Photo by Christian Haugen.
Alexandria, Egypt: His name was Sayed Bilal, he was thirty years old, married, and his wife was pregnant. He was a practising Muslim, neither an activist nor an agitator. He had a job and did not stand out from the crowd in any way. He lived near the Thahereyya train station. On the evening of 5 January 2011, he received a phone call from state security agents telling him to report to the local police station in the Al Raml District at 10 p.m. to help with an inquiry. ‘Bring a blanket with you,’ he was told. ‘You might need one.’
Sayed Bilal is poor. A simple, unpretentious man, an average citizen. No one is happy to be summoned to the police station in such countries. But since he has nothing to reproach himself for, Sayed takes a taxi with a clear conscience and shows up at the appointed time. No one has come with him. He does not know that his last hour is fast approaching. And how could anyone have known that? Sayed Bilal has no criminal record at all and has never had to deal with his country’s police force. In fact, that is why he has been singled out: he is a perfectly ordinary man.
The interrogation begins with the verification of his identity; a completely normal procedure. Sayed is calm. He doesn’t dare ask what’s on the tip of his tongue: ‘Why am I here? What complaint do you have against me? What are you going to do with me? What have I done wrong?’
Sayed says nothing, answers their questions as best he can and waits to see how things go.
All of a sudden, the men move him to another room. They push him along and take him down to the basement; soundproofed, it is a place where no sound can get in or out, a place for torture. The police have thought of everything. The neighbours must not be disturbed. No noise, nothing shocking, because it seems that certain citizens cry out when they’re hit too hard. They scream. That hurts the torturer’s ears and might split the cork glued to the walls to absorb noise.
Sayed has never gone down into one of these basements. He has heard about them. He knows that they are torture chambers. But him, he’s done nothing to be punished for…His conscience, so relaxed an hour ago, begins to panic. He thinks back on the events of the last few days and wonders, ‘Perhaps I met someone I shouldn’t have? Maybe I was seen with somebody involved in a plot, a horrible terrorist trying to destabilize the country? No, I went to school, I did my job, then I came home – my wife needs me, she’s in her seventh month, I don’t want her getting tired, so my parents often come over to help us. I place my life in the hands of God. Oh, could it be that’s what is antagonizing them? God? They must be suspicious of anyone who seeks guidance from his greatness!’
‘What were you doing last Saturday at about midnight?’
‘I was asleep at home.’
First slap. They ask him the question again. Then they tell him that he was seen in the vicinity of a Coptic church, the Church of Two Saints, where a man blew himself up on the night of 31 December, killing twenty-three people and injuring more than ninety.
Sayed has heard about that tragedy, of course, and replies that ‘as a Muslim’, he does not kill human beings.
That’s when the torture really begins. A confession must be torn out of him, even if it isn’t true; those are the orders. The police want a culprit. If torture doesn’t work, they’ll invent a guilty man out of thin air. That is what will happen to Sayed Bilal. He does admit to being a Salafist, a member of a sect that promotes a strict observance of Islam, but that doesn’t mean he’s a terrorist, especially since Salafists believe in the literal application of divine laws, and nowhere in the Quran is it said that one must plant bombs in a church during a Mass. But the police pay no attention. He must confess. A devout Muslim, Sayed gives himself over to martyrdom and puts his trust in God. If God wants to call him home through this ordeal, if such is the will of Allah, then what can he do? Sayed confesses nothing, since he has done nothing, and thus has nothing to confess. The executioners labour over him, subjecting him to ever more excruciating torments; they learned such things at the police academy, and the old-timers even attended training courses in East Germany. To torture properly requires real skill. The Egyptian police have often distinguished themselves in this field, even as far back as Nasser’s time.
Sayed is the ideal culprit for the 31 December bombing. He’s innocent, but his captors couldn’t care less. The minister of the interior wants prompt results, wants to be able, the next morning, to parade the terrorist before the media. The Al Raml district chief of police urges his torturers on. Too bad: despite all the suffering endured and the sophistication of the techniques applied, Sayed Bilal – for the good reason that he has nothing to admit – admits nothing. He dies of a heart attack, his body studded with bruises, haematomas, wounds, black and blue from beatings. It’s been a long night for everyone. For the unfortunate Sayed Bilal and for the executioners, who were tired of torturing and wanted to go home to their wives and children. A long night for the chief of police, who won’t be able to announce any good news to his superiors. And for the minister, who must deliver a report to his government in the morning and admit that the suspect died under torture.
On the evening of Thursday 6 January, the body is left in front of the local hospital. The police keep watch. A male nurse notices the corpse and has it brought inside. Finding identity documents on the dead man, he calls the family. Meanwhile, the police have arrested Sayed Bilal’s brother Ibrahim in an attempt to keep him quiet. The parents arrive at the hospital, identify their son and take pictures of the obvious signs of torture on his body. Distraught and grieving, they decide to file a complaint, but the police immediately intervene, making it clear that they have Ibrahim in custody and that if the family causes trouble, another son will meet the same fate as his brother did.
Nothing is left for the parents but tears and prayer. The police order them to bury their son that same night, to avoid a disturbance on Friday, the holiest day of the Muslim week. The parents try to negotiate, but it’s no use: unless they drop their demands, Ibrahim will not be released. The parents know the officers will not hesitate to kill him. Sayed Bilal is finally buried just before midnight.
That’s how the police operate under Hosni Mubarak.