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Last Updated: Saturday, 25 August 2007, 11:10 GMT 12:10 UK
Getting the police version in Cairo
Allegations of widespread abuse dog Egypt's police force despite government denials. As the BBC's Jon Donnison reports from Cairo, experiences with the legal system are not always straightforward.

Traffic in Cairo
Some 18 million people live in Cairo

The Egyptian police station was more of a shed than a station.

A small, dimly lit and dusty room with a couple of chairs, a moth-eaten sofa and a desk. The only decoration a faded, slightly lopsided picture of President Hosni Mubarak looking down from the wall, surveying proceedings.

At the desk, Officer Sabry, as I shall call him, a tall, thick-set man with a balding pate, peered over his glasses and looked me up and down.

"You've been robbed," he said, flashing me a not entirely sympathetic smile.

I nodded sheepishly and sat down on the rickety chair beside him.

The statement

People here will tell you that Cairo has more police per head of population than any other city in the world.

Walking down the chock-a-block streets, that is not hard to believe. There are thousands of them in their crisp white uniforms, an unfortunate colour in a city where pollution, dust and sweat make a potent cocktail.

That cocktail had clearly got the better of Officer Sabry's uniform and he dabbed his brow and scratched his crotch before handing me a blank sheet of paper on which I was to write my statement.

I took the paper and carefully began to write out what had happened. The description of the two men, their age, height, distinguishing features, how they had jostled me in the street and nimbly slipped my wallet from my pocket before darting into a waiting taxi and speeding away.

It had been a Friday, a day of rest here, and the only day in Cairo where the traffic subsides enough to make it remotely possible to do any speeding.

Once finished, Officer Sabry took the paper and, peering through his thick glasses, winced at my messy handwriting.

He again dabbed his brow with his handkerchief, picked up his pen and started to transcribe the statement into Arabic.

I watched as his hand slowly shuffled across the page, right to left, leaving behind it a trail of elegant figures and characters. Once two copies had been written out - no photocopiers here - he sat back in his chair, let out a long sigh and admired his handiwork.

As I walked out of the hot dusty police station, clasping my Arabic statement, I felt a little better, as if I was at least some way to justice being done.

Lost in translation

I met up with an Egyptian friend and over a sweet tea I began to recount my minor drama as graphically as possible.

A map of Egypt showing Cairo, Suez Canal and the River Nile.

As his eyes darted over the police statement a wry smile crept across his face.

"But there's no mention of a robbery here," he laughed.

"There is no crime, you've been had. It says simply that you dropped your wallet in the street."

Five minutes later we were both back at the police station, the fan circling above our heads struggling in vain to keep us cool.

Officer Sabry looked a little awkward as he realised that his interpretation of the truth had been exposed.

My friend looked a little uneasy. He told me this was only the third time in his life he had been in a police station. And he did not like it.

Crime? What crime?

Egypt's police have a bad reputation.

Many people here feel that, unlike their uniforms, the force is not whiter than white.

Almost everyone you meet has a story about the police, be it of petty bribery and backhanders, brutality or, at worst, torture.

This month three officers are being investigated on murder charges for allegedly beating a man to death.

In a second incident, a 13-year-old boy died after being detained by the police. His family say he too was beaten and badly burned.

In both cases officers deny any wrongdoing.

Human rights groups have long claimed that abuse of power is endemic within the Egyptian police. The government says such claims are exaggerated.

However, most people here in Egypt are, if not scared, then certainly wary of the police. Nobody wants to get on the wrong side of the law.

It is may be one reason why - locals will tell you - there is actually so little crime in Cairo.

In the end, my minor incident was properly filed.

The fact that I had had a media pass in my wallet, giving me access to government events, seemingly whirred Officer Sabry into action. He even told me he had a fair idea who the culprits might be.

But as I left the small police station and stepped out onto Cairo's bustling streets, I suddenly felt a little uneasy and could not help but hope that Officer Sabry and his colleagues did not try too hard to catch up with the men who stole my wallet.

From Our Own Correspondent was broadcast on Saturday, 25 August, 2007 at 1130 BST on BBC Radio 4. Please check the programme schedules for World Service transmission times.

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