In Egypt’s forensic medicine authority, a revolution

Thursday afternoon is typically a slow time in most government offices. But these days, there aren’t any slow times for Ihsan Kamil Gorgy, Egypt’s chief forensic doctor.

On a recent Thursday, both Gorgy’s landline and mobile phone rung ceaselessly. Reporters flocked to his waiting room to ask about the latest death toll or the autopsy reports of victims of the most recent bloody clashes between protesters and the armed forces.

The scene isn’t much calmer outside the building. A group of Ultras (football fanatics) have just walked away. Earlier they had protested angrily while waiting for the body of one of their comrades to be released from the morgue. Mohamed Mostafa was killed in the last round of violence with military personnel near Tahrir Square in December. From his window on the second floor, Gorgy could hear the crowd shouting in reference to the killing: “This is disgraceful, you infidels!”

“If I were in their position, I would do the same thing,” says the 58-year-old Gorgy. “Families come here in anger and assume that I am part of the regime and that my job is to protect that regime. But I consider myself only a forensic doctor.”

In early May, Gorgy was appointed as chief forensic doctor, succeeding Ahmed al-Sebai in a step widely seen an attempt to purge the Forensic Medicine Authority (FMA) of remnants of the old regime. With his Upper Egyptian accent, the Assiout-raised Gorgy says he takes it upon himself to reverse the FMA’s “bad reputation.”

In recent months, Gorgy and his team have been swamped by the growing death toll from the ongoing political upheaval. They had to release death investigation reports on dozens of victims who lost their lives in clashes either with the armed forces or the police. These reports did not always support the accounts given by the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF).

While the generals insisted continually that neither police nor military personnel used live ammunition during attacks on protesters at Maspero, or on Mohamed Mahmoud and Qasr al-Aini streets, the FMA reports revealed numerous cases of protesters killed by bullets.

Recently, Gorgy has made headlines after affirming that Al-Azhar Sheikh Emad Effat and medical student Alaa Abdel Hady were killed by bullets shot from a long distance during December clashes with military personnel.

With this statement, Gorgy dismissed earlier media reports that he was shot by unknown infiltrators who were standing among protesters. His statement also supported claims that military personnel were shooting at protesters from the rooftops of surrounding buildings.

Earlier, Gorgy had said that deposed President Hosni Mubarak was in good shape. His opinion meant that Mubarak could be transferred from the International Medical Center, where he has been held for trial since August, to Tora prison, a move that Egypt’s generals seem reluctant to make, possibly for fear of humiliating the former supreme commander of the armed forces.

“The FMA performance has improved,” says Magdy Adly, a doctor with the Nadeem Center for Rehabilitation of Victims of Violence.

She praises the FMA’s recent decision to, for the first time, accept human rights representatives as observers during autopsies. In October, Adly walked into the morgue, as a human rights activist, while doctors examined the bodies of protesters killed by the military in front of Maspero. A month later, she was allowed to check the corpses of those killed in Mohamed Mahmoud clashes.

“Later on, I saw the autopsy reports and they were compatible with the initial examination, which proves that the autopsy was conducted in a transparent way,” she says.

For Adel Ramadan, a lawyer with the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights, the impartiality of recent FMA reports was inevitable. “Now, victims’ families and the media are watching [forensic doctors]. This is why they cannot falsify reports,” says Ramadan, pointing out the FMA’s job in the past was to cover up human rights violations.

“[Gorgy] is trying to show that he is better than his predecessor,” says Ramadan.

However, he still has reservations about the FMA. “Even if you take him in good faith, he still does not have the resources and the independence needed to act fairly,” he says.

Challenges ahead

While the number of forensic cases has risen sharply in the midst of political turmoil, the size of the medical staff remains the same. With only 102 field forensic doctors, the FMA had to handle more than 29,000 cases from 1 January to the end of November 2011.

“Our work had doubled, while the number of doctors has decreased because many of them are away,” says Ahmed Said, a 37-year-old forensic doctor. He recounts that the day following the clashes on Mohamed Mahmoud Street in downtown Cairo, in which more than 40 people were killed, he and three colleagues had to perform autopsies on 20 bodies.

Like most state-employed professionals, forensic doctors complain that their salaries are too low to provide a decent living. According to Gorgy, the monthly salary ranges between LE1,000 for a beginner and LE6000 for the chief doctor. Unlike other medical specialists, forensic doctors cannot increase their income by working for private medical entities, since the law stipulates they should only be working for the government, complains Gorgy.

To make ends meet, many doctors go on unpaid leave to work in the Gulf.

According to Ashraf al-Refai, the assistant chief senior forensic doctor, more than 70 of the FMA’s doctors are currently working in Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates, Kuwait and Oman.

“In Kuwait, he [a doctor] would get LE32,000 a month while, here he gets LE1,500,” says al-Refai, who previously worked in Saudi Arabia and Kuwait.

Besides low wages, the budget allocated to the FMA does not allow doctors to keep up with new technologies. Gorgy complains that he is only left with LE334,000 this year to upgrade his equipment. This amount falls short of the minimum of LE750,000 he says he needs to buy new equipment at market prices.

The scarcity of sophisticated forensic technologies is not the only problem for younger doctors. “There are almost no resources,” says Saeed, who complains that the FMA does not even provide doctors with computers, cameras to photograph bodies, printers or even suitable offices.

The situation outside of Cairo is “inhumane”, he says. Doctors may have work in dark morgues and may find no appropriate medical jars in which to carry samples to laboratories.

In pursuit of independence

The FMA consists of four departments: forensic medical examiners, medical laboratories, chemistry units and counterfeiting and forgery units. These departments are run by “forensic experts” — doctors, pharmacists, chemists, technicians and photographers.  

The FMA reports directly to the Justice Ministry and it is the minister who appoints the FMA head and decides on the budget. This affiliation of the FMA to the executive of the government has been one of the reasons for doubts about its impartiality.

After Mubarak’s ouster, the rising prospects for democratization encouraged hundreds of the FMA’s nearly 650 forensic experts to convene in April and discuss ways to improve their jobs and safeguard their professional integrity. They selected 20 people from among themselves to draft a new regulatory code for the FMA that would liberate it from any ties to the government.

“We are about to finish the final draft of the bill,” says Walid Abel Hamid, a 38-year-old forensic chemist and one of the architects of the draft bill. Forensic experts will present this bill to the new People’s Assembly after it convenes on 23 January, hoping their proposal will be transformed into legislation.

The draft bill stipulates that the FMA should be granted full administrative and financial independence from the executive. By letting forensic examiners, rather than judges, administer the FMA, decide on the budget and lay out priorities, the body's technical performance will improve, argues Abdel Hamid. “[Judges] do not understand the nature of our technical work or our needs.”

Under the same draft bill, the FMA head would not be appointed by the government. Instead, the post would go automatically to the most senior forensic examiner, Abdel Hamid tells Egypt Independent.

“The way the head is appointed undermines the FMA's prestige and independence,” says Abdel Hamid.

In January 2008, the justice minister ignored a long-standing bureaucratic tradition of entrusting the most senior forensic doctor with presiding over the FMA by selecting Sebai, who was the seventh name on the seniority list. His unexpected ascent to the post raised questions about his potential ties with the regime.

Abdel Hamid believes the appointment method suggested in the draft bill would diffuse any skepticism that the FMA head is run by a government loyalist. “That will increase the society’s faith in the [FMA],” he says.

In the meantime, the four forensic examiners interviewed for this article denied that they were ever openly pressured to release false reports in favor of the regime. According to Refai, the worst that could happen under Mubarak was to have a police officer call the forensic examiner to convince him that he did not really torture the person that the doctor is examining.

“I would listen to him, but the report would come out as it should be,” he says. “I did not owe this officer anything.”

For his part, Said blames flawed reports on poor resources rather than government pressures.

“When you have weak resources and receive no training, you will make mistakes,” says Saeed. “Perhaps, the [old] regime was deliberately depriving sensitive authorities like ours of resources to disable them from making [legal] cases.”

The integrity of the forensic body came into question after forensic doctors released the infamous report on Khaled Saeed, the young man from Alexandria who was tortured to death by two policemen in June 2010. While the photograhs of his deformed face and broken jaw went viral in the media, the FMA said that he had died of asphyxia after swallowing a bag of narcotics. The FMA was accused of twisting realities to acquit Mubarak’s police.

Both Refai and Gorgy hold that this report manifested several technical flaws. First, examiners violated international protocols by not taking pictures showing the wounds. Second, they did not make all the necessary medical tests.

The public outrage that Khaled Saeed’s death elicited is now considered a prelude to the 25 January revolution.

“The society and the state should realize the [FMA] influenced all court rulings, and hence should look into what is needed to improve its performance and credibility,” says Abdel Hamid.

Related Articles

Back to top button