RENEE MONTAGNE, Host:
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: 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)
SARHADDI NELSON: Protestor Mohammad Wakid thinks that's because officials hope to minimize public reaction.
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.
SARHADDI 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.
HOSSAM BAHGAT: 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.
SARHADDI NELSON: 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)
SARHADDI NELSON: 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.
AIDA SEIF EL DAWLA: 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.
SARHADDI NELSON: Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson, NPR News, Cairo.