Sunday, June 8, 2008

Police & Torture – A Trip to Alexandria (Pt 2)

By Stephen Dockery

Saturday was going to be a day off to write our story (Sarah Wali and myself) on the Egyptian police force. That was until we were invited to a government program on torture and the police force by a contact in the Ministry of the Interior.

The program was at the police head quarters in Alexandria. Which, according to my partner Sarah, is a trip that can be made from Cairo in an hour and a half. Our driver though, a professional soft-spoken man who had an uncanny resemblance to Gamal Abdel Nasser, insisted on driving a leisurely 100km/hr. It ended up taking three hours to arrive in Alexandria, although the slow speed and long hours amounted to some interesting discussion.

After getting to Alexandria, our driver had to ask four to five people before we could find the police headquarters. We were ‘welcomed’ by a man with an earpiece and a suit as well as several soldiers with automatic weapons, and made it past the front gate with a quick phone call to the Ministry

Arriving at the front door and unloading our equipment, we walked right into the building. I didn’t realize it until later, but there actually was no security check point to enter the luxurious police headquarters. Apparently, not many non-government people ever make it past the front gate.

Sarah and I stood apprehensively as we were told to wait on the second floor. Another well-dressed man joked that the word ‘journalist’ is like a swear word in the building. I smiled anxiously. After a few moments, we were ‘greeted’ by an official from the ministry. He didn’t look happy to see us.

A minute later, we were escorted into a large conference room filled with several hundred police officers and members of the ministry of interior. The officers included members of the regular police the special police and some other police forces that I didn’t recognize.

We were taken to a waiting room before the next speech. Several reporters from the local government papers sat around trays of cake and pastries. Everyone spoke Arabic, and I was definitely the only Caucasian person in the room, if not the building. A turtle swam frantically around in a fish tank, an unusual luxury in Egypt. Sarah thought the turtle was looking for a way out.

Sarah and I set up our cameras in the conference room, and began recording and taking notes. Part of the way into the meeting, we were asked to stop shooting, immediately. Maybe they had decided they actually didn’t want us to film a government meeting, although we had received clearance before. Or maybe they didn’t want us to record a former president from Alexandria University speaking at a torture seminar and only talking about international relations. At one point he essentially said to the officers, don’t worry about all these other nations, keep doing what you are doing.

When the former president was finished, we were escorted into the head of police’s office. They served us orange soda, and took our passports to make copies. Sarah left the room at one point to get her passport. All three officers in the room were speaking in Arabic on their headsets, I smiled and stared at the turtle.

Maybe we had something, a lecture to the police, supposedly to address issues of torture in Egypt, that ended up reinforcing whatever torture culture already exists. Maybe not, maybe this is a drop of water in a lake full of self-serving lectures. I still need more context.

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