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In Egypt, the police have broad powers under President Hosni Mubarak, and they're rarely prosecuted for how they use those powers, so a trial beginning tomorrow is unusual. Two policemen are charged in a case of a man who was beaten to death. Government critics and human rights activists say this case could shine a light on what they describe as a deeply rooted culture of police brutality. NPR's Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson is in Cairo and has the story.

SORAYA SARHADDI NELSON: Some 100 protesters gathered recently outside of the Supreme Court here in Cairo to mark the 40th day since the death of Khaled Said. Witnesses say two plainclothes policemen dragged away the 28-year-old man from an Internet cafe in the northern city of Alexandria on June 6th after he refused to show them his I.D.

The witnesses say they dared not interfere as they watched the officers repeatedly slam Said's head into the nearby stone steps until he was dead.

(Soundbite of protesters chanting)

NELSON: In Cairo, the protesters shout about police abuse and injustice. They hand out fliers and tweet from their cell phones.

Stern-looking police officers in armored vests surrounded them. The show of force is intimidating, and most passersby steer clear. But the small demonstration is allowed to continue.

Protestor Mohammad Wakid thinks that's because officials hope to minimize public reaction.

Mr. MOHAMMAD WAKID: It's up to them to decide which cost they want to bear, you know? For that crowd, it will be - in my opinion, the cost will be 20 times bigger when there are arrests.

NELSON: The Interior Ministry, which oversees the police, declined to be interviewed by deadline for this story. But the police response highlights the sensitivity surrounding the case of Khaled Said. Adding to the pressure was a statement by European Union officials expressing concern about the circumstances surrounding the death. Hossam Bahgat heads the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights.

Mr. HOSSAM BAHGAT (Director, Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights): Every family in Egypt has a story of its young members being stopped and searched or asked for identification cards arbitrarily by the police. The fact that such a routine practice could actually lead to the death of the person being stopped was particularly shocking to families.

NELSON: Public backlash grew after the Interior Ministry claimed Said was a drug user who choked to death on a packet of marijuana found in his throat. But many here believe police put it there. Witnesses say police took Said away after he died, and a short while later returned and dumped the body.

With the Egyptian government weakened by economic woes and lingering rumors about President Mubarak's poor health, many hope the case will help bring about improved police accountability, especially since some senior Egyptian officials, like Mubarak's son, have spoken out against the officers.

Still, there seem to be limits as to how far the Egyptian government is willing to go. For example, the officers on trial tomorrow in Alexandria are not charged with murder or wrongful death. They are instead accused of using excessive force and illegally arresting Said.

(Soundbite of crowd chatter)

NELSON: Government critics also complain that police brutality continues unabated.

Aida Seif el Dawla, a university professor who heads a group dealing with Egyptian victims of torture, cites a half-dozen alleged incidents in the weeks following Said's death, including a man who was thrown out of a third-story window of a police building.

Professor AIDA SEIF EL DAWLA (University Professor, Human Rights Activist): That is in one month, so there is absolutely no change. As a matter of fact, if I look at it from a distance, I'd say the Ministry of Interior is telling everybody, well, we don't care, OK? We just go on doing what we're doing.

NELSON: She and others here believe the government is also pressuring Said's once-vocal family to keep quiet.

Last week, Said's relatives fired activist lawyers who were representing them. Activists say the family is also avoiding interviews.

Said's brother Ahmed Kassem, who had agreed last week to be interviewed by NPR, had his phone switched off at the appointed time. There was no answer on his number during subsequent attempts to contact him.

Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson, NPR News, Cairo.

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