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The rise and fall of forensics and the state

Published in Ahram Online on February 24, 2013

The fate of forensic medicine in Egypt is illustrative of a wider collapse of state institutions Egyptians worked hard to build in the modern period

In December 1877, a woman called Om Ibrahim went to the Alexandria police station to report that her son, Ibrahim Al-Masry, in his 30s, was missing. In her report, she said that she had accompanied her son to Alexandria a few months earlier when he arrived to look for work. Eventually, he found a job at a tailor’s shop owned by a Jew called Hanin Astafan, whom she accused of killing her son.

Meanwhile, the police were alerted that an unidentified body of a young man was found in a residential building where 22 Jews lived. During the investigation the body was found to have cuts and bruises to the face and knees and the young man’s clothes were torn, which indicated he had been in a fight before his death. During interrogations, residents in the building denied they knew who the victim was or why he was in their building.

Later, investigations revealed that a bar was located nearby and one of its patrons identified the victim as the missing Al-Masry, and that they were together the night before. They shared some drinks and the victim got drunk.

After the autopsy, a detailed forensic report concluded a definitive cause of death. An autopsy of the brain showed discoloration of the cells that indicates the victim died of asphyxiation; an autopsy of the lungs revealed the presence of a foamy liquid that analysis showed to be vomit from the stomach. The forensic report concluded that the victim drowned in his own vomit.

The final police report stated that Al-Masry had too much to drink and became inebriated the night before. He left the bar by himself clearly intoxicated, staggering along, hitting his head on the wall several times that caused cuts on his face. Then he stumbled and fell, ripping his galabiya. Finally, he fainted and because he was so drunk he threw up and then drowned in his own vomit and died. After the police concluded that Al-Masry died a natural death without foul play, it ordered his body be buried and criminal charges were quashed.

The events in this case, like hundreds of other forensic cases, are among the police records of Alexandria and Cairo that are kept at the National Archives. Over the past 20 years, I have poured over these unique documents with fascination at the detail, professionalism and integrity of forensic doctors of the 19th century. I concluded that this level of professionalism reflects the incredible advances in medicine and law that Egypt witnessed during the 19th century.

Egypt’s pioneer status among its neighbours is not the result of 7,000 years of civilization as much as it is the result of 200 years of state building.

The modern state we built over the past two centuries was always founded on institutions, not persons; Egypt’s leadership status, therefore, is the result of establishing professional institutions such as the judiciary (prosecution, civil courts, prosecutorgeneral, positive laws) and medical institutions (hospitals, clinics, medical schools, advanced translations of modern medical textbooks, and vital statistics). At the intersection of these two institutions lies forensic medicine, which enjoyed great advances during the 19th century as demonstrated by Al-Masry’s story.

What is truly disturbing is that in the 21st century we are witnessing the collapse of our institutions one after the other after labouring hard to build them. What has happened to forensic medicine is indicative of the near complete collapse of the Egyptian state over the past 60 years, if not longer.

The protests we witnessed outside the Department of Forensic Medicine over the last few days were directly triggered by objections by members of the “A Country without Torture” campaign and others over the autopsy report on political activist Mohamed El-Guindy.

The report denied that his death was caused by torture and concluded it was caused by a car accident, which raised many suspicions because of conflicting reports and eyewitness accounts, and dubious interference by the minister of justice in the case.

But these protests demanding the reform of the Department of Forensic Medicine in Egypt are also related to many other cases that have raised doubts about the professionalism and independence of this vital agency. Since the case of Khaled Said, forensic medicine has been centre stage in this revolution because it is closely linked to the twin issues of torture and independence of the judiciary. The Said case was not the last (and of course not the first) where families of torture victims tried to recover their rights by relying on forensic medicine.

There are many tainted reports that former director of the Department of Forensic Medicine Al-Sibaie Ahmed Al-Sibaie issued in which he claimed that those who were killed in Tahrir Square during the 18 days of revolution died of asphyxiation from teargas not gunshot wounds. There is also the report on Essam Atta where the officers of Tora Prison were acquitted of torturing him in death, and the disgraceful report that did not give Samira Ibrahim the right to prove her privacy was violated at the hands of military police. And there are many more cases that clearly demonstrate corruption at this vital organ of state that degrades its distinguished place in the minds of Egyptians since its establishment in the 19th century.

The collapse of the Department of Forensic Medicine, like many other modern institutions, happened for many reasons, including lack of funds, lack of qualified personnel, and a breakdown of university education. But political and institutional corruption remains the top reason for this deterioration. And it is truly remarkable that despite the significance and clarity of this factor, and despite the fact that our revolution is a rights revolution, at the core of which are demands to put an end to torture and the need to rebuild our judicial institutions — despite all this, those who dominate the political scene, whether government or opposition, have ignored this key issue. Instead, they have occupied themselves with trivial issues. The Muslim Brotherhood is busy consolidating its power over the state not reforming it; the Salafists are obsessed with the issue of identity and want to re-invent the wheel; and the National Salvation Front is hostage to rhetoric that is lagging behind developments on the ground.

In conclusion, I would like to relay what Mahinoor Al-Masry, a journalist, said when she went to the morgue to console the family of a torture victim. “The mother of the martyr Hassan Shaaban, in her grief at the morgue after taking a last look at her son while we were waiting for the forensic doctor to finish the autopsy report, looked at us and said: ‘If anyone is going to get engaged or married, please invite me. I want to rejoice for those who love Hassan.’

“At that moment, you don’t know whether to break down and give up, or stay strong for the poor people whom life has treated unfairly and who are daily abused but who still bear love and kindness for others. These people deserve better. Continuing the revolution is not a choice. This inhumane system must end.”

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