CAIRO – For more than two decades, a team of psychiatrists in downtown Cairo have provided a unique service in Egypt: Therapy for people who say they are victims of torture.
Now authorities are trying to shut down the Nadeem Center, housed in an apartment building off a street full of auto parts dealers and mechanics. Twice in the past three months, most recently on Wednesday, police have stormed in with closure orders. So far, the center has managed to ward them off while its lawyers protest.
Its founders, however, fear the government is determined to eliminate an organization that, beyond helping victims, produces detailed documentation of police torture. Those accounts contrast starkly with officials’ repeated denials that such abuses take place, except in rare, individual cases.
Last year, the center tallied around 600 cases of police torture and almost 500 people killed by security forces, 100 of them while incarcerated.
“I haven’t seen a worse situation than what we have now — the violations, the impunity, the defiance” by police, said Aida Seif el-Dawla, a psychiatrist and one of the center’s co-founders.
I haven’t seen a worse situation than what we have now — the violations, the impunity, the defiance. They keep repeating that there is no torture, that there are no forced disappearances, as if this would somehow make it a valid statement.”
-Aida Seif el-Dawla, co-founder of the Nadeem Center
“They keep repeating that there is no torture, that there are no forced disappearances, as if this would somehow make it a valid statement,” she said.
The move against the Nadeem Center is part of an effort targeting a number of rights groups and non-governmental organizations that has raised sharp criticism of Egypt at home, as well as from the United States and Europe.
The Nadeem Center and other groups are under investigation on possible criminal charges of illegally receiving foreign funds. Also, the center faces a closure order from the Cabinet that has never been made public but is reportedly based on vague claims of violations of Health Ministry regulations.
President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi has overseen a broad crackdown on dissent since 2013, when he led a military overthrew his Islamist predecessor. Security forces have arrested thousands of Islamists and killed hundreds as they crushed protests. In the past year, the campaign has also increasingly targeted secular activists who criticize the former general’s rule. Authorities have argued that they are acting to bring stability after five years of turmoil following the 2011 pro-democracy uprising that toppled longtime autocrat Hosni Mubarak.
Many of the top activists involved in the 2011 uprising are now in prison, most under a draconian law passed in 2013 effectively banning all street protests.
In response to international criticism of the foreign funding investigation, Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry said there are tens of thousands of NGOs operating in Egypt, and the government is committed to enabling their work. But he said the activities of civil society groups should be steered in “the right direction, not to the benefit of people whose practices could harm their countries.”
A Health Ministry spokesman, Khaled Mujahed, told Egyptian media that Nadeem was ordered closed “like any center that is proven to have violations.” The center denies committing any violations.
The groups believe authorities want to silence criticism at a time when they say police abuses are worsening.
“It’s no longer just special police units committing these acts. Normal police are practicing torture too. In the current environment, they think the law doesn’t apply to them,” Seif el-Dawla said.
Egypt has faced international criticism over the case of Giulio Regeni, an Italian Ph.D. student whose brutalized body was found dumped by the side of a road, raising suspicion of police involvement. Egypt denied its security services were behind the killing.
Last month, the Interior Ministry said it had killed members of a gang suspected of being responsible for Regeni’s death. But that claim was largely dismissed in Italy, where many in the media accused Egypt of a cover-up. Rome is demanding Cairo come clean and present results of a detailed investigation.
Seif el-Dawla says Regeni’s wounds, detailed in Italian autopsy findings, bear all the hallmarks of cases she has seen in decades of documenting police torture.
“Burning by cigarettes, ripping off fingernails and dumping bodies, that’s their style, and it’s very common in disappearance cases,” she said, sitting at a table in the center’s sparse meeting room that is normally used for recording the testimony of victims.
In recent years, the Nadeem Center, headed by Dr. Magda Adly, received about 200-300 new clients annually. The doctors provide individual and group therapy, and sometimes conduct medical exams.
Under Mubarak’s 29-year rule, non-governmental groups faced complicated rules meant to control, contain or sometimes discourage their operations. Nadeem’s clinic treating patients, for example, is formally a separate entity from its center doing documentation. In that way, it conforms to rules on which activities each part can conduct.
NGOs also faced close monitoring by security agencies. Seif al-Dawla said she’s long known that the cigarette seller at a kiosk outside the office is a police informant keeping an eye on who comes and goes.
Under Mubarak, however, rights organizations were rarely shut down.
Seif al-Dawla fears that’s the government’s plan.
Security authorities don’t like “civil society organizations that are outside their control, especially in the field of human rights,” Seif al-Dawla said. The Nadeem Center’s accountants have been questioned by investigators trying to find a way to discredit it, she said.
“The problem now is that you cannot predict what can put you in jail or not,” she added.
Nadeem does receive funding from abroad, but it is all reported to the authorities and tax records are kept, she said.
“Nothing about us is underground or hidden, we operate totally transparently,” Seif al-Dawla said. “They know all about it.”
Dozens of organizations could face prosecution in the foreign funding case. Prominent investigative journalist Hossam Bahgat, rights advocate Gamal Eid and others have been barred from travel, and a court is considering whether to freeze the assets of Bahgat and Eid.
The case is a reopening of an investigation that began in 2011 against nonprofit foreign groups. At the time, several U.S. and German groups were charged with receiving foreign funding in violation of Egyptian law. The constitution expressly allows NGOs, but receiving funds from abroad is heavily regulated, and new laws in recent years include vague bans on activities that undermine “national interests or unity.”
In the meantime, the Nadeem Center continues to work quietly, but receives no patients at the center, just in case the police swoop in.
Seif al-Dawla said she’s hoping the closure order will be lifted. In the meantime, she is pushing back appointments and handling new would-be patients.
“The phone here just keeps ringing,” she said.