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.
But his children said their father spoke under duress.
“There are pressures on my mother to say that he is fine,” daughter Randa told independent Dream TV. “The government is the one pressing him.”
In a statement, the Interior Ministry voiced its “regret” about the assault and vowed to investigate.
Interior Minister Ibrahim echoed Saber’s account, saying an initial investigation showed it was protesters who stripped and beat him. Ibrahim said riot police found Saber and were only trying to get him into the van, “though the way they did it was excessive.”
On Sunday, Saber acknowledged that it was indeed police who beat and stripped him. Speaking to Al-Hayat TV, he said he gave his initial account because was afraid, then broke down in tears as he recounted begging the policemen for mercy.
“But no one gave me mercy,” he wept. “My whole body was smashed.” He has now been moved to a civilian hospital.
Rights activists say police intimidation of victims and their families to prevent complaints was rife under Mubarak and continues unabated. In a report last month, the Egyptian Initiative For Personal Rights documented 16 cases of police violence in which 11 people were killed and 10 tortured in police stations. Three died under torture during the first four months after Morsi took office on June 30, it said.
The rights group said officers increasingly act “like a gang taking revenge.”
In one case it documented, police in the Nile Delta town of Meet Ghamr stormed a cafe and beat up patrons in September. When a woman who was beaten went to the police station to complain, the man accompanying her was arrested and tortured to death, the report said.
The sister of the slain man told AP that her brother’s widow was paid the equivalent of around $25,000 to say that he was killed by a rock to his head during a protest.
“The main issue is that nothing has changed about the police. No change about accountability. There is just as much impunity as there was under Mubarak,” said Heba Morayef of Human Rights Watch. Over the past two years “we’ve seen an increase in the likelihood police will use lethal force … in the context of regular policing activities.”
In the case of el-Gindy, the activist who died Monday, fellow activists say he disappeared during a Jan. 27 Tahrir protest and they later learned from people who left the Red Mountain security camp that he was being held there. Soon after, el-Gindy was brought to a hospital in a coma and died Monday.
After his burial in his hometown of Tanta in the Nile Delta on Monday, angry mourners marched on police headquarters and clashes erupted, with protesters throwing firebombs and stones and police firing back tear gas.
At a funeral ceremony held earlier at a mosque in Cairo’s Tahrir Square, there was widespread skepticism that anyone would be held accountable for el-Gindy’s death.
“So this blood will be wasted so easily?” one woman in black screamed.
“It will be lost,” an elderly man responded. “Like others were before.”
Copyright 2013 The Associated Press.