Ahmed Agiza is no stranger to the brutality of the Egyptian justice system. The 49-year-old Egyptian Islamist was first detained in 1981 during the wave of arrests following Anwar Sadat’s assassination. Throughout the 1990s, he was routinely detained during the Mubarak regime’s dirty war against Islamist militants, though he was only formally convicted of a crime – plotting to overthrow the government – in abstentia in 1998.
In 1999 Agiza moved to Sweden with his wife and six children, seeking asylum. For two years, he was safe from harassment by the authorities – until the United States’ so-called war on terror began after the attacks of 11 September 2001. Just two weeks after the deadly attacks in the US, Agiza was kidnapped as part of Washington’s illegal extraordinary rendition program, allegedly at the request of the CIA, and sent back to his home country.
For more than 10 years he bounced between Egyptian prisons, suffering torture and abuse. Last month he was finally freed. "Thanks to the Egyptian revolution, otherwise I would have never been released," Agiza says.
Al-Masry Al-Youm recently sat with Agiza to discuss his story and his thoughts on Egypt’s future.
Al-Masry Al-Youm: In 1998 you were tried in absentia before a military tribunal for alleged membership in a banned organization to overthrow the government. You were convicted and sentenced without the possibility of appeal. Is that true?
Ahmed Agiza: Yes, although none of those accusations are true. What happened is that in 1997 I launched a website that listed a number of prominent characters of the regime – where [Hosni] Mubarak was on top of this list – explaining their crimes against humanity, and saying they should be put to trial under international law. The website was very provocative for the regime, especially as I directly accused Mubarak of genocide and other crimes against humanity at a time when he was warmly welcomed around the world.
Al-Masry: When and how were you expelled from Sweden?
Agiza: In December 2001, I was still awaiting a decision on my asylum claims after staying in Sweden a year and a half, when I was kidnapped by the Swedish security police and handed to the CIA for transfer from Stockholm to Cairo.
Al-Masry: Why was the CIA involved in expelling you although it was an Egyptian cause?
Agiza: Egypt took advantage of the 11 September events to help the US with suspects' interrogations so the US would help Egypt find its opponents. They told America that I was the mastermind who appointed [9/11 hijacker] Mohamed Atta, although I don’t know Mohamed Atta. I have nothing to do with either the case or Al-Qaeda. I watched the events of 11 September on TV like everyone else.
Al-Masry: Extraordinary rendition violates the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. How did Sweden hand you over to a place where torture of terrorist suspects is commonplace, knowing that returning you could put you at risk of torture, which is illegal under international law?
Agiza: Sweden violated international law by handing me over and they admitted that later on. However, before the Swedish government handed me in, there was an agreement between the Swedish foreign minister and the head of [Egypt's] General Intelligence Directorate, Omar Suleiman. The agreement stated that I would be re-tried fairly, and would not be tortured or subjected to the death penalty, which I knew nothing about until almost a month later when the Swedish ambassador asked to see me.
Al-Masry: What happened during the interrogations?
Agiza: During all interrogations I was blindfolded, except when General Ahmed Mokhtar, who used to work for the president, told me, “Mubarak is very disappointed by what you said about him.”
When I first arrived in Egypt, I was told that whoever insults the president deserves to be executed three times, so I replied, “Nobody dies except once.” They answered, “Then we will give you three life sentences, one with us, and then we will bequeath you to our children.”
One of the officers used to bring his 15-year-old son with him to prison to play with the dogs and the prisoners and show them their inheritance.
I was expelled suddenly from Sweden without either my family or my lawyer being informed. My wife, Hanan Attia, had to contact Amnesty International and tell them that my life was in danger so that they could pressure the Egyptian government to announce my arrival in Egypt at least.
Al-Masry: Did Sweden follow up on your case to ensure that Egypt abided by the agreement?
Agiza: A month after I arrived in Egypt, the Swedish ambassador wanted to see me, so the State Security Investigations Service got me out from the middle of interrogations in the State Security headquarters in Nasr City. It was like a massacre! And then transferred me to Tora Prison after exchanging my dirty clothes with new clean ones. There were apples and bananas in the cell, which was very weird.
They arranged for my parents to come visit me in Tora with the Swedish ambassador. Then told the ambassador, referring to me, “He is doing fine as you can see. What do you want now?”
Al-Masry: Weren't there any signs of torture on you when the Swedish ambassador came to see you?
Agiza: Of course I was messed up as a result of torture and it was pretty obvious, so the Swedish ambassador told me at that moment that they had violated the agreement by torturing me, and that was the first time I knew that there was actually an agreement.
Al-Masry: What techniques did they use to torture you?
Agiza: They used all the techniques of torture that anyone can imagine. I cannot speak of them now.
Al-Masry: Are you currently suffering of any health problems as a result of 10 years of torture?
Agiza: Of course! I now have a problem with my vertebral column and leg muscle atrophy. I cannot stand or sit for a long time. I have a problem with sensation, starting from my waist down to my feet, I have a problem with breathing as my nose was broken and healed badlly. My blood pressure is not stable, I have got diabetes, ulcers and problems with sleeping. I need years of treatment to become normal again.
Al-Masry: Did you spend 10 years in Tora Prison?
Agiza: I stayed a year in State Security in Nasr City, I was transferred to Tora Prison only for the ambassador’s visits, then transferred back to State Security. After that, I stayed in Tora for two years. I was then transferred to the Scorpion prison, known to be Egypt’s own version of Guantanamo.
On 10 April 2004 Agiza was re-tried in a military court in Egypt on charges of joining and leading an illegal group or organization and criminal conspiracy. Later that month, after a trial that he believes was unfair, he was convicted and again sentenced to 25 years’ imprisonment without the possibility of appeal. The court refused to investigate Agiza’s complaint that he had been tortured, or to order a medical examination, as requested by his lawyer during the trial. His sentence was reduced to 15 years’ imprisonment in June 2004, according to Amnesty International.
Al-Masry: Were there any attempts to release you?
Agiza: In January 2006, Ahmed Abul Maged, deputy head of the Egyptian Council for Human Rights (ECHR), came to me in prison and told me that they wanted to save the government’s reputation and release me because of my bad health. He asked me to consider him my lawyer and that he would manage getting me out. But I refused because that would mean the charges wouldn’t be dropped. I had a much easier request than that: I told him to just give me a fair civilian trial and I was ready to accept any court’s verdict. But he refused.
ECHR used to serve the government and that is still the situation. If the regime had really changed then all political prisoners who had charges that concerned the past regime should have been released, like what happened in the 1952 revolution – all criminal charges that concerned King Farouk were dropped against all political prisoners.
Al-Masry: Are there any political prisoners in jail today?
Agiza: Until this moment there are still 26 political prisoners who haven’t finished half their sentences, and 13 others were given death sentences but haven’t been executed. They are still moving with the usual routine. How is that a revolution?
Al-Masry: You spent six months in prison after the revolution. Do you think State Security and prison conditions have changed after 25 January?
Agiza: The State Security approach and structure is still as it was. Nothing has changed but the name. The officers are still the same; only some were reshuffled. From the lowest to the highest officers, the ranks are still the same. The officer responsible for religious activities is still in his position.
Al-Masry: What about the officers involved in torturing you. Are they still in their positions?
Agiza: All the officers implicated in torturing me are still here, although they aren’t torturing us as before the revolution. But they explicitly say that this is just a temporary year or two until they regain power and control the country again.
The philosophy and policies of the State Security are still the same. That’s why if revolutionaries aren’t aware enough of what’s going on, a setback will happen. The State Security officers took pictures of all the people in Tahrir Square and promised to catch them once they are back in control for revenge. They feel that they were fooled by the revolutionary youth and that they fought an unfair battle.
Al-Masry: What do you think of the current situation? Are you optimistic?
Agiza: I was very optimistic when I was in prison. I am worried now though, because political forces are struggling for spoils, yet the system is still powerful.
On 3 March the military police arrested people and took them to Scorpion prison. They squeezed from seven to 10 prisoners in one cell. The cell is two meters length and 175cm wide, including a tub and a toilet seat, intended for no more than one prisoner … very harsh, not suitable for humans. The idea of oppression dominated the mentality of the police, which they have transferred to the army, and they are actually dealing with people with same approach.
The Egyptian system was very strong and still hasn’t changed.