Nation & World

Egyptian army makes arbitrary arrests

Above: Protesters made their opinion of President Hosni Mubarak clear by stepping on his photograph in Cairo on Sunday. Mubarak, meanwhile, allowed negotiations to begin.
Above: Protesters made their opinion of President Hosni Mubarak clear by stepping on his photograph in Cairo on Sunday. Mubarak, meanwhile, allowed negotiations to begin. AP

CAIRO — Besieged by two weeks of protests, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak's regime has offered once-unthinkable political concessions and started negotiations with its fiercest adversaries.

Some things in Egypt, however, don't change so quickly.

The Egyptian military has rounded up scores of human rights activists, protest organizers and journalists in recent days without charging them, according to watchdog groups and accounts by the detainees. While most arrests have been brief, experts say they are a sign that the regime's notorious tradition of extrajudicial detentions is continuing even as Mubarak appears to be on his way out of power.

Arbitrary arrests by police forces are among Egyptians' bitterest and longest-running complaints against their government, which gives security services sweeping powers under a state of emergency that had been in place for decades.

The perpetrators of the latest arrests, however, are Egyptian army soldiers, deployed on the streets for the first time in more than two decades after the police all but disappeared following clashes with protesters Jan. 25. The man most likely to lead the transition to a post-Mubarak era, Vice President Omar Suleiman, is Mubarak's longtime intelligence chief.

"If the military is going to continue to arrest activists and arrest journalists, that does point to a pattern of a crackdown," said Heba Morayef, Middle East researcher for Human Rights Watch. "It's a worrying sign of things to come ... because the military is going to play a big role going forward."

At least 75 Egyptian activists and demonstrators and about 30 foreign journalists have been arrested since the protests began, she said, including at least seven people who disappeared Thursday as they were returning from a meeting with opposition leader Mohammed ElBaradei. That was the day that targeting of activists and journalists appeared to escalate after heavy fighting between protesters and pro-Mubarak forces in Tahrir Square.

All the foreign journalists and roughly half of the Egyptians have been released. Most were held for less than 24 hours, Morayef said.

On Sunday, the military briefly detained a correspondent for the Al Jazeera news channel's English-language service near Cairo's Tahrir Square, center of the demonstrations in the capital. The reporter, Ayman Mohyeldin, a U.S. citizen, has been the most visible face of a network whose around-the-clock, often passionate coverage of the uprising has incensed Egyptian authorities.

Mostafa al-Hassan, an Egyptian lawyer who was detained and questioned for two days last week, said the message from the military was: "We know what you're doing, and we can stop you at any time."

Hassan was among 35 people arrested in a raid Thursday evening at Hisham Mubarak Law Center, which has provided legal aid and other assistance to demonstrators.

Security forces — including the hated baltagia, state-sponsored thugs in plainclothes — stormed into the building a few blocks from Tahrir Square and ransacked the offices, seizing laptops, hard drives and two safes. They then tied the captives' hands and hauled them away in a bus to a military camp in suburban Cairo.

Among the group was a U.S. citizen, Dan Williams, a Human Rights Watch researcher; a foreign researcher for Amnesty International, and two European journalists. The foreigners were released Friday, but the Egyptians were held for a second day.

The group was blindfolded and seated in a hallway, which suggested to Hassan that the jail cells were full of other detainees. In his first interrogation that night, a military officer told Hassan that he wasn't in trouble and that his arrest was "to protect you from thugs."

That night, however, the prisoners heard the voices of three people who sounded as if they were being abused. One of the voices appeared to be a recording, according to the center's former director, Ahmed Seif al-Islam, who suggested it was a form of psychological torture by the military.

In its most recent human rights report on Egypt last March, the State Department said security forces and prison guards "often tortured and abused prisoners and detainees, sometimes in cases of detentions under the Emergency Law, which authorizes incommunicado detention indefinitely, subject to a judge's ruling."

"We don't really know how the military deals with internal policing," Morayef of Human Rights Watch said. "The targeting of activists is very reminiscent of the state security approach."