Feb. 3, 2011 -- When Abdel Haleem Halim approached Hosni Mubarak at a 2002 conference to confront the Egyptian president about rampant unemployment, he says he received a familiar response. Like many of Egypt's political dissidents, Halim says he was whisked away by the Mubarak regime's domestic intelligence agents and tortured.
"They would bring me a paper and want me to write and sign a confession," Halim told ABC News. "But I would refuse to write. So they would torture me because I was defiant."
Halim claimed that the SSI agents used beatings and electroshock, and that his 2002 encounter was only the latest in a long line of detentions. A veteran political dissident, he said an earlier beating left him with temporary memory loss.
Unlike some victims of the Egyptian government's security apparatus, however, Halim doesn't hold the U.S. responsible. Hossam el-Hamalawy, a 33-year-old journalist who says he was tortured by the SSI in 2000, is less forgiving.
"I can't accept that the U.S government preaches about democracy," said el-Hamalawy, "while at the same time supporting the Mubarak regime, which has been so brutal to its own people."
The U.S. State Department has joined international human rights groups in describing a culture of torture within Egyptian's security agencies, issuing a 2009 report in which it itemized alleged abuses ranging from electroshock to sodomy and said "officials often operated with impunity." Yet the U.S. government has also funded the Mubarak regime to the tune of more than a billion dollars per year, and since 1995 has used the Egyptians to interrogate terror suspects via extraordinary rendition outside the scrutiny of the U.S. legal system.
For the past 30 years, said Hassiba Hadj Sahraoui, Amnesty International's Middle East and North Africa Deputy Director, Egypt has used a continuous state of emergency, instituted after Anwar Sadat's assassination, to justify the suppression of political dissent in the name of security.
"Critics of the Egyptian authorities have faced arrest, detention, prosecution on trumped-up criminal charges and unfair trials," said Sahraoui, and relying on torture to extract information.
A report by Human Rights Watch released this week describes the torture of anti-war protestors, street children, homosexuals, and domestic political dissidents, as well as terror suspects interrogated by Egyptian intelligence at the behest of foreign governments.
According to the report, Abu Omar, a cleric kidnapped by the CIA in Italy and shipped to Egypt, said, "I was hung up like a slaughtered sheep and given electrical shocks. I was brutally tortured and I could hear the screams of others who were tortured too."
Domestic political dissidents who allege torture are often describing arrest and detention by SSI agents. Hossam el-Hamalawy was a student at the American University in Cairo in 2000 when he says SSI agents arrested him for organizing a pro-Palestinian rally. According to el-Hamalawy, the men threw him in a car and drove him to SSI headquarters in Lazoghly Square.
El-Hamalawy says he was held at headquarters for four days, most of them spent in an underground 10-by-10 foot cell with 18 other detainees, some of whom had been held by the government for as long as ten years without being convicted of a crime. When he wasn't in the cell with the other detainees, he was being interrogated, says al Hamalawy. He claims he was beaten and forced to stand all night. "After my first day of interrogation," he said, "they took me into a cell with my hands tied behind my back." When he passed out, he claims, he was pulled back to his feet.
He also says he was threatened with electrocution and rape."They said, 'You think yourself a man? We're going to bring a gay soldier to rape you.'" Just before his release, he says, an interrogator extended the threat of rape to include his girlfriend, mother and sister.
In State Department cables released by WikiLeaks, U.S. officials express some optimism about developments in Egypt after 2005, noting that the government has stopped denying that torture exists, and that a group of police officers had been successfully prosecuted for brutalizing a bus driver. Amnesty International's Sahraoui said, however, that she is still not aware of a single SSI officer being held accountable.
Abdel Haleem Halim, meanwhile, says the regime continues to hit back at him, albeit indirectly. Now 66, he fled to the U.S. in 2002 and lives in a Washington, D.C. suburb. When he published an article critical of Mubarak in an Arabic publication this past summer, the regime arrested his son, who still lives in Cairo.
The Egyptian ambassador did not respond to requests for comment from ABC News. In the past representatives of the Egyptian government have said that torture is sporadic, not systemic, that claims about it are exaggerated, and that when it occurs it is investigated and prosecuted.