CAIRO Secular activists arrested last month on the third anniversary of the revolt against Egyptian autocrat Hosni Mubarak say they have been tortured, some with electric shocks, relatives and lawyers who have seen them said.
The Interior Ministry denied any abuses. If independently confirmed, the allegations would suggest police have reverted to some of the practices blamed for stoking the 2011 uprising.
The latest arrests have increased criticism of the army-backed authorities by liberals and leftists who supported the decision to remove President Mohamed Mursi and who have turned a blind eye to a state crackdown on his Islamist supporters.
Lawyers say police detained about 1,000 people, including some teenage boys, on January 25, when 49 people, mostly Islamists, were killed during anti-government marches. Thousands rallied in support of the authorities on the same day.
The torture and humiliation began in police stations and continued in some of Egypt's most notorious prisons and detention centers, relatives and lawyers told Reuters.
"He told me he was hanging by his arms from the ceiling and beaten very badly. He was taken to a room and blindfolded so he could hear the screams of men who were being tortured," said Hoda Mahmoud, referring to her detained husband Khaled al-Sayed.
"Some were sexually abused. He was stripped naked and they threw cold water at him. He was strapped to a chair and beaten for hours," Mahmoud said.
When Field Marshal Abdel Fattah al-Sisi deposed Mursi, Egypt's first freely elected leader, he promised to restore democracy to the most populous Arab nation, which receives some $1.5 billion a year in U.S. aid, most of it to the military. Washington has withheld some aid pending democratic progress.
GOVERNMENT DENIES ABUSES
Critics of the new government allege it is out to crush all forms of dissent, jailing Islamists and now secular activists. The government says it is committed to guarding human rights.
Many of the arrested Islamists, who number in the thousands, have been charged with perpetrating or inciting violence. Secular activists, who have been arrested in much smaller numbers, have been accused of crimes including breaking a new law that makes it illegal to protest without permission.
Charges against those detained on January 25 range from violating the protest curbs to belonging to a terrorist group, relatives and lawyers said.
Asked about the torture allegations, government spokesman Hany Salah said: "The government is committed to protecting human rights and the rule of law. It is not Egypt's policy to torture or harass any arrested person for any reason."
Ahmed Helmy, the Interior Ministry's media coordinator, denied any abuses, saying the judiciary and prosecutor-general regularly inspected all prisons. "Any prisoner who has a complaint has the right to file a petition to the ministry and the ministry is obliged to look into it and investigate."
The accounts emerged over the weekend when those arrested appeared before a state prosecutor, to whom they reported the abuse, according to lawyers and activists who attended. Their detention was extended.
The prosecutor, who could not immediately be reached for comment, told the detainees their complaints were beyond the scope of his mandate, which is to decide whether or not they should be kept in detention, the lawyers and relatives said.
Khaled Dawoud, a liberal activist, said at least three detainees said they had suffered electric shocks. "I was electrocuted in my genitals," he quoted one as saying, posting the account on his Twitter feed as the session was under way.
ECHOES OF MUBARAK ERA
"This is a return to the politics of the Mubarak era in a more aggressive manner. It is an alarming sign of what the future holds," Dawoud told Reuters.
Relatives of the detainees have little faith that the government will act on the complaints of abuse.
"When my husband and others were first detained, he said they were put in a tiny room and forced to kneel blindfolded with their hands behind their heads for 16 hours," said Heba Mohamed, wife of detainee Nagy Kamel.
"He said they were electrocuted. They were told: 'If you need to go to the bathroom, go on yourself'. Whenever they heard the phrase 'Good morning' that meant torture time."
In a New York Times op-ed, Egyptian liberal politician and author Alaa Al Aswany said it was shameful that security forces were targeting revolutionaries like Sayed and Kamel. "This is a tragic turn of events," said Aswany, who backed the army's removal of Mursi on July 3 after mass protests against his rule.
Detainees told relatives and lawyers the abuses had been carried out by policemen.
Such accounts of police behavior diminished after the 2011 uprising, though the Interior Ministry was never reformed in the years that followed, including during Mursi's time in office.
"These allegations are pretty consistent with what we have been hearing of late, what happens in this kind of situation," said Joe Stork, deputy director of Human Rights Watch's Middle East division. "Abuse in police stations is pretty routine."
The police are now lionized in state and private media, which describe anyone who criticizes the force as a traitor.
Human rights groups and critics of the government say the Interior Ministry has a free rein once again, though its tactics have failed to crush Islamist insurgents who have killed hundreds of policemen and soldiers since Mursi's fall.
"I had hopes for democracy and justice before," said lawyer Yasmine Hossameddin. "Now these are the darkest times of all. You work 24 hours and you still can't keep up with the number of arrests. The Interior Ministry has become a monster. Now it is not accountable to anyone. The state says 'do what you want'."
Several lawyers said they had overheard policemen threaten detainees with continuous torture if they complained to the authorities of abuses. "One man said: 'Shoot me here. I would rather die than go back to prison'," said Hossameddin.
Relatives of 17-year-old Aboud Sabry said he has nothing to do with politics and was simply in the wrong place at the wrong time when he was swept up by police on January 25.
"He told me they scared him and other inmates with attack dogs at a police detention center called Kilometer 10.5," said his brother Ahmed.
"He told me they blindfolded him and he could hear someone say 'get the electrocution device ready'. He is just 17. He cried. They beat him and asked him if he belonged to the Muslim Brotherhood. He said 'I will say whatever you want me to'."
(Editing by Alistair Lyon)