El Nadeem Center against Violence and Torture

The use of forensic medical evidence in cases of torture: The Khaled Said case

Dr. Mostafa Hussein gave a speech at a conference titled Forensic Evidence in The Fight Against Torture at the American University Washington College of Law. The two day conference organised by the IRCT and American University was held on February 15-16, 2012 concludes a three-year project that aims at strengthening the use of forensic medical expertise for litigation in the fight against torture.

Dr. Mostafa worked at the Nadim centre for 3 years. He participated recently in training forensic doctors in Egypt’s medico-legal authority on the psychological consequences of torture.

Khaled Said case was presented in a session that discussed the importance of forensic reports in court cases.

In June 2010, an Alexandrian 28 years old man by the name of Khaled Said died minutes after two secret policemen approached him in an Internet cafe. They smashed his head on a marble shelf, took him outside and continued to beat him in front of everyone while he was crying for help. They smashed his head again against marble stairs at the entrance of a nearby building.

A photo taken by a camera phone following the autopsy was published on the Internet by his lawyers. Two blurry photographs of a bloody disfigured head created immense uproar within public opinion. Days later the story mobilised people to protest. These protests were met by more arrests and brutality.

The two secretes policemen claim that when Khaled saw them he swallowed a small wrap of hash which made him choke and die. They say they didn’t hit him and that he fell from the ambulance stretcher after he died which caused few bruises.

When the first forensic report was released it was quickly rejected by the family and lawyers. The public also didn’t consider it to be more than a work of fiction and fraud. It diagnosed Khaled’s death to be from asphyxia and confirmed the police story.

The Egyptian government decided to fully back the two policemen. They started a smear campaign in the media and the ministry of interior issued a threatening statement. Despite this public pressure didn’t cease and the prosecution following the family’s request, ordered a second autopsy. It was done at the graveside, in an hour or so the chief forensic examiner finished his work, without ordering any x-rays or lab tests. Few days later a single page report came out agreeing with the first report.

An extended emergency state of more than 30 years has granted security authorities unlimited powers regarding arrests and persecution of citizens, while enjoying impunity, partly granted by law.

Torture in Egypt was described by both local and international organisations as having acquired systematic dimensions, which amounts to state policy.

Torture has also been the only investigative tool for a poorly trained police force. Often random, usually poor people are brutalised not only activists or political opponents.

Article 126 of the criminal code which defines torture isn’t compatible with the international definition of torture and thus many cases are considered misuse of force.

Requests in parliament to change this article and sign and ratify the optional protocol were denied more than once during Mubarak’s reign.

Very few officers were sentenced in cases of torture and if this happens, only after immense public pressure that low ranking officers are scapegoatted and return to service after receiving light sentences.

Let’s take a look at the forensic reports issued, the following is from the first forensic report:

The section described by external observation under item (1) is traumatic resulting from collision with solid object or objects of whatever nature; those described under item (2) are frictional traumatic resulting from collision and friction with a rough surfaced body or bodies of whatever nature, similar to what occurs from falling to the ground; those described under item (3) nail abrasion – The above mentioned injuries are minor and are not related to causation of death.

We believe that the death is a result of aspiration asphyxia as a result of block of air passages by the packet that was found stuck in the area of the oropharynx, in accordance to the memo of the prosecution.

The second report, based on a second autopsy by the chief forensic examiner as I mentioned earlier said:

A repetition of the autopsy of the body showed the presence of injuries in accordance with what has been proved in the previous forensic report as a result of collision with a solid body or bodies of whatever nature. There is nothing to exclude the possibility that the injuries could be the result of beating during the attempt to control the victim. These injuries are generally minor and do not result and have not caused the death.

Also analysis of the bowels of the deceased we found the substance of Tramadol, listed in the narcotic schedule, as well as traces of Hashish metabolism. As for the attached pictures, they have been taken after the end of the autopsy, which is clearly obvious from the stitches specific for the autopsy in the face and neck of the deceased.

The reports have led the Nadim Centre to seek an evaluation by independent forensic experts. Local experts refused because of the high profile of the case and became highly political.

The Nadim centre contacted the IRCT which commissioned Dr. Duarte Nuno Viera and Dr. Jorgen Thomsen to provide expert evaluation. This is a summary of the key points:

  • First report did not comply with the minimum international standards for forensic autopsies.
  • Diagnosis of death by asphyxia is not sufficiently supported by the data provided, and most of the aspects described are non-specific and inconclusive on their own.
  • The photographs supplied are not clear, do not fulfil the minimum requirements for forensic photography.
  • The second report has the same weaknesses and deficiencies as the first, and is much beneath the minimum international standards acceptable for forensic autopsies.
  • Both reports describe that the subject was clearly subjected to physical aggression and it didn’t take into account that the secret policemen said otherwise or other witnesses who support that claim.
  • Both doctors expressed worry over the standard procedures adopted in both autopsies that seem to be common practice in the country. They don’t reach basic international standards.

Conclusion: “the deficiencies, inadequacies and incongruences in the reports of the two autopsies performed on the cadaver of Khaled Said clearly make it impossible to reach any firm conclusions about the circumstances surrounding his death and the cause of it.”

Suddenly, for the first time in its history the medico-legal authority, an institution that for over 50 years have had the same professional tools and legislation, became under intense accusations of being complicit with the regime.

This didn’t help when the chief forensic doctor admitted, with pride following the revolution, on TV that he was chosen by the State Security. He was sacked days later.

This case is still a very sensitive issue for the authority and almost all doctors refuse any accusations that the reports were written in favour of the police but concede they were not up to standards.

There is genuine interest with the institution today to improve their standards of documentation of cases of torture. However, with current transitional military rule that is far more brutal. I am not sure this interest will continue.

The court gave the 2 policemen last year a 7 year sentence for unlawful detention, use of force and bodily torture and abuse of their law enforcement powers.

Unfortunately, the court dismissed reports by 3 local universities, local independent experts. The court in Egypt considers itself the supreme expert in a case and thus can chose the reports that it sees fit.

Although this sounds like a disappointing end to Khaled’s story. Khaled is considered ‘Egypt’s Martyr’ by people. His case was the catalyst for people to rise and overthrow Mubarak and thousands of Egyptians are willing to fight for their dignity and human rights.

The prosecution ordered a retrial from the court of cassation and we still don’t know if there will be one.

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