July 27, 2010 / 7:44 AM / in 8 years

Egypt begins trial of two policemen in torture case

* Case has garnered international attention

* Amnesty International calls for witness protection

By Yasmine Saleh

ALEXANDRIA, Egypt, July 27 (Reuters) - Two Egyptian policemen stood trial on Tuesday charged with the illegal arrest and torture of an anti-corruption activist who died in their custody, a case that has drawn protests at home and abroad.

Awad Suleiman and Mahmoud Salah have not been charged with direct responsibility for the death of Khaled Said, who died on June 6 in the northern coastal city of Alexandria.

Witnesses and rights groups say the policemen dragged Said out of an internet cafe and beat him to death. Egyptian authorities say he died choking on drugs.

Photographs of Said’s battered face and body quickly spread via the Internet and protestors have since held a number of demonstrations in cities across Egypt, with one in Alexandria attended by possible presidential contender Mohamed ElBaradei.

Egypt’s public prosecutor charged the pair after ordering a second autopsy on Said following outrage over the initial finding. If convicted they face up to 15 years in prison.

The death of Said, who had posted an internet video purportedly showing the two policemen and others sharing the spoils of a drug bust, raised concerns among Egypt’s U.S. and European allies.

It also proved a rallying point for many Egyptians who feel that the security forces act with impunity under an emergency law that allows indefinite detention and curbs anti-government activity.

Speaking before the trial opened, Ramadan Abdel Naby, the brother of one of the accused, said: “My brother is accused and not charged yet hence he is still not guilty.”

Around 10 Egyptian men stood outside the court holding banners in support of police, a line of black-clad police separating them from a small group in support of Said. At least 10 large police trucks stood by.

Amnesty International, which said a friend of Said was last week beaten up and warned off by nine attackers armed with knives, called for the protection of witnesses.

“If justice is to be done in this case, the Egyptian authorities must ensure that the witnesses to the beating as well as the dead man’s family and those working to bring out the truth are protected from threats, violence and intimidation, and feel able to freely testify in court,” the rights group said in a statement.

The two accused stood in cages in the Alexandria Criminal Court, surrounded by plain-clothed police.

Said’s uncle Ali Mohamed Kassem, accompanying his mother, sister and other relatives to court, said the family had no immediate comment. (Reporting by Yasmine Saleh; Writing by Alastair Sharp; Editing by Jon Boyle)

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