Who Killed Islam Salah al-Din Atitu?
The Cairo university student left home to take a final exam. The next day, he turned up in a city morgue, with marks of torture on his body, and police peddling a suspicious story about how he got there.
CAIRO — On May 19, Islam Salah al-Din Atitu woke up early and headed to Ain Shams University in Cairo’s Abbaseya district to take his final humanities exam. The fourth-year engineering student from Cairo’s Ain Shams neighborhood was on the cusp of graduating with a degree in electrical engineering. He had studied hard and worked his way through the test with relative ease. Twenty minutes after the exam was done, he walked outside the campus gates. It was the last time he was seen alive.
The next day Egypt’s Interior Ministry pronounced Atitu dead, claiming in a statement that he had been killed in a gun battle with police on the outskirts of Cairo. His body later turned up in the city morgue. A leaked photo shows him wrapped in a white shroud, with only his face visible. The top of his head is swathed in thick bandages.
His death prompted outrage and fear among students at Ain Shams University and became a topic on Egypt’s nightly television talk shows and in newspapers. Amid a renewed crackdown conducted by Egypt’s security forces, his case stands out.
Atitu’s friends, family, and human rights lawyers familiar with his case are at a loss to explain why he was targeted. He is described by those close to him as a quiet but friendly 22 year old; a diligent student with an easy smile and a love of sports, particularly basketball and soccer. Tall with receding curly hair and a thin, unkempt goatee, he was the middle child — his younger brother, an engineering student, and his older brother, a graduate of pharmacology.
Atitu had never been arrested — or charged with a crime. The only protest one of his colleagues recalls him taking part in recently was a strike by hundreds of students at the faculty of engineering in 2013 following the arrest of two classmates. A picture of Atitu at the time shows him sitting on a sidewalk in a green T-shirt and hoodie, looking into the camera with a slight smile as he holds up a handwritten sign that reads: “I studied, but I am on strike from exams. There is no midterm without Hamza and Tarek. #Freedom_for_detainees.”
“I know this boy very well. Islam lived with his parents and studied hard,” a close relative of Atitu’s told me. “He was not into violence at all. He could go to a protest, chant, or go on Facebook. That was his limit.” (Eyewitnesses, friends, and family all spoke to me on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisal by the police.)
His friends, family, and classmates paint a picture of the circumstances surrounding Atitu’s death that belie the claims of the Interior Ministry and strongly suggest he was kidnapped by security forces outside his university and killed in custody.
Shortly before 9:00 a.m., Atitu and roughly 70 other students took their seats in room 260A at the faculty of engineering campus near Abbaseya Square for the two-hour exam. Approximately 20 minutes before the exam was scheduled to end, two men entered the room. The first began roaming from desk to desk, angering students by grabbing their exam papers to check their names; the other stood watching in the middle of the room.
According to the student sitting directly behind Atitu during the exam, the man conducting the search finally reached him and asked, “Are you Islam Salah?” When he affirmed he was, the man told him he was wanted at the student affairs office after the exam because they needed a copy of his national ID card, which was missing from their files. “The other man just stood about three meters from Atitu and focused on him with an intense stare. A very intense stare,” the student sitting behind Atitu said.
After that brief interaction, the two men left the room.
The day after police announced his death, the administration at the faculty of engineering released a statement claiming that the man who spoke with Atitu was a university official and needed his information to finish issuing new electronic cards.
Others are skeptical of the claim. “I have been at this university for five years, and this is the first time someone from the administration comes into an exam or even a lecture to ask a student about missing documentation,” Atitu’s classmate said.
When the exam ended at 11:00 a.m., Atitu got up and walked out of the hall. Surveillance cameras captured him as he left campus. According to a student who talked his way into reviewing the footage with several university administration officials, Atitu can be seen walking out of Gate 2 on the southwest side of the faculty of engineering campus at 11:23 a.m. and turning right toward a crowded intersection where students typically catch a ride home.
Less than a minute later, he reappears, this time running in the opposite direction, which leads to a largely-abandoned manufacturing area, with two men in pursuit. He appears to be trying to call someone on his cell phone as the two men close in on him. Before he exits the frame, one of the men reaches out to try and grab him. The student’s account of the footage was corroborated by a faculty member — Mohamed Hassan Soliman, who also viewed it — in a recent television interview.
Other witnesses told local media outlets that Atitu was last seen being forced into an unmarked car at the other end of campus.
His family and friends never heard from him again. Calls to his cell phone went unanswered, and fears began to grow that he had been randomly arrested as dozens have in recent weeks. The next day, they learned of his death from a police statement posted on the Interior Ministry’s official Facebook page.
Two separate witnesses who saw Atitu’s body in the morgue, as it was being washed on May 21 in preparation for burial, described signs of torture. They said his skull, arm, leg, and ribs had been broken and that there were dark blue and red bruises on his chest from what appeared to be beatings and electric shocks. They said he had been shot multiple times, including in his left shoulder, lower back, and the top of his head. A judicial official told the Associated Press that a preliminary forensic report showed he died from five gunshot wounds.
“He was tortured, and he didn’t withstand it so in order to cover up this crime, they shot him,” said a relative who helped wash his body.
The Interior Ministry had a different story.
They claimed in a statement on May 20 that Atitu was an Islamic militant belonging to the outlawed Muslim Brotherhood group and that he was the mastermind behind the assassination of Col. Wael Tahoun, former head of investigations at the Matariyya police station — alleged to be one of the Egyptian police force’s most brutal stations — who was gunned down along with his driver on April 21.
A previously unknown group calling itself the Execution Brigade claimed responsibility for Tahoun’s assassination at the time. Then, in early May, the flagship state-run newspaper Al-Ahram reported that Tahoun’s killers — allegedly five members of the Muslim Brotherhood — had been arrested and confessed to the crime. Days after Atitu’s death, national security sources told the privately-owned daily Al-Shorouk that a detained Brotherhood operative confessed to Atitu’s involvement in the Tahoun assassination plot and gave up the location of his alleged desert hide-out.
In its statement on Atitu’s death, the Interior Ministry said they located his hide-out near the Fifth Settlement, a suburb on the eastern outskirts of Cairo, and when security forces raided the area, he opened fire with a machine gun, leading to a battle that left him dead.
Meanwhile, the president of Ain Shams University, Hussein Eissa, said Atitu was a militant with the Sinai-based jihadi group Ansar Beit al-Maqdis (an avowed enemy of the Muslim Brotherhood which claimed allegiance with the Islamic State and renamed itself the Sinai Province) and that he had run away from home some time ago.
“Let’s say he was wanted in a case like this,” said the student who sat behind Atitu in the exam, referring to the Matariyya police killing. “Does that mean he should be taken and killed? That he is just executed? The most basic right of a human being is to be able to defend oneself, to say ‘yes I did this’ or ‘no I didn’t.'”
After Atitu’s death, the university cancelled exams at the faculty of engineering for the next two days and, fearing protests, barred students from campus. Police were deployed heavily in the area around the university. Several students were arrested during a funeral march on May 23.
Students working to raise awareness about the case now say they have been receiving threatening phone calls, with an unidentified voice warning them to back off before hanging up. On June 9, one student activist was arrested in front of his house and taken to a police station where he was questioned about Atitu’s case before being released several hours later. Another student sent an email to journalists telling them to periodically check his Facebook page to see if he was arrested, adding, “Just know that I’m innocent from whatever fake charge they’re going to address to me.”
According to the Associated Press, Egyptian authorities are investigating Atitu’s killing. Prosecutors took copies of the surveillance footage and his exam attendance. Yet accountability for police abuse in Egypt is exceedingly rare and security forces operate with near total impunity.
Meanwhile, human rights activists have documented an unprecedented wave of forced disappearances over the past two months. The campaign group Freedom for the Brave says there have been 163 cases since the beginning of April. Men, women, and minors from across the political spectrum have been snatched by plainclothes security forces from their houses, at work, and off the street.
“We’ve seen police kidnappings before, but this is the first time it happens with this kind of intensity and this kind of frequency — so every few days we hear about new cases — and it’s the first time it happens across so many governorates,” said Mona Seif, a prominent prison rights activist who has helped document cases of forced disappearance.
Some have been accused of belonging to the left-wing April 6 Youth Movement or to the Muslim Brotherhood — both of which have been outlawed by Egyptian authorities. But dozens have not been charged and have disappeared inside Egypt’s detention labyrinth.
And yet no one has offered any compelling reason why Atitu might have been picked up from out of his humanities exam. “The only party that knows why Islam was targeted is State Security,” said Mohamed al-Baqer, a human rights lawyer with the Adalah Center for Rights and Freedoms, referring to a notoriously brutal wing of Egypt’s security apparatus. “Any information you hear from anyone else is pure deduction.”
“No one feels safe,” said the student who watched the surveillance footage and was a friend of Atitu’s. “Maybe next time, instead of taking someone and killing him outside, they can kill him in the middle of the exam room. No one would speak up.”
Soliman, the faculty member who viewed the surveillance camera footage, later graded one section of Atitu’s exam during a televised interview. He pored over the dead student’s test, carefully checking the answers and tabulating his results. “He got high marks, and if he did the same in the rest of his exams, he would have certainly graduated,” he said.
Photo credit:GIANLUIGI GUERCIA/AFP/Getty Images