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Denying Human Dignity: (International) Dimensions of Torture

Thursday, February 28, 2013 1:11 PM 
- Dr. Vivienne Matthies-Boon is an Assistant Professor in International Relations and International Organisation at the University of Groningen, The Netherlands
Any views expressed in this piece are those of the author and not of Aswat Masriya.

Dr Vivienne Matthies-Boon

Reading the news or watching current affairs, one cannot help but get the feeling that Egypt is currently seeing another hype.  Unfortunately, this hype is nothing like the Harlem Shake or Gangnam style songs that have recently swept the nation. 

No, this is something much more serious, something much more macabre – and unfortunately something much more prominent in Egypt’s history.  I am talking here about the issue of torture. 

Over the last three months, the topic of torture and abuse at the hands of Egypt’s security services has dominated the Egyptian public domain.  An array of reports have emerged that indicated accounts of torture chambers, (sexual) torture of men in detention cells, physical and verbal assaults of children and severe sexual harassment of women.

Concrete recent examples included those of Hamada Saber (who was beaten and dragged naked into a police van during protests near the presidential palace), Mohamed El Gendy (who was imprisoned and tortured to death), and the 12-year-old Zayeed Tayseer (who was assaulted by security forces).  

This, however, appears to be only the tip of the iceberg. For, Egyptian human rights organisations say that they have been overwhelmed by the number cases referred to them – including a significant rise in the rape of men.  This has unleashed a debate within Egypt as to whether instances of torture have in fact risen (rather than decreased) under Morsi’s government.  

Admittedly, it remains rather tricky – if not impossible – to verify whether torture has indeed increased or whether it is the mere reporting of torture that has increased.  Either way, it does show that violent abuse has not disappeared from the political scene in Egypt.

The United Group for Legal Aid to Victims of Torture reported that between 1 December 2012 and 10 February 2013, 63 people have been killed by the police, 28 people have been injured, 6 persons have been imprisoned without rights, 2 persons have been electrocuted, 1 person has been whipped, 29 people have been tortured in front of security personnel and that 28 people have been detained in illegal places across 16 different governates[i]

In fact, some human rights advocates argue that the nature of torture appears to have changed, as it has become more of a public phenomenon. As Seif El-Dawla of the Nadeem Centre for Rehabilitation of Victims of Violence explains, prior to the revolution torture was hidden from the public eye, whereas now torture is practiced in broad daylight. 

As she stated, “group torture is now practiced everywhere. A torture chamber now exists wherever there are security forces"[ii].  What is worrying about this development is that torture is now occurring under a civilian government that claims to defend a revolution, which called for human dignity.

Yet, torture is a primary negation of human dignity. Torture directly destroys one’s humanity, one’s personhood, as it reduces the victim to mere flesh.

The United Nation’s Convention Against Torture defines torture as an act by which severe pain or suffering (both physical and mental) is intentionally inflicted on a person for the purpose of obtaining information, punishment or intimidation by – with the acquiesce of – public officials.

However, as Bob Brecher – a Professor in Philosophy at the University of Brighton – explains traditional perceptions of torture miss the deeper underlying intention of torture. 

For, what is essential to torture is actually the intention to destroy the victim’s relation to the world[iii]The point of torture is not necessarily to achieve a confession (most of which turn out to be false anyway) or intimidation as such, but rather for that person to cease being a person at all.  Or rather, the aim of torture is for a person to cease being a person capable of action in the world. 

Perhaps this point is best illustrated through the example of Jean Amery, who was tortured by the Nazi’s in Belgium during the Second World War. 

Jean Amery was hung from a chain in a vaulted ceiling until his shoulders sprang from their sockets.  He describes the impact of this experience as follows: “Only in torture does the transformation of the person into flesh become complete.  Frail in the face of violence, yelling out in pain, awaiting no help, capable of no resistance, the tortured person is only a body, and nothing besides that”.[iv]

The reduction of the person to a mere body as a result of torture is also corroborated by Crelinsten who noted that the screams of people who are being tortured no longer sound human, rather they sound like howls[v].  To the torturer, this in fact only reinforces the victim’s dehumanization. 

Torture victims are not – or no longer – human in the torturer’s eyes, rather they have become mere flesh, an animalistic object. 

Yet, for the victim, the impact of this process of dehumanization extends well beyond the period of physical torture.  It has a huge impact on this person’s psychological state – and how he or she views the world and him- or herself in it. 

To return to Jean Amery: “whoever has succumbed to torture can no longer feel at home in the world.  The shame of destruction cannot be erased.  Trust in the world, which already collapsed in part at the first blow, but in the end, under torture, fully will not be regained”.[vi]

And this is why torture is first and foremost also a political act.

Torture is a political act since it humiliates and breaks a person to the point where their psychological state becomes damaged – thereby allowing for complete control of the person[vii].   

Torture should thus not be seen as just another instance of mere violence, but rather as a way to seek to gain full control – to retain grip over the public terrain.  And what better way to achieve that than through sexual torture, including mass assaults and male rape? 

After all, such acts touch upon the most intimate aspects of ourselves, our sexuality, and directly affect our social and psychological identity. 

Moreover, certainly in conservative societies (such as that of Egypt) these abusive infringements upon one’s sexuality also carry a lot of shame and taboo – which worsens the impact of these acts.

It is therefore all the more laudable that so many Egyptian women, men and children are speaking publicly about their horrendous ordeals either in marches or through video recordings which are then disseminated on the internet.

But if torture is such a clear act of to political domination, why has the international community as a whole been rather silent on the issue of torture in Egypt? Only a few international human rights organisations (such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch) have spoken out against the recent instances of torture in Egypt.

Western governments – normally quick to use the pro-democracy rhetoric – have remained strangely silent on this thorny issue.  Might this have anything to do, one wonders, with the fact that the most dominant Western force – the United States of America – itself has torturous blood on its hands in Egypt?  

The United States has not only tortured and illegally imprisoned people in Guantanamo Bay and various black sites in Iraq and Afghanistan, it also found a willing torture-partner in Egypt during Mubarak’s regime[viii]

As the recent report on extraordinary rendition by the Open Society Foundation shows, Egypt has been a key partner in the United States’s programme of international extraordinary rendition[ix]

Extraordinary rendition entails the transfer—without legal overview — of a detainee to the custody of a foreign government for purposes of detention and interrogation.  Torture was a key element in these interrogations. 

The kinds of torture endured included the slashing of genitals, electrocutions, beatings, rape, stress positions, sensory deprivations, walling, sexual harassment, forced nudity, sleep deprivation, solitary confinement, withholding water and drink (including to a pregnant woman) and much more. 

This programme of international torture was highly classified, and the sole purpose of outsourcing torture to third countries was to place these torturous interrogations firmly beyond the reach of law. 

It is still difficult to assess the exact magnitude of this rendition programme, because investigations and legal procedures are frequently blocked as a result of “national security concerns. 

However, the Open Society Foundation reports that at least 54 countries have participated in this programme – and Egypt was one of the key places where people were sent to in order to be tortured. 

Notably, in 2005, the Egyptian prime minister acknowledged that 60 to 70 individuals had been transferred to Egypt by the United States in the context of the “war on terror[x].  

Yet, human rights organisations suspect that in reality the number of people transferred to Egypt is much larger.

On 22 January 2009, President Obama issued an executive decree that abolished these torturous methods of interrogation[xi].

Yet, interestingly, he did not abolish the rendition programme as such, but chose to rely upon diplomatic assurances that people will not be tortured in recipient countries. 

However, as past cases have shown, such diplomatic assurances are not worth the paper they are written on, as people are frequently tortured anyway. 

Not only that, but some commentators insist that under Obama the United State’s programme of securitization has not decreased but in fact increased and intensified. 

For, the United State’s counter-terror programme now also includes direct extrajudicial killings – even of its own national citizens – through its drone-strike attacks in places such as Pakistan, Yemen and other places[xii].  Like the extraordinary rendition programme, these killings are also covered in a great deal of secrecy, and mostly operate outside the realm of legal oversight and due monitoring.  In addition, despite Obama’s assurances, Guantanamo Bay is still open and secret detention sites are still operating in places such as Pakistan, Afghanistan and Iraq. 

In other words, people are still being tortured at the hands of the United States. And thus, for the United States to start commenting on practices of torture in Egypt, would be a classical case of the pot calling the kettle black.

Not only that, but given its long history of security cooperation, it is clear that the United States still largely views Egypt through the prism of (regional) security. 

Hence, US officials, whilst talking of democratic procedures, orderly democratic transitions and of course neoliberal economic reforms, nearly always stress the importance of Egypt in maintaining (regional) security. 

This of course is a euphemism for the peace with Israel, and all the security- and military relations this encompasses. 

This emphasis is not surprising given the fact that the United States is the largest provider of military “aid” to Egypt.  This military aid has included heavy military equipment such as F-4 jet aircrafts, F-16 jet fighters, tanks, armored personnel carriers, apache helicopters, aircraft missile batteries, amongst other materials. 

The United States is also the largest provider of teargas, weapons, munitions and other “law enforcement” materials.[xiii] However, as Amnesty International reports, although the United States is the biggest supplier of arms, it is by no means the only Western arms provider to Egypt – other countries include Austria, Belgium, the Czech Republic, France, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Slovakia, and Switzerland. 

However, it is the one with the most intensive security and military intelligence relations.  According to recently released Wikileaks cables, Egyptian military intelligence chiefs have received extensive training by American officials[xiv], the notorious SSIS (Egyptian Security Intelligence Services) cooperated directly with the FBI[xv] and Hosni Mubarak’s strongman Omar Soleiman was the principle Egyptian intelligence chief for the CIA.

Now, the question I wish to pose here are as follows: how in the face of such a great amount of established (international) securitization and militarization, can we retain a face of humanity? How can we ensure that the revolutionary goal of human dignity is achieved? How can we ensure that people are not reduced to mere flesh, but are treated as fully-fledged persons? How can we ensure that people are no longer tortured? 



[iii] Brecher, Bob (2011) Torture: a touchstone for global social justice In: Widdows, Heather and Smith, Nicola, eds. Global Social Justice. Routledge, London and New York, pp. 90-101

[iv] Améry, J. (1980) ‘Torture’, in Améry, J.  At the Mind’s Limit,  trans. S. and S. Rosenfeld, Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1980, p33

[v] Crelinsten, R. (1995) ‘In Their Own Words’, in Crelinsten, R. and Schmid, A., eds, The Politics of Pain: Torturers and Their Masters, Boulder: Westview Press – p 41. Also in Brecher, Bob (2011) Torture: a touchstone for global social justice In: Widdows, Heather and Smith, Nicola, eds. Global Social Justice. Routledge, London and New York, pp. 90-101

[vi] Améry, J. (1980) ‘Torture’, in Améry, J.  At the Mind’s Limit,  trans. S. and S. Rosenfeld, Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1980, p40

[vii] Patel, Nimisha and Mahtani, Aruna (2004) “Psychological Approaches to Working with Political Rape” in Peel, Michael (2004) Rape as a Method of Torture, Medical Foundation for the Care of Victims of Torture

[viii] Grey, Stephen (2006) Ghost Plane: The True Story of the CIA Rendition Program, St Martin’s Press

[ix] Open Society Justice Initiative (2013) Globalizing Torture: CIA Secret Detention and Extraordinary Rendition, Open Society Foundations

[x] The Open Society report explicitly includes the following cases
 of CIA extraordinary rendition that involve the Egyptian authorities:
 Mohammed Omar Abdel-Rahman (an Egyptian national captured in Pakistan and tortured
 in a secret prison and in Tora prison),
 Ahmed Agiza (an Egyptian national resident in Sweden who was imprisoned 
and tortured in Nasr city and Tora prison), Jawad Al-Bashar
 (an Egyptian national whose current whereabouts are unknown),
 Mustafa Mohamed Fadhil (an Egyptian national whose whereabouts are unknown),
 Mamdouh Habib (an Australian national sent to Egypt where he was tortured),
 Abdulsalam Al-Hela (a Yemeni national, arrested and tortured in Egypt), Mohammed Saad Iqbal
 Madni (a Pakistani national arrested tortured in Egypt using electric shocks),
 Saif Al-Aslam El-Masry (an Egyptian national captured in Georgia 
whose current whereabouts are unknown),
Amir Hussein Abdullah Al-Misry (an Egyptian national captured in Pakistan 
whose current whereabouts are unknown), 
Yasser Tinawi (a Syrian national tortured in Somalia and Egypt), 
Khalid Al-Zawahiri (and Egyptian national whose whereabouts are unknown) 
and Muhammed El-Zery (an Egyptian national transported from Sweden to Egypt, 
where he suffered electric shocks to his genitals and was forced to lie on an electrified bed). 
A more widely publicized case is that of Abu Omar, an Egyptian national resident 
in Italy who was abducted from a street in Milan and flown to Egypt
by the CIA where he was tortured for 14 months using electric shocks.  
When, after his release, he told his family what happened he was recaptured
by the Egyptian security services in Nasr city, held in Damanhour and Istiqbal Tora prisons under 
the orders of the Ministry of the Interior.  He was eventually released in February 2007.

[xi] Open Society Justice Initiative (2013) Globalizing Torture: CIA Secret Detention and Extraordinary Rendition, Open Society Foundations – p19


[xiii] Amnesty International (2011) Report: Arms Transfers to the Middle East and North Africa: Lessons for an Effective Arms Trade Treaty.



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