CAIRO: An Egyptian court sentenced a police officer to 15 years in prison on Tuesday for torturing an ultraconservative Muslim to death, a rare lengthy prison term for a policeman convicted of abuse.
The Criminal Court in Alexandria found Osama el-Kounayassi guilty of using torture to extract confessions from el-Sayed Belal, a member of the Salafi trend in the port city whom police accused of involvement in a suicide bombing at a Coptic Christian church over two years ago.
He is the second officer in the same case to receive a 15-year sentence. El-Kounayassi had previously been convicted in absentia, but then won a retrial.
Torture was a key grievance in the popular revolt that ousted Egypt's longtime authoritarian President Hosni Mubarak. But even after the uprising, most torture cases end up with the police either being acquitted or receiving light sentences
The case of Belal, a bearded young man, was one of two extreme cases of brutality that galvanized public anger shortly before the revolution.
The first one was the death of Khaled Said, also from Alexandria, who was beaten to death by two police officers in June 2010. His name became a rallying call for the uprising. "We are all Khaled Said" was the name of the Facebook group that helped organize the early protests.
The brutal death of Said, a 28-year-old middle class small businessman, particularly alarmed many Egyptians who viewed torture victims as political activists or people with a criminal background. The circumstances behind his killing are not fully clear.
But rights organizations say that the Islamist groups to which Belal belonged, as well as families whom the police considered habitual criminals, often bore the brunt of abuses during the Mubarak era by police who were under pressure to produce suspects for high-profile cases.
Belal was arrested along with other suspects in the aftermath of the bombing on Jan. 1, 2011, when at least 21 worshippers were killed while leaving a New Year's Eve mass in Alexandria.
Ahmed el-Mashaly, a Salafi lawyer who says he was arrested and tortured alongside Belal, said that el-Kounayassi told the suspects, "You will carry this case, either dead or alive."
The detainees were known to the notorious State Security investigations department - disbanded after the revolution- as they had been arrested several times during the last decade over their links to other Salafis who joined or tried to join the insurgency in Iraq.
"We were the usual suspects. We were the easiest scapegoats and if any disaster happens, eyes immediately fall on us," he said over the phone from Alexandria.
"For 40 days, we were subjected to long sessions of torture. Several officers, not one, took turns in electrocuting, beating, hanging us like sheep as though we were being roasted, blindfolded and handcuffed all the time," el-Mashaly said.
One day, Belal was brought back to the cell after a full day of torture, el-Mashaly said. "The moment he sat, he fell on the ground and I heard the rattle of death," he said.
El-Kounayassi's lawyer, Anis al-Manawi, argued during the case that the witness accounts contradicted each other. He said his client was not guilty.
El-Mashaly said there is still a strong possibility that el-Kounayassi and his fellow officer could overturn their cases on appeal. He said accused police's colleagues and prosecutors often do a sloppy job investigating such cases, leaving many loopholes.
Karim Ennarah, a researcher on police reform at the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights, agreed it was likely that the verdict would be overturned on appeal. But he said it still gave a strong message that police can be held accountable for their acts.
"Whatever happens next, whether the verdict will be overturned or not... the verdict can remake the relationship between the judiciary and the police and (establish) that police officers can be imprisoned," he said.
Meanwhile, a Cairo court continued its inquiry into another case involving the security forces - the discovery of shredded documents in State Security's headquarters when it was stormed by protesters during the 2011 uprising.
Egypt's Defense Minister and army chief Gen. Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi gave testimony in the case, according to a lawyer who provided details of the closed proceedings. El-Sissi's statement did not shed light on the shredding of the documents but it was a rare case of a top army officer being summoned for an inquiry.
The lawyer spoke anonymously as he was not authorized to discuss briefings.