Information and Security (DRS) operate under complete immunity, without any oversight by anybody outside their agency. DRS agents are well known for holding detainees incommunicado in secret locations for weeks at a time without notifying family or lawyers. They are also known to use torture in order to extract information.

Tunisia’s recently ousted dictator Zine el-Abdine Ben Ali also relied on a powerful secret police force. Amnesty International reports arbitrary arrests, torture, incommunicado detention and excessive use of force. In addition, there were many cases of government agents opening fire on peaceful demonstrators. In some cases, protestors were shot in their backs as they were fleeing.

The secret police also uses less overt methods of intimidation, as Martina Sabra elaborated in a comment in last month’s D+C (page 83). In Tunisia, for instance, spies seemed to be everywhere and school children would be made to harass other kids if their parents had said something critical about the government.

According to Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, Morocco and Mauritania also resort to torture and arbitrary arrests. Courts are reported to have found accused persons guilty with no material evidence of crimes except confessions made after suffering police torture.

In Palestine, Human Rights Watch states that over 100 cases of torture were reportedly registered in less than one year. They took place at the prison in Jericho and a detention facility in Hebron. Like other Arab governments, however, the Palestinian Authority claims that most torture allegations are false.

In Jordan, there are rampant problems with the secret police. Captives who are held for political reasons are tortured, as Amnesty International reports. Methods include suspension by the wrists and the beating of the soles of the feet.

Syria too has a long history of punishing dissent. Everybody from activists to bloggers are the targets of the secret police.

In one specific case, a high school student was detained for nine months, and she was not able to communicate with family or a lawyer. No explanation was given for her arrest, but her house was searched; and security agents took her computer, books and other belongings were taken by security agents. Such acts are “typical”, says Sarah Whitson, Middle East director at Human Rights Watch.

Gulf States

In the oil rich Gulf States, social infrastructures in terms of healthcare, electric power or roads tend to be better than in the poorer Arab countries, but the same cannot be said about the human-rights situation. Even Kuwait, a much richer nation, uses methods like these. Amnesty International reports police in Kuwait recently using force to break up a diwaniye, a meeting of members of parliament (MPs) at a private individual’s house. Several MPs were injured so badly that they needed to be hospitalised.

In Saudi Arabia, the security forces strictly limit the freedom of expression. In 2009 alone, according to Amnesty International, hundreds were arrested and held in secrecy – most without trial or means to challenge their internment. Amnesty states that torture is prevalent, and common forms include electric shocks, suspension, verbal abuse, beatings and sleep deprivation.

Not all Arab countries are plagued by their secret police to the same extent. While human-rights organisations find fault with Qatar and the United Arab Emirates, their reports do not mention the secret police as major culprits.