A death in Egyptian police custody


They come every day, the dead. Some die in accidents, others from natural causes, but the body washer knew something scary had happened when the sheet was lifted off Farouk Sayed.

“I realized he was beaten to death once I saw him. I could see the marks on his wrists, chest and back,” said Moetaz Abdel Aziz, who bathes and purifies the dead at a Cairo morgue as part of the Muslim burial rite. “While I was washing him, I kept saying, ‘I protest to God, who is my best resort, against whoever did this to him.’ ”

Sayed’s wife, Takwa, thought her husband seemed so small in death, shrunken almost. On that September day, her family arrived with a rented station wagon and a borrowed coffin. They headed out of the city and south along the Nile, until they reached the graveyard where Sayed, a 38-year-old waiter trying to stay clean and raise a family, was lowered into the earth before sunset.

It’s been months; a holy feast and a new year have passed. Sayed’s killers are still at large, but Takwa said they’d be easy to find. Her husband died in police custody.

The prosecutor’s office is investigating whether three officers, including a lieutenant, handcuffed Sayed and tortured him to death. There is no hurry to solve the case; the prosecutor has yet to even interrogate the officers.

“It might take a long time for the cops to be questioned in this crime,” said Maha Yousef, a human rights lawyer representing Sayed’s family. “Many prosecutors in cases like these were once police officers and some have practiced torture themselves. Out of hundreds of torture victims and their families I’ve represented over the last decade, I’ve won only 10 convictions against the police.”

The Interior Ministry, which oversees the police, would say only that the matter was under investigation. Yousef has been granted no official documents on the case; her slim file comprises scattered pages of handwriting on notebook paper, an eerie and incomplete narrative she’s sketched of Sayed’s final days.

Sayed fell into a crack in the world, where a broken motorcycle on a wrong street on a particular day can lead a man into the body washer’s hands. It happens in Egypt: Dissidents, Islamists, troubled people, or people with no troubles at all, end up manacled and beaten in the hallways and holding cells of police stations.

The morning Sayed was arrested, he awoke beside his wife and children in a small room with no running water. It was the only home a man who earned no more than $3 a day could afford. He dressed and slipped away, past photos of him pasted near the front door, one taken at the beach, his face tan, his muscles long; the other at a mosque, his coat bright in winter light.

He walked downstairs and into an alley beneath laundry hanging out of windows, drooping so low it feels like you’re hiding in the back of a deep closet. He rode his motorcycle across town to Sayeda Zeinab, his childhood neighborhood, where he was going to pick up his mother and prepare for iftar, the sunset meal that breaks the daylong fast during Ramadan. He knew the neighborhood well; never wanted to leave it, but boys become men and things change.

The motorcycle broke down near Ali Barakat’s cafe. He rolled it a few doors down to a mechanic friend on a street of butchers, bottle collectors, undercover policemen and drug dealers. Hashish and heroin were peddled through the neighborhood, and at night, the streets were filled with smoke from water pipes and the whispers of cops seeking bribes. Sayed knew its intricacies: He had served a three-year prison sentence for selling hash, but friends and family say he had not strayed since he got out in 1998.

“If he was trafficking drugs, would we live like this?” said Takwa, who was 15 when she married her cousin, not out of love, but because Sayed and both their families agreed that the round-faced girl who spoke her mind would make a good wife.

Sayed waited for his motorcycle; around the corner, next door to the cafe, his mother sat in a room off a littered foyer. She and his father had lived there since his father fled their Nile Delta village after two of his fingers were shot off in a clan feud. His father got a job as the doorman, and when Sayed was 8, he started waiting tables at the cafe, sleeping in a stairwell because his parents’ room was too small for him and his brother.

The cafe’s chairs and tin-topped tables once sprawled over the sidewalk; the place glowed deep into the night, men dropping tips on Sayed’s tray. As he grew into a man, though, the cafe seemed less grand, the chairs splintered, and Sayed, a husband and father of four now, was still relying on tips. He tried waiting tables in his wife’s village south of the city. The pay there was less and he returned to Barakat’s, settling his family miles from Sayeda Zeinab, beneath smokestacks and brown skies along Cairo’s ring road.

The motorcycle couldn’t be fixed right away. Takwa and Sayed’s brother, Mahmoud, said friends told them that a patrolman arrived near the mechanic’s garage and questioned Sayed. Sayed was taken to the police station, where he spent the night; the next morning he was charged with possession of hashish and ordered held for 19 days until an investigation was completed. His family said police for years had leaned on him to become a snitch and often threatened and harassed him. As a former convict, Sayed knew the dealers, and as a waiter, he overheard everyone’s business, the good parts and the bad.

“The police wanted him to be an informant,” Takwa said. “They’d hassle him and sometimes bring him to the station or take bribes from him on the street. They kept pressing him to be an informant, but he didn’t want to do that. He didn’t want to be part of the corruption. He became defiant. He wasn’t afraid of the police anymore, and that’s when it turned dangerous for him.”

Sayed was “going straight, raising his family,” said Ahmed Saeed, the mechanic. “The police had problems with him. He wanted to return to this neighborhood to live, but he couldn’t because the police wouldn’t forget his past. When he was outside my shop, the cops asked him for ‘tips’ for the upcoming holy feast, but he said he didn’t even have enough money to buy feast presents for his own kids. There was a brief argument and they took him away.”

For days, Takwa brought meals to the police station. She wasn’t allowed to see Sayed and she never knew whether the food reached him. A man at the desk, she said, hinted that her husband had been taken to solitary confinement and was being tortured. On Sept. 25, more than two weeks after his arrest, a nurse married to a cousin told Takwa that a dead man matching Sayed’s description had been brought to the hospital.

Takwa said a policeman told her that Sayed had had a stroke; another officer said his heart had failed. She went to the hospital and was led into a room.

“They’d only let me see his face. A lieutenant told me it was against religion to see his naked body. But I pulled down the sheet. They couldn’t stop me, I was his wife,” she said. “His body was yellow and stiff; black and blue marks ran under his eyes. A bruise and marks behind his ears. Rows of marks were on his back as if he had been beaten with a stick. Handcuff cuts on his wrists, and his arms swollen from wrists to elbows.”

Takwa cannot read. A relative read her the hospital’s preliminary report on the body, which, she said, concluded that he had been beaten. The police took the report from the relative and after a few minutes, Takwa said, “officers at the hospital offered me money. I refused. They said: ‘You might as well take it. This is the government. You won’t win and you could get hurt.’ ”

An autopsy was ordered. The prosecutor has not released the findings. The burial form from the Health Ministry gives no specific date of death, but indicates trauma: “Reasons for his death: Bruises and abrasions; random samples from the body were taken for further examinations.”

Takwa sits on the floor of her room beneath the photos of Sayed with her children, a 7-year-old, 5-year-old and 18-month-old twins. They climb on her, tug her sleeve. Nine years she was married, drawing water every day from an outside tap, washing her face in a bowl.

“We never had enough money, but it was OK,” she says.

Mahmoud listens, occasionally slipping a hushed sentence into Takwa’s hurried cadence. He picks at his jacket; he has no job, but somehow he must care for his brother’s family. His mother, Nabila, sits next to him on the bed, dressed in black, folding and unfolding her hands.

The room is crowded, like a bus stop on a rainy night. Kids run in the alley outside; the junkman hollers, his cart scraping walls. It quiets for a while, and then Nabila mentions that she glimpsed her son in the police station window before he died. Takwa and Mahmoud shake their heads and whisper that this is not so, that this is what a mother needs to believe.

Amro Hassan of The Times’ Cairo Bureau contributed to this report.