(Please note graphic content in paragraphs 1 and 5)

by Cynthia Johnston

CAIRO
- The grainy video purports to show an Egyptian man, naked from the waist down, writhing in agony as he is sodomised with a stick by a police officer. A handful of other officers stand by watching.

The video, which circulated on Egyptian blogs last month, has sparked uproar on the Internet in a country where rights groups say torture is commonplace in police stations. Authorities say such cases are isolated and not police policy.

Rights activists say the tape -- the authenticity of which has not been confirmed -- highlights mistreatment that many detainees face in Egyptian jails, and the apparent impunity with which it can be carried out.

Elijah Zarwan, a Cairo-based consultant for Human Rights Watch, said: "Nobody would be surprised if it were authentic ... While there is nothing to positively identify the tape as authentic, torture is certainly pervasive."

In the video, the unidentified Egyptian man, his hands bound behind his back and his legs held in the air, screams as he lies on a white tile floor and is abused with what appears to be a wooden broomstick or baton.

Several other people, whose faces are never shown, stand by watching as the man screams: "Never mind Pasha, I'm sorry Pasha," addressing his abuser with a term commonly used in Egypt to refer to police officers or people of higher social status.

Based on some of the words in the recording, human rights activists think the victim might be a minibus driver.

An interior ministry spokesman declined to comment on the tape. Rights groups said it was consistent with documented reports of torture in Egypt, but several said they did not yet have enough information to confirm it was authentic.

The sodomy video is not the first tape of purported police violence to surface on the Internet in Egypt, but it may be the most jarring because of its explicit sexual nature, activists say. Egypt is a conservative Muslim society.

Lawyer Naser Amin of the Centre for the Independence of the Judiciary said he filed a complaint last month with Egyptian prosecutors over the sodomy video and two other tapes that purport to show Egyptian civilians being beaten by police.

He said he felt prosecutors took the complaint seriously, and at least two officers were being questioned.

CONSISTENT WITH TORTURE REPORTS

Local and international rights groups say they have no reason to believe the sodomy tape is not real, although some are hesitant to vouch for its authenticity because the source of the tape is unknown and the victim has not come forward.

"It looks very authentic," said Ragia Shawky, a medical doctor at Egypt's Nadim Centre, which assists torture victims. "It matches very much with what we have seen and what we know and what was reported and documented by many local and international human rights organisations."

"What is still to be revealed is who took these pictures. Was it from the police themselves, playing as in Abu Ghraib (prison in Iraq), or was it somebody standing by who wanted to help?"

The low-quality video appears to have been taken by an onlooker in the room, possibly using a mobile phone, activists said.

Shawky said police violence in Egypt often includes beatings and sexual abuse, and the subjects of such abuse are often undressed and threatened with rape or public humiliation.

An Egypt researcher for Amnesty International in London said he was still trying to verify the authenticity of the video, which was recorded in a room without distinguishing features. Of the abuser and onlookers, only the feet are visible.

Blogger Mohamed Khaled, who first posted the tape on his blog Demaghmak (Mak's brain) (http://demaghmak.blogspot.com), said he got the video from a neighbour who had received it on his mobile phone through bluetooth technology.

But he said he does not know the original source. Since the sodomy video surfaced, a flurry of fresh torture allegations have appeared on Egyptian blogs.

The Misr Hura (Free Egypt) (http://misrhura.blogspirit.com) blog posted pictures of a prison inmate with his back covered in red bruises, which it says were sustained during a beating.

Ikhwanweb (www.ikhwanweb.com), affiliated with the banned Muslim Brotherhood, also recently accused a state security officer of beating a 54-year-old man to get a confession that he had taken part in a pro-Palestinian vigil.

FERTILE ENVIRONMENT?

Zarwan, the Human Rights Watch consultant, said Egypt's emergency laws, which allow prisoners to be held incommunicado, provide little police accountability and create "a fertile environment for torture to flourish".

Egyptian Prime Minister Ahmed Nazif has said Egypt would hold a referendum next summer on constitutional changes to pave the way for ending the emergency laws, in place since the assassination of President Anwar Sadat in 1981.

Nazif said work was underway to replace emergency laws with anti-terrorism legislation. But analysts and rights activists expect little to change on the ground.

"There is totally no political will to face this (torture) phenomenon. In fact, it has the support and the consent of the authorities, totally. Systematic support also," said Shawky of the Nadim centre.

Rights activists said the sodomy video -- while it prompted an outcry on the Web and in leftist and human rights circles -- has met a muted public reaction. Most Egyptians are unaware the tape exists, they said.

The main government-owned newspapers, on which many Egyptians depend for daily news, have not written about the video. Just one opposition paper has done so. An anti-torture protest last week drew only a few dozen protesters.

"It hasn't created the uproar it should have because of a lack of focus and the government's indifference," publisher and rights activist Hisham Kassem said.

"There is very high apathy in the country. With things like this people just suck on their lips and say what a horrible thing it is and that's it."