CAIRO, Egypt — Trudging through dungeon-like cells and mounds of shredded documents, hundreds of Egyptians on Saturday surged into the Cairo headquarters of the dreaded State Security apparatus for an unprecedented look inside buildings where political prisoners endured horrific torture.
Some former prisoners sobbed as they saw their old cells, recalling electric shocks and severe beatings. Families held passport photos of missing relatives and were desperate to explore the dank chambers for clues to their fates.
Dismantling State Security, the shadowy and all-powerful intelligence force, was a key demand of protesters who forced the resignation last month of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak. When the military-led interim authority failed to dissolve the agency immediately, protesters in Cairo and the port city of Alexandria descended on State Security offices this weekend to seize files they hoped would cement Mubarak's legacy of prisoner abuse and disappearances.
"I thought my brother would be found there," said Leila Mahmoud, 47, who was distraught when she learned the buildings had been evacuated. "He was taken on April 2, 2005, and we've been looking for him since then. We haven't heard a word from him since. Not a word."
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Protesters carted off armloads of files and turned them over to a prosecutor who arrived on the scene.
The Egyptian Organization for Human Rights, an independent nonprofit, puts the number of political prisoners at around 17,000. Official government figures are much lower, an estimated 500.
Human Rights Watch, the international advocacy group, has said in its reports that "torture in Egypt is a widespread and persistent phenomenon. Security forces and the police routinely torture or ill-treat detainees, particularly during interrogation. In most cases, officials torture detainees to obtain information and coerce confessions, occasionally leading to death in custody."
For those who were jailed at the complex, the memories are haunting.
"I saw people's nails being ripped out and people hung from the ceiling by their arms or legs," said Adel Reda, 39, trembling as he recounted his nine months inside the complex. "They would throw our food in sand before giving it to us and splash us with cold water day and night. Sometimes it was so dark you couldn't see your hands."
Egyptian military tanks were positioned outside the security structure and the army's elite Thunder Squad pleaded with protesters not to enter the forbidding complex. Egyptians chanting "Down with State Security!" stormed past them and flooded into the building. They lingered even as military police fired warning shots into the air.