CAIRO — Thousands of Egyptians chanting "Down with Hosni Mubarak" demonstrated against their country's president Friday in Alexandria, demanding an investigation into the fatal beating of a young Egyptian businessman, allegedly at the hands of plainclothes police.
Joined by Nobel Peace Prize winner Mohamed ElBaradei, a possible contender in next year's presidential elections, demonstrators carried a picture of businessman Khaled Said and raised the Egyptian flag as they gathered outside the Sidi Gaber mosque in Alexandria. Said died June 6.
Witnesses said Said was at an Internet cafe in Alexandria when two plainclothes policemen entered, tied his arms behind his back and roughed him up, including smashing his head against a marble slab, according to published interviews with the cafe owner, Hassan Mosbah.
Said then was dragged outside and shoved into a neighboring building. His assailants continued to beat him, ramming his head against an iron gate, steps on a staircase and the walls of the building, according to a report released by the Egyptian Organization for Human Rights, an independent advocacy group that reconstructed the events through interviews with witnesses.
By the time his attackers were finished with him, Said's teeth were broken, his jaw was dislocated and blood seeped from his lifeless body.
The Egyptian government, at first dismissive of the case, is still investigating. Prosecutors have asked to question the two policemen who arrested Said to determine how he sustained the injuries that are visible in his autopsy photos, according to the state-run newspaper Al Ahram.
His relatives say the police targeted him because he'd circulated a video that allegedly showed a group of police officials sharing a haul of drugs they'd seized. The Interior Ministry denied these reports and claimed that Said choked to death on a package of marijuana that he tried to swallow as the police chased him.
Said's supporters have dismissed the government's explanation of a drug bust that resulted in an accidental death, saying the photographs of Said's bloodied corpse tell the real story.
Human Rights Watch urged the Egyptian government on Thursday to conduct a thorough investigation into the matter and penalize Said's assailants.
"Witness accounts and the photographs of Khaled Said's mangled face constitute strong evidence that plainclothes security officers beat him in a vicious and public manner," Joe Stork, the deputy Middle East and North Africa director at Human Rights Watch, said in a statement. "All those involved should be speedily interrogated, and the prosecutor should fully investigate what caused the fractures and trauma clearly evident on his body."
Said, who worked in the import/export business, came from a well-to-do family, many of whose members are Americans. He was in the process of applying for U.S. citizenship, his brother Ahmed told journalists.
The results of two autopsies conducted by the government supported the ministry's claim. No independent autopsy has been conducted.
Stories of police brutality aren't unusual in Egypt, one of the United States' closest Arab allies, but photos of Said's corpse were disseminated via Facebook and Twitter, instantly galvanizing Egypt's browbeaten reform movement.
"Horrible reign of terror continues in Egypt. Criminals must be brought to justice immediately. Khaled's life must not be lost in vain," ElBaradei wrote on his Twitter page.
Much like the photos of Neda Soltan, the woman who was shot dead in the unrest that followed Iran's disputed elections last year and became an emblem for the anti-government political movement, the image of Said's battered face has appeared on Web pages, banners and picket signs by Egyptian opposition groups, who say that decades of emergency laws have created a climate for police brutality.
The controversial emergency decree, which was renewed last month, has kept the Arab world's most populous nation under martial law for nearly three decades, allowing authorities to conduct arbitrary arrests, hold prisoners indefinitely without trial and prosecute civilians in military courts.
While the government argues that the decree is applied only to counter-terrorism and drug trafficking, critics of the law charge that it's merely legal cover to stifle dissent against President Mubarak, 82, the staunch U.S. ally who's ruled Egypt since his predecessor, Anwar Sadat, was assassinated in 1981.
Protesters spoke out against the emergency law at the demonstrations that erupted in several cities after Said's death; some of the gatherings turned into fierce clashes with riot police. Egyptian expatriate communities as far away as the United States and Britain also demonstrated against Mubarak's regime.
"These are the actions that occur by the Egyptian police under the emergency law, which proves it is not applied to 'emergency' cases or drug trafficking, but to discipline citizens whenever the regime sees fit," said Magda Adly, the head of the Nadeem Center for Rehabilitation of Victims of Violence, a local victim-advocacy group that documents allegations of human rights violations related to the emergency law.
(Naggar is a McClatchy special correspondent.)
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