Egyptian policemen inspect the site where militants fired mortar in Egypt's northern Sinai of el-Arish, late on July 13. / AFP/Getty Images
CAIRO - A young Egyptian doctor was napping when a horde of security forces came to his door. Minutes later, he was blindfolded - hands bound - and forcibly taken away.
For the next 26 days, his family had no information on his location: a military prison whose detainees were interrogated, kicked and hit, shocked with electricity and bound at the wrists while forced into painful positions.
Reports of forced disappearances and torture have climbed since a sweeping state crackdown on political opponents and militant violence last year following the ouster of Islamist leader Mohamed Morsi by then-defense minister Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, who is now Egypt's president. The militants have killed hundreds of Egyptian soldiers and police.
According to a report by Amnesty International in May, released prisoners estimated that 200 to 400 people were being held at one secret prison called Al Azouly, including military detainees facing trial. Most civilians were from the Sinai Peninsula. That is the restive eastern region where militancy has spiked since the military rulers ousted Morsi and outlawed his Muslim Brotherhood, which had mismanaged the economy while seeking to impose stricter Islamic rule in this traditionally secular nation.
"They took my watch and my glasses ... and anyone who spoke was hit," the Egyptian doctor recalled of his detainment. He spoke on condition of anonymity, fearing re-arrest.
"They also hang them from their hands and legs on a rod" like a dead animal, said Mohamed Lotfy, head of the Egyptian Commission for Rights and Freedoms.
Egyptians have disappeared from their homes, near universities, shops and places of work. They have been stripped of their rights and held for months in places that operate outside judicial oversight, according to former detainees, lawyers and activists.
"Officially you are not there, so no one knows anything about you," said Mohamed Elmessiry, Amnesty International's Egypt researcher.
Civilians have been illegally held at the 101st Battalion headquarters in the northern Sinai Peninsula, according to the activists and former detainees. At least some of them were transferred to Al Azouly prison.
The three-story jail is tucked inside the headquarters of the Second Field Army Command, a massive military camp 80 miles northeast of Cairo. Released prisoners reported miserable conditions: overcrowded cells, no electricity, poor ventilation, modest meals and access to bathrooms only once daily.
"If you are longer than two minutes, they would break the door and bring you outside the bathroom," said the doctor.
At a nearby building, detainees - one by one - faced interrogation and various methods of torture aimed at extracting information about militant activity and government opponents.
The abuse has led to forced confessions, Elmessiry said. "How do we know that the person really committed the crime when you have former detainees telling you, 'I told them what they wanted because I wanted the torture to stop?'"
The detainees at Al Azouly are barred from seeing lawyers or family members. "It means that we are in a country that is not subject to the rule of law, and that authorities that do the torture and the detention are enjoying impunity," said Aida Seif El-Dawla of the El Nadeem Center for Rehabilitation of Victims of Violence. "It's a horror story."
The activists said security officials illegally holding detainees can commit crimes without repercussion. In addition to military-run sites, people have been held illegally at riot police camps, offices of the country's National Security Agency and police stations.
Such practices were common under longtime President Hosni Mubarak, who was overthrown in an uprising three years ago, the activists said.
"The practices we see today - abducting individuals in the middle of the night, torturing them into confessing and giving information, denying them any due process rights - are really a throwback to the worst practices of the Mubarak era," said Diana Eltahawy, director of the Criminal Justice Unit at the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights.
"It's as if (police) are settling scores with young people who were part of the revolution," El Nadeem Center's El-Dawla said, referring to the 2011 revolt that toppled Mubarak.
Such brutal tactics might only breed more unrest in Egypt. But activists such as Lotfy from the Egyptian Commission for Rights and Freedoms say they expect more to disappear and others to remain missing.
"We don't know where they are, but we suspect they are in Al Azouly," Lotfy said. "Dead or alive? We don't know."
Read the original story: Egypt operates secret prisons for suspected militants