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Beating, torture fuel sense Egypt police unchanged

Tuesday - 2/5/2013, 8:02am  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 account, which he has since acknowledged was false, has raised accusations that police 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. Saber recanted his story on Sunday after his family pushed him to tell the truth and acknowledge that the police beat him.

The incident has fueled an outcry that security forces, notorious for corruption, torture and abuse under former President 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 say 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 was following up on el-Gindy's death, adding that there will be "no return to violations of citizens' rights."

The Interior Ministry denied that el-Gindy was ever held by police. Morsi met with top police officials Monday, but the state newspaper Al-Ahram said the talks did not touch on the beating of Saber or el-Gindy's death. The paper said Morsi told officers he understood they operate under "extreme pressure" 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 cause instability.

Morsi's prime minister, Hesham Kandil, admonished the opposition and media not to raise a 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 the police "collapse," Egypt will become "a militia state like some neighboring nations."

Many activists believe Morsi sought a tougher police line when he removed the previous interior minister, Ahmed Gamal Eddin, and replaced him with Ibrahim.

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 Friday, part of a wave of nationwide anti-Morsi unrest 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 writhing naked in the street after black-clad riot police yanked his pants around his ankles, kicked him and beat him with batons. They then dragged him by the legs across the pavement and bundled 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 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."

His wife also praised the police, telling state TV, "they are giving him good treatment" at the police hospital.

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