An Egyptian court sentenced two police officers Monday to three years in prison for torturing a detainee. The police had videotaped the attack in order to further humiliate the victim, but that recording ended up being used against them. Although human-rights activists say torture by Egyptian security services is widespread, it is very unusual for officers to be convicted of abuses. As VOA Correspondent Challiss McDonough reports from Cairo, some human-rights campaigners see little evidence that this case indicates a major change.
The judge sentenced Islam Nabih and Reda Fatih to three years in prison each for their sexual assault on a detainee, an attack captured on a grainy cellphone video recording that horrified the nation.
The videotape - recorded by the policemen - showed Emad el-Kabir screaming for mercy as police officers sodomized him with a wooden stick.
The gruesome video was leaked to Egyptian-activist bloggers, who posted it on the Internet. It created a huge controversy, and made strong evidence in court when two of the officers eventually faced trial.
Human-rights groups have been documenting torture in Egyptian prisons and police stations for decades. But the government denies that torture is systematic.
It is rare for officers accused of abuses to face trial, let alone be convicted. And it is not clear that the convictions of Nabih and Fatih point to things changing.
In this case, Human Rights Watch Middle East advocate Gasser Abdel-Razek says the judge issued the lightest sentence that the law allowed, citing the officers' youth and inexperience.
"Despite the fact of how high-profile that case was, the judge chose the lowest possible sentence, and this in itself is worrying," Abdel-Razek said.
Abdel-Razek says the Emad el-Kabir case was one of the strongest on record, with video evidence and a victim who was willing to risk stigma and possible retaliation in order to speak publicly about his case.
After the assault became public, Kabir was sentenced to three months in jail for resisting arrest.
Few torture victims in Egypt are willing to press charges at all, let alone do so as publicly as Kabir - especially when a sexual assault is involved. And human-rights advocates say ending torture in Egypt will require systemic changes.
The group Amnesty International said the convictions of Nabih and Fatih are a welcome and positive step, but need to be followed up by thorough investigations into other allegations of police torture, and by holding those responsible to account.
Other well-documented cases of torture by security services have either gone un-prosecuted or have been thrown out of court. That happened as recently as September, when a judge rejected a case against a State Security officer in connection to the death of a prisoner, whose body showed signs that he had been severely beaten and electrocuted. The case was thrown out despite detailed evidence, including autopsy findings and photos of extensive bruising and burns to his mouth, chest and genitals.
Kabir's lawyer, Nasser Amin, says he hopes the conviction and sentencing will encourage other victims to come forward and press charges, putting pressure on the government to make the needed changes.
But Abdel-Razek of Human Rights Watch is not so sure.
"I think it would be very wrong to assume that the sentencing of a police officer and police assistant in that case is an indication of a change in policy," Abdel-Razek said. "The fact is if there is an intention, or there is political will to deal with the issue of torture in Egypt, very simple steps can be taken."
Abdel-Razek says for the past 20 years human-rights activists have been calling for a revision of the definition of torture in the Egyptian penal code.
"And they do not do it because, in the words of the U.N. Special Rapporteur on Torture, torture in Egypt is a state policy," Abdel-Razek said. "It is systematic, it is organized, and it is done with the approval of the government. If they want to say that this is not a policy, they need to change the definition of the crime of torture in the penal code."
Each year, the U.N. Special Rapporteur on Torture requests an invitation to visit Egypt, but for years that request has gone unanswered.
Other human-rights activists say the Egyptian legal system relies too heavily on obtaining confessions to solve crimes, rather than on accumulating other evidence against an accused. This, the activists say, encourages officers to beat confessions out of suspects, and points to a need for better training of police officers, prosecutors and judges.