Inside Egypt’s State Security Headquarters
I have watched the news of Egypt’s state security buildings being ransacked with great personal interest. It has brought back memories of my own time inside those same cells and offices.
Below is an account of what I experienced…
1st April 2002
My son, then two and a half, had been asleep for a while and I was just about to do the same, when a loud banging and continuous ringing of the doorbell prevented that. I found about 15 armed policemen lining the hallway and stairway up and up, together with two plain clothes men and a special forces officer. All the policemen were carrying rifles, and some had grenades. They asked for Medhat, whom I had never heard of, so I told them. They asked me who I was at the door and demanded to see ID. I told them to wait while I got my passport. My Arabic was very poor at the time, but I could hear them saying “he’s got a beard in the picture”, which the other agreed to so they said that they were coming in.
Then we were taken to a small office in Cairo where all of our stuff was unloaded and we were taken to a room to confirm our names and nationalities. The plain clothes officers were laughing at us while there. I didn’t yet know what to expect, but I was apprehensive.
This video shows the Nasr City torture facility.
We were then led into another van, where a man from Tajikistan was waiting, taken the same night. We were all then taken to a building which we later discovered was the state security headquarters for Egypt in Nasr City, al-Gihaaz.
As we pulled into the courtyard we were blindfolded and led down some steps into a reception area. We joined a queue of others and were told to put our hands on the shoulders of the one in front. We filed to a desk, were asked our names, hand cuffed then led individually to cells. I was put into mine, told that I was number 26 then pushed down onto the concrete shelf that served as a bed. It had a disgustingly dirty thin mattress on it. I was told to sleep “Nim!”, then the door banged closed behind me.
The cell was very cold and I was so glad that I had remembered to wear a sweater when they took me from my home. I hadn’t yet slept at all and it was at least six in the morning, but I wasn’t yet feeling tired. Adrenaline had been pumping through my veins for the past few hours and I was now high on it. I started to think about my situation, about what could they want from me? What did they think they knew about me? What would happen next?
After about an hour, a man came calling numbers in succession, to which a person replied “Aywah?”, then he would shout “Qum!” stand up. After a few seconds he’d shout “Nim!” When he reached my number he shouted “qum!”. I stood up, said “yes?” then tried to face the direction where his sound was coming from. I was still blindfolded and had my hands cuffed tightly behind my back. A man came into my cell and told me to sit down in English. I asked him for the British Consul to come and he said “No, don’t worry you’ll be deported after four days” then left.
I started to feel tired so tried to lie down and sleep a little.
I doubt if I actually slept. I was disturbed by the role call of numbers again, and again stood when twenty six was called. This time the man just shouted “Nim!” telling me to sleep without opening the door. So I sat down again. This was to continue perhaps hourly for the rest of my time there.
At first, I daren’t move between role calls as I wasn’t sure of the penalties for disobedience. I could hear breathing noises outside my cell door and I assumed that a guard had been made to sit there constantly checking on me. I gingerly started to explore my new environment during the periods between role calls. By now a small gap had appeared under my blindfold which allowed me to see downwards a little. I had to tip my head right back to see upwards, so I surveyed the room initially while lying on my back. I saw a hole-in-the-floor style toilet in the far corner, a tap next to it which ran straight onto the floor at about ankle height and not much else. The door was large and steel with a small window at about head height. This was the only source of light from the corridor. I was on a concrete bench which ran the length of the cell. The whole dimensions were about two metres by one and a half metres and about three metres high.
I wanted to use the toilet so I moved slowly and carefully. I thought that if they are watching me then they wouldn’t be too hard on me if I was caught on the way to the toilet. I managed to turn on the tap by crouching and stretching my cuffed hands to one side so that they were almost in front of me. I drank water directly from the tap as I was now very thirsty.
After a period which I guessed to be about six hours I decided that it must be time to pray my midday prayer, so I slowly went to the tap and tried to wash myself. My hands could barely reach my face, so I had to wash that using just a couple of fingers with water on them. I stood up to pray, guessing the direction of Mecca. I was still conscious of the person outside of my door so I moved as quietly as possible. I wasn’t able to put my hands down onto the floor when prostrating so I had to just do as much as I was able and pray that Allah accepts it from me due to my circumstances.
Twice a day the guard would come to my cell, unlock the door and tell me to turn around so that he could unlock my cuffs and move them to the front. He gave me a hurried swig from a bottle of water, then left me with a sandwich in my hand. It was a folded piece of Egyptian flat round bread, filled with rice and a piece of chicken. In the mornings he came with Halawa (sunflower seed and sugar paste) and cheese in the sandwich. The alternate foods for breakfast and dinner gave me clues to guess what time of day it was outside. The chicken was so dry and was filled with bones, but I still ate most of it. I discovered that a previous occupant of my cell had used the foot of the bench to throw the bones, so I did likewise. Ironically, I was to discover in a few days that this was extremely good food when compared to that which is served in the prisons. After about an hour he came back to return my cuffs to the back.
Later on the first day, during one of the role calls, I was told to come out of my cell and sit in the corridor. Then other prisoners who had been waiting in the corridor were led one at a time into my cell to use the toilet in there. When I had used it myself it turned out to be quite a messy experience as I tried to balance in a crouched position with my hands behind my back. By the smell when I was returned to the cell, I could tell that the others had just as much difficulty as me. I then discovered that the thin mattress had been removed and was now being used by the other prisoners sitting in the corridor.
My handcuffs were behind my back so I tried to lie on my back, but the cuffs dug into my back. I tried on my side but my arm went numb. I tried on my front, but then my face was into the cold concrete. I eventually took off my shoes and placed them under my backside to raise myself higher than my cuffs and so relieve the pressure a little. Even this position I could only sustain for a short while though. I then took to moving my shoes with my teeth into a pillow like position then lying on my side for as long as I could. After that I would just alternate between all of these positions in a futile attempt to find some lasting comfort in that very uncomfortable place. Prolonged discomfort, after all, was another of their intimidation and mistreatment techniques.
By now the cell had become very cold. I could hear the constant hum from the corridor of the air conditioning machine and was particularly aware of it when the power cut a couple of times. The room became noticeably warmer after only about half an hour without the air conditioning machine, but when the power came back then it became very cold again. I suspect that they had the control set to maximum refrigeration to further make our situation more uncomfortable.
On the second day I became more daring in my movements. I wanted to pray properly with my hands on my chest, so I remembered how it is possible to step backwards through your joined hands to achieve this. The cuffs were so tight at first, that pulling them over my backside was too painful, and I was also afraid that if I did it then I wouldn’t be able to get them back again. I thought of excuses to say if I got caught with them in the front: “the guard forgot to return them last time I was fed”. Anyway, I finally did bring them forward and felt very pleased with myself. It was another small victory of defiance and a refusal to accept my current situation as I exercised what little control I still had. I discovered that bringing them back was much easier.
For the rest of my time in the cell, I would bring my hands to the front to loosen my blindfold and sometimes even remove it. Prior to this, I had been able to roll it up by rubbing my face against the bench, but getting it back when a role call started was much more difficult. Now, I still replaced my blindfold and brought my hands to the back when I heard the roll call, but with significantly more ease and swiftness. I nearly got caught once, panicking me a little, but other than that I was very fortunate.
Throughout those first two days I would hear the regular screams from down the hall. They started on the evening of my first night there, continued throughout the night then died down by the morning, until the next evening. It was another way for me to guess the time of day. The screams seemed far away, but their reality was very close as I could hear the numbers being called, then a door opening, then the screams starting again shortly afterwards. This may go on for half an hour or so, before another number was called out. The place was like a factory, a conveyor belt of torture. I could hear one guys name called an awful lot. He was called Shareef, and I was afraid that it was a friend of mine from the village, also called Shareef. He used to talk to me in English, as he was a student of English literature. My whole family had dined at his house when they had visited me in my flat in Cairo. I was afraid that he had been brought in for associating with me. Not a pleasant thought. It turned out that he had not been arrested, but I didn’t know that until about two months later.
The screams were blood curdling. Grown men’s high pitch screams preceded by a buzzing and crackling sound. They would sometimes shout some words, but I couldn’t understand them. I imagined that they had a machine which a person was strapped into, then the voltage was applied to produce the screams I could hear. The reality was much more crude, as I discovered from conversations with prisoners more than a year later. Most people were stripped down to their underwear, forced onto the floor, then a wooden chair was placed in top of their legs. A guard sat on the chair then a cattle-prod-like device was placed on their leg to create a current which left through their feet. Their body would spasm with the shock and normally they would defecate and urinate themselves as their bodies lost control. This would continue for about twenty minutes, then they’d be lead to the shower room to clean up and get dressed. Some had wires attached to their genitalia before electricity was turned on. Others were stabbed, had acid poured down their backs (I saw the marks), nearly drowned then live wires would be put into the water. Many in our case had their hands tied behind their backs with electrical wire then they were hung from it on the top of an open door, almost as if they were carcasses in a butcher’s waiting to be cut up. They would be left like this sometimes for hours. The wire cut into their skin only making the already agonising experience even more excruciating.
I occasionally heard the guards walk past my cell and with them I would hear the crackling and buzzing of the torture stick they were holding. I shivered as I wondered when my own turn would be.
On the third day after being taken from my house, the guard led me from my cell to an office where I was told to stand in front of a desk. A man was standing to my left. I could only see downwards through the gap in the now loose blindfold and my face. I could see his shoes, which were light grey leather slip-ons, and his trousers, which looked equally cheap. When he spoke he had a voice that betrayed years of chain smoking so I guessed him to be in his fifties. I could sense that he was a small, ugly old man. At the desk was a man sitting whose voice told me he was much younger. I never saw his shoes or trousers, as they were hidden by the desk. There were others in the room, but seemed to be more observers than active participants.
The room was well lit, had tiled floors, wooden chairs and huge metal desks, straight out of the seventies. It wasn’t as cold in there.
The sitting man started to question me about who I was, why I was in Egypt, where I lived and studied etc. all very innocuous. Everything I said, he was taking notes on in pencil on sheets of lined paper on the desk. After some time I was told to sit on a wooden chair in front of the desk. Then came the more probing questions.
The man behind the desk could speak only broken English and I only broken Arabic, so there were frequent moments when I could not understand the question and he had to find another way of asking it.
I tried to be vague whenever they asked me anything, as I wasn’t sure of how things could get worse if I said the wrong thing. They asked me about the books that they had taken from my flat. The State Security officer who took me had found my spare room with about fifty Islamic books in it. Mostly collections of Hadith (sayings of the Prophet (saw)) or books of law. They all belonged to another Pakistani man who had bought them at the Cairo book fair in February and was storing them before shipping home to London. He had asked me about them so I said they belonged to a friend. The interrogator behind the desk asked me who the friend was. I wasn’t aware that he had been arrested yet, so I decided that I would not mention him as I didn’t want them to send out police to raid his flat as well. Not knowing how much they know puts you in a very weak position. I wanted to come across believable, yet at the same time not to give them anything they hadn’t already got. Whilst I may end up incriminating myself, I certainly did not want to be the cause of anyone else being taken and tortured. This was the limit that I had established mentally while in the cell. It was an extremely stressful situation.
The officer started to get angry that I wasn’t forthcoming in my approach giving him only brief answers in response to his questions. I agreed to his request from me speak more without being questioned, but nothing actually changed.
They asked me which Egyptians I knew, so I had to be so vague avoiding answering in anyway that would lead to them harassing my friends and neighbours. I said I didn’t know him whenever they suggested a name that they felt I should have known.
At this point the short, old man with the cheap shoes flew into a rage screaming at me in unintelligible Egyptian, I feel sure that he was spitting while speaking. He pushed me against the wall. He started to punch me and poke me in the body and face. I was still blindfolded and cuffed. He taunted me as he saw the shock on my face. He was screaming on in Egyptian, but I had no idea what he was saying. He then dragged me onto the floor forcing me to kneel in front of him while he sat on the wooden chair. He asked me in calmer Egyptian where my wife and son were? “fayn zugtuk wa ibnuk?” Did I know that she was safe? I could just understand the Arabic, but I clearly saw what he was saying. He carried on threatening my family and then returned me to my seat.
Now they wanted to know about my past in England, how I became Muslim, who invited me and so on. This was easier to talk about and it was using the vocabulary that I had been recently studying on my course. Again they asked me about the books in my flat. This time, they slyly asked me who my Pakistani friend was. I was taken aback that they knew of him, and again I didn’t know how much they knew. I quickly calculated that they may have somebody in custody who knew him, so answered vaguely that he is a friend in the UK. They told me that they knew the books in my flat were his, and I could sense their glee that they had caught me out.
I was taken back into my cell. My head was spinning from what I had just been through. I was relieved that I could now rest, but I could feel the stress as I tried to remember how I had answered their questions, so that if I was questioned again I could answer the same. The intensity of the situation did not really lessen and, not surprisingly, I wasn’t able to properly relax. It was now the third night and I had had only a few short snatches of sleep during my ordeal. I could now hear the screams continuing down the corridor.
Later on that night I was taken back into the same office with the same people in it. Now came a new set of accusations that I was expected to submit to. I knew them to be false, so I was sure it was a fishing expedition on their part. They only became harsher whenever I denied any of their accusations. I was now beginning to see that they aren’t really interested in establishing any facts during this interrogation. They were more interested in filling in any gaps with their own assumptions, then forcing you to agree and accept their version of the reality as true. I feel that their arrogance has led them to believe in their own powers of deduction so much so that they become convinced of their own hypotheses. It does not matter the lies and coercion that they have to use to get someone to admit to their hypotheses, that he admits is all important and proof that they were right all along. I suspect that they are under enormous pressure from their bosses to quickly produce consistent stories that do not contain errors, so the real truth becomes unimportant, and their truth must now prevail.
They sat me down again and this time asked me about an email that I had apparently given to an Egyptian. I again knew that there was no such email, so I denied it. They repeated the question a few times, so I carried on denying it.
Cheap shoes stepped aggressively to me and started his usual unintelligible rant. I could tell that he was asking me many questions, waiting for my response, pushing me, but I couldn’t answer as I didn’t know what he was asking. This went on for a while with the tension rising until finally I shouted back in exasperation “what do you want, I can’t understand your question”. This tickled those in the room, so the man became calmer, asking me something about hearing and how long I have been here. Maybe one of the others said a few words in English to help me, but it suddenly dawned on me what exactly he was saying. He was asking me about the screams that I had heard during my time in their dungeon; what do I think was causing them? Did I want some of the same?
This was it then. This was when they would unleash their animals with the electrocution machine. They led me to a new room around the corner and made me stand in the doorway. I could see a tiled floor with some people wearing shoes and trousers. I could also see a man with bare feet in the middle of a metal framed apparatus. They asked him some questions and he replied desperately to them. He kept saying “effendi” which is like saying sir. He was obviously pleading with them not to hurt him anymore. In their questions I heard the word “email”. He replied “Aywa” yes in confirmation. I was then sat down in the doorway with my back turned. I heard the buzzing and crackling of the torture machine and then the man’s screams as they put it onto him. He was severely being tortured because of what I was saying. It was due to the inconsistency in his acceptance of their story and my denial. This fact tore me apart inside. I could grit my teeth and try to prepare for my own mistreatment, but having another innocent person being tortured immediately based upon my own conduct weakened me incredibly. The link between me and his suffering was too explicit, too immediate. I was now confused and wanted only to end this situation. I started to feel that resistance to their accusations was futile.
[Egyptian man demonstrating the torture apparatus http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fkSuL0d_zUk]
After seeing what he was willing to do to end the suffering, I felt pressured to not make him out to be a liar in their eyes anymore. Looking back I can see that it makes little difference to the investigation whether you oppose them or cooperate with them. The results are just a shambled mix of lies and half truths anyway; but at the time it was much harder to look at it like that. Quick decisions had to be made.
After a while I was taken back into the office, asked again about the email, and this time I replied that I did have such an email. They asked me for the details but I replied that I didn’t remember them as they were all in the email not in my head. I sensed their happiness that they had gotten to “the truth” with me, so the interrogation ended for that day and I was led back into my cell.
I had never really prepared for such a situation. Had I read more about other people’s accounts of similar circumstances I feel that it would have allowed me to mentally prepare myself in advance. The uncertainty of what to expect is the torturer’s best weapon, as he plays upon that to further intimidate. By knowing his limits, one is able to estimate when he is bluffing. Knowing his technique is half way to knowing how to deal with it. Staying focussed is everything, but very difficult to do. Later I would have discussions with fellow prisoners who had been through worse than I had, but they confirmed through their anecdotes that the investigating officers only half believe everything they hear. They know that people will agree to anything to stop the pain of torture. As the pain becomes worse or the threat of the severity of the torture becomes more real, then the victim becomes more and more intimidated until he says anything in a desperate attempt to stop it.
The next time I was taken into the interrogation room, was on the fourth day of my imprisonment. The investigating officer spoke to me in clear English with an American accent. He said that he had been brought in especially to interview me due to the difficulties in communication of the day before. He was more relaxed than the other officers were, but then he knew that he didn’t have to put any more pressure on me to play their game.
He covered all the same ground as yesterday regarding myself and why I was in Egypt. He loosened my blindfold slightly at one point as he wanted me to write my email address details down on a piece of paper. I knew that he’d just find a few personal emails and a load of spam, but it kept him happy.
After that, for the rest of the day, he just asked me lots of questions about how I became a Muslim, who invited me, who did I know in the UK. It was all irrelevant information, but I was still vague about peoples’ names. I was shocked that they mentioned a name of an Egyptian whom I had met once at university in the UK. I was later able to smuggle this information to him to warn him of the danger he is in of he returned to Egypt.
The interrogator became annoyed with me for not being pro-active, but just answering his questions. I agreed to be more forthcoming, but just continued to answer him as before. Strangely, I felt more at ease on this second day of my interrogation. I think that I felt more secure due to my decision to implicate myself the previous day. It was almost as if now they were just going through a formality that didn’t really matter as they already had enough to make a case against me. I didn’t understand the judicial system in Egypt at the time, so I considered that his notes would be read out in court against me just as a policeman’s notes are read out in the UK. Prior to that I was trying to stay alive and get out of there without saying anything to make matters worse. Now, matters were already worse, so I just concentrated on staying alive.
We continued with my biography. Then I was sent to sit in the hallway for a while. My hands were cuffed to my front and I was given a cup of tea. It was the best thing that I had tasted for days, and the caffeine had a wonderful effect in a tired body. I had still only caught glimpses of sleep from the hourly roll-call and also the stress of rehearsing my answers over and over. I realised that if I was to be believed in my answers then they had to be consistent. Regardless of whether you are a criminal or not in that place, you’re made to feel like one. Even the most innocuous mention of a name comes back to haunt you as you then become the master conspirator in a great secret plan. Those State Security officers are seriously paranoid people, capturing and torturing people based solely on their associations, even chance encounters. They cannot be wrong ever, so every captive must be justified.
After a short time I was taken into a different office to resume my life story, still in the UK. They were never interested in asking me many questions about Egypt. There was a window open in that room. I could hear the noise from up high by the ceiling so I knew that we were underground in the basement. I had become a little more adventurous in surveying my surroundings as I discovered ways to get peeps which appeared to be just flinches or innocent movements. When the adhan called from a nearby mosque I could hear it inside. It gave me another clue as to what time of day it was. I guessed it to be midday to early afternoon. I was surprised that the officer mentioned to the other next to him that he was off to pray. I asked if I could pray too, so they agreed and led me back to my cell. My blindfold was taken off me and the handcuffs removed for the first time in four days.
After our prayers I was led back to the same room, now cuffed and blindfolded again. Before he started his questions again I asked him how it is that he could pray to God while at the same time torture us? He sounded shocked and said “did anyone electrocute you?” I said “no”, so he replied coldly, “those (who were tortured) are bad people”.
Before long, some people came into the room, spoke briefly to the interrogator in Egyptian, then I was hurriedly led away. I was led out of a gate then shoved into a prisoners transport van while one hand was cuffed to a guard. The van drove off, up a slope and onto Cairo’s busy streets. Civilisation at last. We hadn’t travelled more than a few hundred metres when the guards removed my blindfold and undid the handcuffs. It was dark outside, but street lights gave enough light to see who was in there with me.
As we drove along the streets, we appeared to be heading in the direction of the airport. One of us speculated that we would be deported most likely.
We soon were disappointed as we arrived at another large building filled with police. We didn’t know where we were. We were led upstairs to wait in an empty corridor. Our handcuffs were now removed. After maybe four hours of sitting and talking amongst ourselves, we were lined up and led one by one into an office. He was a head prosecutor, but I didn’t know it at the time. On my turn, he just asked my name, filled some paper, then I was led out back to the hallway. Was this just a deportation formality?
No, this was the beginning of our investigation. The past four days hadn’t actually taken place. There is no torture in Egyptian police stations, or so the official line goes. Everyone who confesses to a crime does so voluntarily either in the police van (not coerced of course) or at the prosecutor’s desk where he is overcome with guilt. I used to laugh at a daily Egyptian newspaper’s section called “Red Handed” where every day they printed a story of a criminal who spontaneously confessed to his crime. They must have a lot of guilty consciences in Egypt.
Torture is so common and so well known about in Egypt. It is just outside of Egypt that we tend to be unaware of our favourite holiday host’s brutality. A popular Egyptian joke tells of how archaeologists discovered a new pharonic era statue, but had no information about who it was. A ministry of the Interior official offered to help find out. Two days later he returned saying that it is Ramses III. They asked amazed “how do you know?” to which the official replied “he confessed”.
Abdul Azim, the Japanese man, and the Tajeki were taken away and we never saw either again. The remaining four British were left in the corridor until we were each taken into separate offices to talk to the head prosecutors. I still did not know who I was talking to. For me it was just a continuation of what I had been through before, but without the blindfold. I strongly believed that I would be returned back to the torturers later that night. The interrogation started more-or-less where the other had left off, and I could see that the prosecutor was reading from the same pencilled notes that the torturer had made earlier.
In the room with me were a scribe, an interpreter and the prosecutor. He would ask me a question then the interpreter would ask me in English. I would answer then that would be relayed back to the prosecutor. He would then dictate an answer to the scribe who scribbled it down. To this day I don’t know exactly what my official “confession” said. I could tell that some of my answers were being horribly distorted and abbreviated, even with my limited Arabic. I have only heard a summarised version of what was presented to the court, which I hardly recognised.
I asked to see a lawyer and the British Consul before answering any questions, but I was told that they have been contacted and are not interested in coming to see you. It was made very clear to me that even though my blindfold was no longer on, my situation was no less dire than earlier that day. I could see the prosecutor reading from the same pencil written notes that the torturer had written during my earlier interrogation. He would frequently be on the phone or walk out of the room to confer with one of his colleagues during the night. He also had a book called “Hizb-ut-Tahrir” which he would refer to when asking questions and deciding what to write into my “confession”.
Occasionally he would stop the scribe to ask me off-the-record questions, such as “why do you want to see change in Egypt?” It was no less than taunting me to be asked what was wrong with what I had just been witness to. How can any person see such oppression and not want it to change?!!
When we had come to the end of the session that night, after about four hours of questioning, he gave me some food and a drink, then told me to sign the “confession” papers. Initially I refused, and he became visibly angry. Again I was reminded that I could easily be going back to the torture place that I had just come from. I reluctantly signed the papers. I considered putting a wrong signature on the paper, but I could see that he had my passport on his desk to check against. Later I heard how one of the other British captives had signed his “confession” with a signature that spelt out “lies” and “hurt” in them. He had gambled that they would be clear to any British person to read, but would go unnoticed by the Egyptians. He was right. I wished that I had thought of doing that as well, but I was too confused and tired by now.
After all was wrapped up for the evening, and he had his signature, he told me that he was a prosecutor and that this was an official investigation to establish whether any crime had been done. Until that moment I had not realised where I was and I suddenly regretted signing the paper, as now I realised that this could actually be used in court to incriminate me. His name was Muhammad Qandeel he told me. He used to travel to London for heart treatment in Magdi Ya’qub’s clinic. He said that he’d be going again soon, and would I like anything to be brought back? More taunting.
After the Prosecutor had left the room and there was only myself, the interpreter and the scribe in the room, the interpreter, who was by now visibly shaken, told me of his shock that I was being put through this ordeal. He looked scared, as he worked for the television company and was not used to dealing with State Security. He and the scribe both said that they could not see that I had done anything wrong based upon the questions being asked and my answers, and they felt that it was unjust that I even be there.
Then the four of us were taken in a van at dawn to the Tora prison complex. It was a large walled area with many guards, barracks, prisons and farm land in it. We drove about half a mile into the complex then stopped outside Mazra’a Tora prison. It would be our home for the next four years.
More videos of the state security complex in Nasr City
Yahya Abu Yousuf