By Nicholas Piachaud, North Africa Team
I can still remember the shock when I first saw the pictures. The young man’s face was barely recognizable from his beating at the hands of the security forces, and from an autopsy that, we would later learn from forensic experts, had been rushed and botched.
I cannot imagine what Khaled Mohammed Said’s family must have felt when they saw the body.
I know that, today, one year after his death, they are still waiting for justice.
On 6 June 2010, Khaled Said, 28, was beaten by two plain-clothes police officers in an internet café in Egypt’s second city, Alexandria. He was then dragged out into the street where, eyewitnesses say, the beating continued until he died.
Pictures of his body, taken by his family in a morgue, caused public outrage that paved the way for the January 2011 uprising.
One person who worked closely on the case for Amnesty International is Egyptian activist Sally El-Bayoumi. She returned to Egypt shortly before the uprising, where she now works for the Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies, a leading human rights organization. She has continued to monitor the case for Amnesty International, and has observed the ongoing trial of the two men accused of beating Khaled Said to death.
Speaking to me today, she told me of her first feelings when she saw the pictures of Khaled Said’s body:
“I saw the images at six in the morning before going to work – I went into this frantic state because I imagined [it could have been] my brother, someone I loved… it felt like I knew him.”
Khaled Said quickly became a symbol for every victim of the security forces’ brutality. His tortured body became what might happen to your friends if they fell foul of the security forces. He became what might happen to your family. He became what might happen to you.The ensuing campaign for justice, coordinated through Facebook, was known as ‘We are all Khaled Said’.
“Suddenly it’s personal,” Sally tells me, “…to see young Egyptians never active before taking part in coordinated actions was heart-grasping.”
Khaled Said’s death challenged the impunity of the security forces in a way that had never been done before. Publishing the pictures of his body on the Internet bypassed traditional news media, reluctant to publish graphic images, and brought home the full horror of torture to a new generation of Egyptians.
Young Egyptians then used social media such as Facebook and Twitter to spread the message, and to coordinate protests in Cairo and Alexandria calling for an end to torture and impunity.
Overnight, a new generation of activists had been born.
Sally told me of her respect for Khaled Said’s family’s courage and dignity in continuing to demand justice:
“They’re real heroes, despite the pressure and the smearing and the pain.” Following the publication of the photos, the family came under immense pressure to stop pursuing the case. The Egyptian authorities reported that Khaled Said’s death was unconnected to the security forces’ actions. They said he had choked on a bag of drugs. The Egyptian Interior Ministry went so far as to condemn the posting of the pictures of Khaled Said’s body as an attempt to tarnish the image of the Egyptian security forces.
The two officers thought to be responsible for his death were finally put on trial, but public anger at the way the case had been handled only grew. For many Egyptians Khaled Said became “the martyr of the state of emergency” – the victim of a repressive system that never held security forces to account for abuses. One session of the trial, held in September 2010, descended into farce when police supporters stood outside the court, brandishing wooden sticks and chanting insults about Khaled Said and his family.
The first seeds of what would become the ‘25 January Revolution’ were sown in Alexandria on 6 June 2010. Facebook pages set up to express anger at Khaled Said’s death would later be used to coordinate a ‘Day of Rage’ on the streets of Cairo on Police Day, 25 January 2011.
One of the coordinators of the Facebook group, Wael Ghoneim, himself became a target for the security forces when he was arrested on 28 January 2011 during protests in Cairo. His emotional, televised speech upon his release from secret detention made him a figurehead for the protesters, as Khaled Said had become a symbol.
Despite the uprising, however, the trial for those accused of killing Khaled Said is still ongoing. The next court session is set for 30 June. Sally told me of the frustruations shared by many Egyptians with the long struggle for justice for Khaled Said, and for all the victims of the security forces:
“One year later… a revolution happened but this is not justice for Khaled or victims of torture – we are still waiting to deal with this issue seriously. The killers have still not been sentenced. The trial is limited to the two men [accused of beating him to death], but not to those who conspired with them to hide the crime; who manipulated the public; who coordinated the intimidation of the family. There is still no serious or announced investigation into systematic torture in Egypt and there are no genuine steps that have been taken to end this situation.”
As we finished talking, Sally told me that Khaled Said’s tragic death had not been in vain, and that it had finally united Egyptians behind the desire for reform:
“Today there’s a strong political will for real security reform,” she said. “I believe that a public, internal investigation should be announced into all the problems that led to mass human rights violations, to learn how the police could learn to be a protector and not a violator of human rights.