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Rights group says highschooler Mostafa Montaser died in police custody due to torture, authorities deny

Following the July death of a young man held in police custody in Alexandria, claimed by a rights organization to be the result of his subjection to torture, investigating authorities issued an official statement last week to absolve the police force of any responsibility in the case.

Over a week after he went missing, the family of highschooler Mostafa Montaser, 19, known to his friends as Disha, retrieved his body from authorities on July 27 only to find marks of severe violence suggestive of beating and torture, according to a statement published on August 2 by the Egyptian Network for Human Rights (ENHR).

The Interior Ministry published a statement later on August 2 denying the accuracy of the account published by ENHR, attributing Montaser’s death to natural causes and accusing the organization of affiliation with the Muslim Brotherhood.

Concluding an investigation just two days later, the state prosecutor said it had established that no torture took place, and that the results of an autopsy showed Montaser’s death to be the result of chronic illness, while it stated that the injuries to his body were due to a fall.

Montaser’s family lost touch with their son and three of his friends on July 18, when the four set out in a tuk tuk, which belonged to one of them, to travel from Kafr al-Dawwar, Beheira, to the neighboring governorate of Alexandria, according to ENHR.

The family spent the next two days trying to establish their whereabouts, and spoke to police stations in both governorates, all of which denied knowledge of the young men. On July 20, Montaser’s family received a call from a lawyer informing them that the four were being questioned at the Manshiya Public Prosecution Office, Alexandria on charges of forming a criminal gang. ENHR said it reviewed a report of the questioning, which said their arrests took place on the morning of July 20, in possession of drugs and ammunition, and without ID cards or mobile phones.

Yet, ENHR said that Montaser told the prosecution, in the presence of his father, that he and his friends were arrested on the road on the basis that they did not have documents proving they owned the tuk tuk, and were taken to the third Montazah Police Station without being allowed to inform their families.

The four defendants appeared before the prosecution on July 21 and their detention was renewed for 15 days. Montaser’s family said they tried to visit him on July 22 and July 25 — they were not allowed to see him, but were able to deliver him food and clothes and speak to him on the phone.

On July 27, according to the statement, the family received a call from someone at the police station, who they said was not an official, informing them of Montaser’s death without providing any further explanation. The family headed to the station, which denied the news at first but eventually told them to go to Abu Qir General Hospital.

When the family gained access to Montaser’s body, they described multiple bruises and blood around his nose and mouth. He had received blows to the back of the head and ears, they said, and his left leg and ribs were broken. The body was transferred to the Kom al-Dikka Morgue until the family obtained a burial permit, while the father also submitted a request to the public prosecution for an investigation into his death and an autopsy.

Twelve hours after ENHR published the details of Montaser’s death, the Interior Ministry published a statement refuting the account, and denying that Montaser was subjected to torture in custody.

The four defendants were arrested in possession of hashish, heroine and other narcotics, as well as a self-made birdshot cartridge, on July 20, said the Interior Ministry, after the police station “received information about a drug-trafficking gang.”

On Montaser’s death, the ministry said only that the young man was “known for taking drugs,” and that he fell ill in custody on July 26 and was transferred to Abu Qir General Hospital for treatment, but died the following day. The statement also quoted witnesses saying “the deceased was not subjected to any attacks” and “died a natural death.”

On August 4, the Public Prosecution published a statement announcing that its investigations had disproved any criminal suspicions behind Montaser’s death. Investigators had checked the police station holding cell, questioned witnesses and ordered an autopsy, said the prosecution, all of which led them to conclude that Montaser died of chronic kidney failure — a condition he suffered with before his death, according to the prosecution’s statement. His father denied that this was the case.

The statement also said that witness statements, hospital reports, and an autopsy by the Forensic Medical Authority showed that Montaser fell ill in custody, suffering from shortness of breath, and that he fell unconscious due to his preexisting condition, leading to head trauma and a coma. His condition deteriorated and the hospital was unable to save him, the prosecution concluded.

The statement also quoted the ICU doctor at Abu Qir, who said Montaser arrived completely unconscious, adding that he noticed a bruise under his left eye and injuries on his right knee and left foot while inspecting the body. The final autopsy report, however, concluded that these injuries likely resulted from the fall and are unrelated to his death.

The prosecution said it also inspected the detention room Montaser was held in — which it found to be a “large, well-ventilated room, with a toilet attached” — and spoke to the 28 other detainees who were with him. According to the statement, 10 of them said the deceased spoke about suffering from diabetes and that no one harmed him, while the other 18 said that he started feeling ill and “behaving abnormally,” before falling unconscious in the cell’s toilet and hitting his eye, after which he was moved to another cell.

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