Search for justice begins in Egypt

CAIRO—With the tyrant dethroned, the search for justice begins.

The morning after Hosni Mubarak was toppled, Galal Faisal walked into the attorney general’s office and filed a complaint about the killing of his brother, Nasser.

He named the only two police officers he says could have fired the bullet that lodged in the 18-year-old’s brain, causing a slow and painful death.  “I want to see justice for my brother,” Faisal said Saturday. “In the new Egypt, there must be justice.”

In Cairo’s downtown Tahrir Square, Egyptians continued to celebrate Mubarak’s overthrow by an unprecedented popular uprising that lasted 18 days. And they launched a massive cleanup of the square that was the revolution’s ground zero.  Brigades of young people with brooms held high marched to attack piles of rocks and garbage while chanting, “Hold your heads high, Egyptians, hold your heads high.”

No one doubted the massive cleanup was symbolic. They were sweeping away the rubbish of an authoritarian regime that ruled by fear and abuse for three decades. Democracy requires a clean slate.  Heated debates broke out between those who want to vacate the square, which protesters have occupied for days, and those determined to stay put. One side says it’s time to put Egypt’s battered economy back to work, the other doesn’t trust the aging generals in power to implement democracy.

All vowed to remain vigilant, none more so that the families of the 300 people killed during the uprising by Egypt’s hated security forces.   They’re considered martyrs of the revolution and Tahrir Square is dotted with shrines to their memory, including a massive stone slab lowered by crane on Saturday. For many, whether their killers — or those who sent them — are prosecuted will be a crucial test of the revolution’s success.

In interviews with families of victims, the Star discovered concerted efforts by medical bureaucrats to stifle evidence of death at the hands of security forces. Autopsy requests were refused, attempts were made to obscure the cause of death and some families were asked to sign away their right to file complaints against security forces in return for their loved one’s body.

Yasser Hijazi, a doctor at Kasr al Ainy hospital near Tahrir Square, said he witnessed the evasive practices in the case of a 13-year-old boy, whose death certificate made no mention that he died of a gunshot wound during the protests.  “It’s a new policy ordered by the head of the hospital — don’t give the relatives of the dead the true story,” Hijazi says bluntly.

Bassem Basiony confronted it when his search for his brother’s body took him to 15 hospitals and a morgue. His brother, Ahmed, was a 32-year-old artist and musician. He was killed Jan. 28, during a violent day of clashes between protesters and riot police.

Eyewitnesses told his family that Ahmed saw a friend killed by a rooftop sniper. He turned to get a close-up of the sniper with his video camera when he was felled by rubber bullets, and then run over by a vehicle apparently driven by police.  Basiony, 25, found his brother’s body after a five-day search of hospitals. He says his face had the impact marks of what he describes as four rubber bullets.

The family wanted the body for burial. The official at the morgue near the Giza pyramids said a document would first have to be signed stating “his death was not caused by beatings or bullets,” Basiony says. The family refused.

Ahmed’s body was transferred to another morgue, called Zinhom, where the family demanded an autopsy. Officials refused, saying the attorney general had put a halt to them, Basiony says. When the family insisted, they were told there were no doctors to perform it.

They eventually received what Basiony calls a preliminary report stating Ahmed died of crushed internal organs, injuries that “occurred during the looting,” Basiony says. The family got the sentence deleted, arguing it suggested Ahmed may have died while looting.  The family’s persistence resulted in a full autopsy being conducted. They’re waiting for results.

“I consider my son a hero, a martyr of the revolution,” says Ahmed’s father, Basiony Ibrahim, 68, fighting back tears inside a traditional mourning tent, where people offered their condolences earlier this week.  “God will avenge his death in heaven. On Earth, I want justice,” he says.

In the poor neighbourhood of Imbaba, Gamal Shaban, 23, has a rubber pellet lodged in his right eye. He says he was watching police clash with protesters when he was overcome by tear gas. He raised his head, once he stopped choking, and says he saw a police officer fire the pellet.

He has a medical report from the Kasr al Ainy hospital. It says he has “a foreign object in his eye.” Below that diagnosis, a hospital administrator has written by hand, “This report can not be used with, or submitted to, the attorney general, the courts or the police.”  In the same neighbourhood, on Jan. 29, Nasser Faisal got a bullet in his head.

Nasser worked driving a tuk-tuk, a three-wheeled taxi, earning about $3.50 a day. He used it to help support an extended family of eight people living in an apartment with two small bedrooms, a kitchen and a living room smaller than a prison cell.  The day he was shot, he was walking home from the grocery store with his brother Mohammed, 20, carrying a bag of falafels, milk, and a container of mashed fava beans.

Police had been clashing nearby with protesters who wanted to walk to Tahrir Square. Mohammed says he saw two neighbourhood police officers suddenly start shooting randomly on their street. Nasser fell to the ground.

Mohammed and friends carried Nasser, who was still alive, to a nearby ambulance. But it was being used as a paddy wagon by police. Then they were overcome by tear gas, and dropped the wounded teenager.

With their help, Nasser was able to struggle to his feet. They walked him to the neighbourhood hospital, where doctors said they didn’t have the means to treat him.

So they put him on a motorcycle and drove him to another hospital. Administrators there wouldn’t admit him either. So they took him home, helped him up four flights of stairs, and put him on a small red couch. His left eye was out of its socket. (The Star has seen the disturbing picture of Nasser’s face.)  “When I saw him I became hysterical,” says Nasser’s mother, Bakita Eid, 51.

A third hospital bandaged his eye and transferred him to Kasr Al Ainy hospital. By then, four hours had past since Nasser had been shot. He was admitted, fell into a coma for four days and died.  The family requested an autopsy but hospital administrators told them they were too busy. Galal Faisal says the hospital also refused to provide a medical report that said Nasser died of a bullet to the brain — even though Faisal says a doctor had told him that was the cause of death.

Muslim tradition requires burial as soon as possible. When Faisal asked for Nasser’s body, he says a health department official told him he would have to sign a document waiving his right to file a complaint about the death with the attorney general.  Faisal initially refused, but begged by his mother to bury Nasser, eventually relented.

“I felt I had to do it. It was my brother and he needed to be buried. It was very, very difficult,” said Faisal, 32, who works laying floor tiles.  When the Star first met Faisal, Mubarak was clinging to power. Faisal was convinced the police officers would not be investigated for his brother’s death.

Then Mubarak fell, and despite the waiver Faisal signed, he went to the attorney general’s office. He says they promised to investigate and asked him to return in two days to confirm that the process had started

“Now is the time for justice,” Faisal says.

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