Protesters likened the alleged incident to the abuses, including corruption and the widespread use of torture, that pushed Egyptians to revolt this winter against President Hosni Mubarak.
Comparisons were drawn between Atta and Khaled Said, a young man who was beaten to death by police in the port city of Alexandria last year. Pictures of Said’s bloodied body were posted online and became a driving force behind the uprising. Now a picture of Atta’s corpse is circulating on social networking sites, and activists are calling for an investigation.
Aida Saif al-Dawla of the El-Nadim Center for the Rehabilitation of Victims of Violence declared Atta “the second Khalid Said” after briefly seeing his bloodied body at the Cairo morgue.
She said she worried that a proper autopsy would not be carried out and that authorities would try to cover up the causes of Atta’s death, as they did with Said’s.
Dawla said rights activists and the public would watch the case. “No one will be silent,” she said.
Atta was arrested in February, convicted of “thuggery” and sentenced to two years in prison by a military court. He had been charged with drug dealing in 2004 and carrying an unlicensed weapon in 2010, according to an Interior Ministry statement Friday.
The statement attributed Atta’s death to “unknown poisoning” and said prison guards tried to save him.
Egyptian activists have been campaigning to stop the hasty military proceedings in which Atta and more than 10,000 others have been arrested and convicted since the ouster of Mubarak in February. The ruling military council also has expanded the country’s hated emergency law, whose removal was a key demand of the revolutionaries.
“I am convinced a lot more similar cases exist,” said Mona Seif of the group No to Military Trials for Civilians. “Such attempts to cover up the truth make me certain of it.”
Outside the morgue Friday, a few dozen people, including Atta’s family, called for an end to the military’s rule. The council still has broad public support, but sentiment against it has grown since the military used deadly force against Coptic protesters on Oct. 9, killing at least 25 people.
The military has denied shooting and running over protesters in that incident, despite witness accounts and video footage of soldiers’ involvement.
As the sun set, Atta’s coffin was hoisted on the shoulders of young men, who carried it to Tahrir Square, the heart of Egypt’s uprising.
“Either we get our rights or we die,” they chanted.
Hassieb is a special correspondent.