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Roundups in Egypt: Legal aid workers describe their detention, interrogation

By Leila Fadel
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, February 6, 2011; 7:48 PM

CAIRO - Police officers, men in plain clothes and soldiers with guns entered the Hisham Mubarak Law Center for Human Rights in downtown Cairo last week and detained about 30 people, part of an ongoing sweep by the military against foreign observers, human rights activists and journalists.

Some of those picked up at the center, including nine women, were detained only briefly, and there were few reports of abuse. The detentions appear part of a continuing effort to scare demonstrators into dispersing. But while the military has called for people to go home, tens of thousands still gathered Sunday in Tahrir Square in downtown Cairo demanding President Hosni Mubarak's immediate resignation.

At least 75 people have been detained since the sweeps began Thursday, according to Human Rights Watch, including one who works for the organization.

On Sunday, the Cairo bureau chief for al-Jazeera English, Ayman Mohyeldin, a U.S. citizen, was detained. He was held in Tahrir Square in a makeshift holding cell.

Mohyeldin, who was released Sunday night, said he was blindfolded and his hands were bound for five hours. When the blindfold was removed, he said, he saw other detainees being punched, kicked and slapped by soldiers. He was also interrogated before a military officer arrived and ordered his release.

The men who work at the legal aid center, whose lawyers have been providing legal assistance to anti-government demonstrators, said they were held for two nights and three days in the military intelligence headquarters.

In interviews Sunday, they said they heard gunfire Thursday morning outside the office. Moments later, soldiers and policemen stormed the office, taking laptops and computer hard drives. A soldier jumped on a chair and directed the search, the men said. Lawyers and volunteers at the center were rounded up, their hands bound with plastic bands.

The detained men and women were taken to the building's lobby and ordered to sit. Outside, men gathered to watch. One policeman told the crowd that members of the group were responsible for the deaths of policemen during the recent protests, recalled Mustapha Hassan Taha, 47, a lawyer at the center. More men that Taha called thugs gathered and angrily yelled at them.

Those taken from the center were then lined up and forced to walk to two buses as men outside slapped them in the face.

From there they were taken to the military intelligence headquarters in an eastern suburb of Cairo. One man who refused to give his name was beaten, Taha said. The rest were blindfolded.

In windowless rooms, they were interrogated about the center's funding and its role in the demonstrations. They were asked if they had foreign backers and when the demonstrators would stop. They said they were encouraged to make the demonstrators leave Tahrir Square.

At night, they said, they were left outside, blindfolded. Around them, they heard cries of pain from people being brutally questioned. Some of it seemed orchestrated to scare them, they said.

"It was a game of nerves," Taha said.

The founder of the center, Ahmed Seif Al-Islam, 60, who was also detained, nodded in agreement.

The next day they were questioned again, but this time the tone was less aggressive.

Inside the interrogation room the blindfold was removed and the conversations were friendly, the center's employees said. On their second night in detention, they were given food and blankets, one for every three people.

By Saturday they were released.

Seif went home, showered and went to Tahrir Square. What he called the scare tactics of those who rounded him up had not worked on him.

"I wanted to send a message that we will not stop," he said.

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