By Rania Al Malky
CAIRO: The iconic image of the disfigured face of Khaled Saeid will haunt you for a long time. So if you haven’t seen it already, think a hundred times before you do.
In this newspaper, we unanimously agreed not to run the morgue photographs of the alleged victim of a police beating that has triggered the wrath, horror and indignation of Egyptians and human rights advocates the world over.
What started off as a “routine” ID check at an internet café in Alexandria’s Cleoplatra district on June 6, ended with a brutally beaten dead body of 28-year-old Saeid, which, as eyewitness Hassan Mesbah — the café owner — reportedly described, was dumped like a “sheep’s carcass.”
The earliest version of events, told according to eyewitnesses, contends that
Saeid was in the internet café when two police informants (who are on the interior ministry’s payroll) and who apparently did not know Saeid, came in and asked for proof of his identity, which he refused.
They had started roughing him up, held his hands behind his back, headlocked him and knocked his head against a marble surface when Mesbah demanded they leave his café, according to a video interview with him filmed by a journalist with Al-Ghad opposition newspaper Mahmoud El-Sawy.
That was when they took him outside and into the entrance of a neighboring building, where they continued beating him and after knocking his head once more against an iron railing, he fell lifeless.
Rights groups allege that he was already dead at this point, but the Ministry of Interior, according to one of its longest, most detailed statements, thinks otherwise. Based on the forensic examination which miraculously emerged within a record day of Saeid’s death, Saeid had died of asphyxiation he brought upon himself when he swallowed a wrap-full of drugs for fear of being caught in possession when the police approached him.
But that’s not the entire story of the life and death of the young man who the state-owned press has sarcastically (and tastelessly) dubbed the “bungo martyr” (a reference to a hashish-like drug widely used in Egypt). As it turns out, according to the same interior ministry statement, Saeid was just a bad lot. He had been sentenced in absentia in two cases of theft and possession of illegal weapons, had been apprehended in four other such cases, was evading military service and of course was a dangerous drug addict.
The implication is that Saeid got what he deserved and that, by extension, any expression of sympathy for him was not only misplaced, but was an indication of a loss of moral compass. Instead of commending our haloed policemen for weeding out those unwanted elements that have blighted our society, some people have bitten the hand that feeds them all for the sake of a drug addict and criminal who incidentally killed himself by choking on a lump of his own bad habit. Hence the violent crackdown on peaceful protestors in Cairo and Alexandria who took to the streets on Saeid’s behalf.
Apart from the fact that the thwarted logic behind the interior ministry’s (and its henchmen in the press) spin on the entire sordid affair, lacks any semblance of human sympathy or respect for the dead, it also lacks the basic elements of logic.
The gaps in the official story are unmistakable: At what point did Saeid gulp the drug wrap? If it was when he first saw the informants approaching him, then how was he able to call for help — according to eyewitnesses — with something stuck in his throat? How do the perpetrators account for the seven to 10 minutes when his attackers took him away before dumping him back at the crime scene and calling an ambulance? How can they prove that they didn’t stuff the drugs in his throat to cover up the killing? And if they saw that he was choking to death as they were trying to apprehend him (considering that they are allowed to legally arrest him in the first place) then why didn’t they call an ambulance then? If Saeid was a wanted criminal with such an “impressive” rap sheet, then why didn’t the police (not a pair of informants) follow procedure, issue a warrant for his arrest and take him to court?
The questions are endless and it doesn’t take a CSI specialist to figure out that something in the official story simply doesn’t gel.
But, let me be the devil’s advocate for one moment. Let’s assume that Saeid was evil incarnate; that he was a criminal and drug addict who was caught out and choked himself to death on bungo, then why was his face bashed up and his teeth broken after the autopsy? In short, why did they beat him?
Answers to all these questions can only be reached if the Prosecutor General orders a full investigation into every detail of this tragic incident.
There’s a reason why Egyptians were quick to sympathize with Saeid and even quicker to dismiss what they see as the interior ministry’s monumental attempt to whitewash the whole case by resorting to a combination of factual inaccuracies (his family for instance, deny that he evaded military service) and character assassination.
This reason is that decades of police abuse of power, exploitation of the state of emergency and proven cases of torture, have rendered the idea that Saeid is yet another victim of such practices as not only possibly, but highly probable.
It’s doubtful that there exists a single Egyptian family that has not had a run-in with the police at some point over the past 30 years. It’s not uncommon to hear people say, “Khaled could have been my brother, my son, my cousin, my husband, my neighbor.”
Complete transparency and a thorough investigation into this case are paramount to saving whatever remains of the good standing of the police in the collective memory of this country.
The case of Khaled Saeid is a turning point in the relationship between the citizens and the state of Egypt. Who knows, this may just turn out to be the straw that breaks the camel’s back.
Rania Al Malky is the Chief Editor of Daily News Egypt.