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Egyptian Cop-Writer May Be Sacked

September 17, 1998

CAIRO, Egypt (AP) _ Police drag an old man from his home, then kick and slap him until he wets his pants. They strip him naked and mock his aged, sagging body. When they threaten to bring in his daughter for questioning, the old man faints.

Trembling, he insists he doesn’t know the hiding place of his son, a suspected Muslim militant, and an enraged officer orders the man’s home razed by a bulldozer.

The incident echoes human rights reports about Egyptian police abuses. But this one comes from a novel _ ``The Journal of an Officer in the Countryside″ _ that has landed its author, a high-ranking police officer, in a lot of trouble.

Brig. Hamdy el-Batran is charged in a police administrative court with publishing the book without permission and defaming Egypt’s security forces.

El-Batran, a 25-year police veteran, faces punishment ranging from demotion to forced retirement. A verdict is expected Sunday.

The novel comes at a time when Egyptian authorities have largely contained the Muslim militants who have tried to overthrow the country’s secular government since 1992.

Human rights groups have repeatedly denounced alleged police abuses, including kidnapping suspected militants’ relatives, in their fight to end the conflict, which has taken more than 1,250 lives.

The police ``consider the novel a revelation of secrets,″ said el-Batran’s lawyer, Elewa Allam. ``But this is not how he meant it. He was exercising his love of writing. He was not trying to hurt anyone.″

Allam says el-Batran, an engineer by training, already has been demoted from supervisor of police vehicles in the southern province of Minya to chief of maintenance. His novel, while not officially banned, was quietly removed from book stores on orders from the Interior Ministry.

Brig. Mahmoud el-Fishawy, a spokesman for the ministry, which is responsible for national security, said the book, though fiction, should have been submitted in advance for approval.

``There are rules, and a police officer should follow them,″ el-Fishawy said, adding that its publication in the midst of the government’s campaign against the militants ``hurts morale.″

El-Batran said he was surprised at the furor.

``This book is not my history,″ he said. ``It is a work of imagination, of creativity. Is one supposed to ask permission before he gets up to recite poetry?″

He pointed out that he published three earlier novels and that one, ``The Death of a Silent City,″ even won an award from the ministry.

He submitted his only work of nonfiction _ a study of Muslim militants in southern Egypt _ to the ministry for approval and did not publish it when permission was denied.

``The Journal of an Officer in the Countryside″ is written as the diary of a local police commissioner in the southern province of Assiut, once a hotbed of Muslim militant activity.

It is filled with tales of bribery, brutality and immorality _ as well as vivid descriptions of police work.

El-Batran does not say what inspired his work, noting that as a police engineer, he does not even deal with civilians, who are at the heart of his novel.

So why the fuss?

The stories _ fiction or not _ seem more credible because they were written by a police officer. Indeed, the popular weekly magazine Rose el-Youssef called el-Batran’s book ``live testimony″ to police methods.

Hafez Abu Siida, a researcher into police abuse at the Egyptian Organization of Human Rights, says charging el-Batran was a way for police to deny the abuses his fiction depicts _ and to discourage other literary-minded officers.

``If this were an official human rights report, the Interior Ministry could deny it,″ he said. ``But when a police officer says it, it puts them in a difficult position.″

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