An Egyptian riot policeman detains a female student at al-Azhar University in Cairo during a Dec. 30 protest by students who support the Muslim Brotherhood. (AFP/AFP/Getty Images)

At his office in downtown Cairo, defense lawyer Mahmoud Belal chain-smokes Marlboro Reds and gulps cups of bitter Turkish coffee — fuel to help him juggle constant phone calls and pleas for help amid a vast government crackdown on dissent.

“We try to be everywhere all of the time: courts, police stations, hospitals, prisons, morgues,” said Belal, who spent years defending political prisoners under strongman Hosni Mubarak and later under Islamist President Mohamed Morsi. “But there was never this kind of momentum under Mubarak. They are just putting people in jail — and it’s happening all at once.”

The growing number of people held by Egyptian authorities as part of a frenzied campaign to crush opposition to the military-backed government has squeezed the country’s already broken criminal justice system, leading to widespread legal and human rights abuses by security forces, prosecutors and prison guards, Belal and other rights lawyers here say.

Thousands of Egyptians have been swept up in a wave of arrests since the military overthrew Morsi in a coup last summer, including not only the ousted leader’s supporters but also leftist activists, journalists and ordinary citizens caught in the chaos. Security forces have arrested people for offenses such as photographing demonstrations and have accused suspected Islamist militants and demonstrators alike of terrorism.

Egypt’s public prosecutor has ordered thousands detained without charge, a status that can be renewed indefinitely under a recent government decree. Those who face judges often do so in mass trials. And inside the jails, guards use physical and psychological abuse to control the swelling population, according to detainees and human rights organizations that have documented such treatment.

“The number of those detained is huge. There is a systematic imprisonment” of anyone deemed a threat, said Mohamed Zarea of the Cairo-based Arab Penal Reform Organization, which offers legal assistance to prisoners.

University student Salsabeel el-Gharbawi, 21, was arrested at an anti-government demonstration Dec. 30 on the campus of al-Azhar University. During her 40-day detention, Gharbawi said, she was beaten, threatened with rape and transferred three times to make room for a flood of new detainees.

“It is clear they don’t have the resources to control all of us,” said Gharbawi, who was released last month but is still under investigation. “Even the [petty] criminals were complaining that we were crowding the prisons.”

‘Violations are increasing’

The government has not said how many people have been incarcerated since last summer, when security forces began a broad crackdown, first on the Muslim Brotherhood and later on non-Islamist activists as well. The Interior Ministry, the public prosecutor and the office of the presidency did not respond to repeated requests for comment on the number of detainees and accusations of brutality.

But according to the WikiThawra initiative at the Egyptian Center for Economic and Social Rights, which maintains an extensive database on Egypt’s political upheaval, 21,317 people were arrested and subsequently detained between the July 3 military coup against Morsi and the end of the year.

Only a small number of those arrested have been released, the group says. Egypt’s interim president issued a decree in September that enables the public prosecutor to indefinitely renew a suspect’s detention every 15 days pending investigation.

Detainees are often held illegally for weeks at police stations and barracks that operate outside prison regulations, and appeal hearings take place at those facilities rather than in a courtroom, activists say. The practices and regulations are harsher than those of the Mubarak era, lawyers say, when authorities could detain suspects without charge for a maximum of two years.

It was the decades of abuse by police forces under Mubarak that helped spur Egypt’s uprising against his regime in 2011. But activists say the military coup, which stirred a virulent pro-
army nationalism, has revived the power of the security apparatus, giving police new confidence to repress political dissidents.

The judicial process was notoriously corrupt under Mubarak, lawyers say, but at least they knew how to navigate it.

Before the current crackdown, “we used to go through the procedures and get people released,” Belal said. Now, he said, “sometimes we can’t even find them, or don’t know they have been detained.”

Overworked prosecutors now interrogate suspects in the middle of the night, lawyers say. In some cases, they charge scores
of people with the same crime, photocopying a single charge sheet for dozens of suspects.

“The violations are increasing,” Belal said. “We used to be able to count them, but right now we can’t. It’s too chaotic.”

Widespread abuses

Interior Minister Mohamed Ibrahim has publicly denied allegations of ill treatment and torture at the country’s detention facilities. But the accusations of abuse have been widely documented by human rights organizations in recent months and corroborated by detainee accounts.

At Qanater prison near Cairo, Gharbawi said, guards brought a group of male prisoners to the women’s ward, stripped and beat them, and forced them to sing the pro-military song “Teslam el-
Ayadi.” Prison guards made the women face the cell wall and hit them if they turned around, she said.

In one widely publicized case, U.S. citizen Mohamed Soltan, 25, seized in August during the bloody dispersal of a pro-Morsi sit-in in Cairo, wrote in a letter shared by his relatives that he had been deprived of food for several days while in solitary confinement and that prison doctors performed surgery on his broken arm without anesthesia.

Prominent activist Khaled el-Sayed, 30, who was arrested Jan. 25 during demonstrations on the anniversary of Egypt’s uprising, told his wife during family visits of the abuse he had endured. He was released last week, although he still faces charges, including weapons possession.

“They would tie his hands behind his back and leave him for hours, throw cold water on his clothes and leave him to dry in the cold winter weather,” said Sayed’s wife, Hoda Mahmoud.

Fadi Samir, 19, was arrested in Cairo in January at a small protest held to show support for detained students and activists. Prosecutors accused him of being a member of the Muslim Brotherhood, despite the fact that he is Christian, his mother said. He is being held at the Tanta general prison 60 miles north of Cairo. He has not been charged.

“We have reached a point where we feel powerless,” said Samir’s mother, Mona Iskander. “I have no faith in the justice system,” she said. “I only have faith in God now.”

Sharaf al-Hourani and Lara El Gibaly contributed to this report.