January 8, 2011 / 9:36 PM / in 7 years

UPDATE 1-Egypt probes report of Islamist's torture death

* Family says authorities tortured Islamist to death

* Prosecutor orders autopsy on man’s body

* Salafi movement never been accused of violence in Egypt

(Adds background)

By Marwa Awad

CAIRO, Jan 8 (Reuters) - An Egyptian prosecutor has ordered an autopsy on the body of a man who relatives say was arrested and tortured to death days after a bomb attack on a Coptic church in Alexandria, the prosecutor’s lawyer said on Saturday.

Mohamed Sayyid Bilal, 32, was arrested on Wednesday after an as-yet unnamed bomber killed 23 people on Jan. 1 at the church. Bilal’s body was turned over to his family a day later and it bore signs of torture and burns, his brother Ibrahim said.

The brother said the family then filed a report with the prosecutor’s office accusing state security of torturing Bilal to death during interrogation and demanding an investigation into the incident.

The Interior Ministry refused to comment. But the public prosecutor told Reuters an investigation into the family’s assertions was under way and he had ordered an autopsy.

Authorities are searching for a cell of four to five suspects from Egypt and abroad, state media reports said on Saturday without giving details.

Bilal was one of many Salafists — followers of strict Sunni Muslim teachings — rounded up along with others as suspects in the bombing. Analysts say the state’s crackdown on moderate Islamist voices may have driven some Salafists to militancy.

Authorities have not formally announced a link between the church blast and the arrests of Salafists, saying just that many citizens were being investigated. The decades-old Salafist movement has up to now never been accused of militant violence in Egypt and has been tolerated by the government.

“A day after he was arrested we got a call from a hospital saying he was suffering from low blood pressure. When we arrived we found him dead. His body had torture marks and burns,” Ibrahim Bilal said. “We filed a report number 88-2011.”

“We are investigating these claims and ordered an autopsy on his body but the forensic report has not come yet. So far no one has proof he was tortured,” Attorney General Yaser Rifai said.

One Salafi leader, who refused to be named, said up to 300 Salafists were arrested after the Alexandria attack. The movement has denounced the church attack in a statement.

Rights groups have accused police of brutality against detainees and say security forces act with impunity, aided by a decades-old emergency law that allows indefinite detention. But the state says the law is used for drugs and terrorism cases.

The attack occurred two months after al Qaeda-linked insurgents in Iraq threatened to strike Coptic churches in Egypt, accusing Egyptian Christians of detaining two female converts to Islam, something they denied.

Egypt’s Salafists and other independent Islamists have protested, demanding the release of the two women, who are wives of Coptic priests.

Christians make up 10 percent of Muslim-majority Egypt. The bombing has spurred Christians to protest at the lack of protection.

An anti-torture page on Facebook called “We are Khaled Said” has denounced the church attack and called for a silent march to commemorate the victims. (Editing by Mark Heinrich and Janet Lawrence)

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