CAIRO -- A leading human rights group accused Egypt yesterday of systematically abusing prisoners -- including torture and years of detention without trial -- and warned that the problem could worsen because of recent constitutional changes.
Among those who have been tortured are prisoners transferred to Egypt under the CIA's controversial "extraordinary rendition" program in the war on terror, Amnesty International said in a report, citing accounts from five detainees. It called on Egypt to stop interrogating suspects sent to the country under the program.
The London-based group said 18,000 people were in Egyptian jails without trial, including some who have been held for more than a decade. The torture has included electric shocks, suspension by the wrists or ankles, and psychological pressure, such as rape threats against prisoners or their female relatives, the report said.
Cabinet spokesman Magdy Rady denied that torture was systematic.
"We, as a government, cannot condone at all any kind of torture," Rady said. "When we hear of torture, we deal with it in a legal way."
The 18,000 number came from Egyptian rights groups that disputed the Interior Ministry's figures of 3,000 to 4,000, Amnesty official Said Haddidi said during a news conference. Rady said he could not comment on the figures because he had not read Amnesty's report.
Amnesty criticized the government for using the international terror threat to justify amendments to the constitution that increased the government's security powers.
The group was particularly concerned about an amendment that suspended civil rights in terror investigations and enabled the state to prosecute civilians in military courts, which are known for taking shortcuts with due process. The changes were approved in a referendum last month that was widely criticized as massively rigged .
"Governments have an obligation to protect their citizens," said Curt Goering, deputy executive director of Amnesty International in the United States. "But in so doing, they can't pursue measures that in the process result in the wholesale destruction of fundamental human rights."
Amnesty's deputy Middle East director, Hassiba Hadj Sahroui, said the situation was getting worse "in the sense that the safeguards against torture in the constitution have been undermined."
Amnesty said detainees sent to Egypt under the rendition policy were tortured and denied the right to appear in court. It cited the accounts of five detainees, including an Egyptian cleric who says he was kidnapped in Italy and transferred to Egypt for interrogation. Italy has indicted 26 Americans and five Italian agents accused of seizing the cleric.
Osama Hassan Mustafa Nasr, also known as Abu Omar, has said that once in Egypt, he was sodomized, stripped naked, beaten with electric cables and water hoses, and given electric shocks while being pinned to a wet mattress.