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Egyptian man's death became symbol of callous state

By Ernesto Londono
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, February 8, 2011; 11:04 PM

ALEXANDRIA, EGYPT - Had it not been for a leaked morgue photo of his mangled corpse, tenacious relatives and the power of Facebook, the death of Khaled Said would have become a footnote in the annals of Egyptian police brutality.

Instead, outrage over the beating death of the 28-year-old man in this coastal city last summer, and attempts by local authorities to cover it up, helped spark the mass protests demanding the ouster of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak.

The story of Said's death is in many ways the story of today's Egypt, where an authoritarian regime is being roiled by a groundswell of popular anger. Fear and resentment of the police has been a prominent theme, and when Google executive Wael Ghonim created a Facebook page titled "We are all Khaled Said," the grisly morgue photo went viral and the public had a rallying point.

"Every family in Egypt has seen something like this happen to a member," Ali Kassem, Said's uncle, said Tuesday. "I will feel like I have attained justice only if the regime falls and a new government is formed."

Said's first brush with the detectives accused of killing him came about a month before he was bludgeoned to death in early June, according to Kassem, who provided the following account.

Police officers at an Internet cafe below his apartment were exchanging a video that showed officers divvying up seized narcotics and cash. Relatives think the clip was delivered via Bluetooth to Said's computer by accident. The young man shared it with friends, who forwarded it to others.

Two of the detectives implicated in the video approached Said outside his building, in the Sidi Gaber district of Alexandria, about noon June 6. One grabbed him by the shoulder and hauled him inside the Internet cafe.

The officers smashed Said's head against a marble table repeatedly, until the owner of the shop asked them to take it outside. They then dragged Said inside a nearby building where the two kicked him and smashed his head against stone steps, witnesses later told relatives.

The next day, Said's mother was notified that her son was at the morgue. The cause of death, she was told, was severe cardiovascular asphyxiation caused by a high level of drugs in his system. The initial police report received by the family said Said had apparently died after he swallowed a bag that contained marijuana.

Finding that account suspicious, relatives bribed a guard at the morgue to take a photo of the corpse. It showed Said's skull had been cracked and his face disfigured.

After local prosecutors expressed little interest in pursuing the case, Kassem, who was a father figure to Said, began holding news conferences. Said's cousins created a page on Facebook to expose what they called police brutality.

Under pressure, regional prosecutors opened an investigation that led to the arrests of two detectives who are charged in the beating and an officer accused in the coverup. The case has not gone to trial.

For years, human rights groups have documented a pattern of abuse by Egyptian police officers, a problem government officials have played down and in some instances denied.

The issue has long alarmed U.S. officials. In 2009, U.S. Ambassador Margaret Scobey wrote in a cable that police brutality in the country was "routine and pervasive," according to one of the leaked documents recently released by the anti-secrecy group WikiLeaks.

"Contacts describe the police using force to extract confessions from criminals as a daily event," Scobey wrote in a cable in January 2009.

Said's mother and sister have been among the demonstrators who have attended daily protests in central Cairo since the movement began.

Kassem, 65, said supporters have approached him during demonstrations in Alexandria in recent days to remind him of a tradition in Egypt. The ritual says that families should not accept condolences for loved ones killed unjustly until their deaths have been avenged.

"The youth now feel that through this revolution, they have avenged Khaled's death," Kassem said. "Khaled's soul gets more peace every day thanks to the effort and determination of the youth to bring down this corrupt government."

Special correspondent Ingy Hassieb contributed to this report.

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