Egypt (CNN) -- At least 49 men were beaten and detained for up to 17 hours allegedly by supporters of President Mohamed Morsy during deadly clashes near the presidential palace in Cairo on December 5, human rights activists say.
Despite allegations that these were paid thugs, the local prosecutor later released the 49 for lack of incriminating evidence.
While the men were still being questioned, President Morsy said in a televised speech that those arrested had confessed to being paid by "political powers" to instigate violence.
"The basic message that I wanted to hear from the president... is that torture, abuse, illegal detention is never justified," said Heba Morayef, research and Egypt director at Human Rights Watch. The organization said in a statement that the president spoke against the victims instead of condemning their unlawful detention.
Videos posted online showed men with bloodied and bruised faces held outside the gate of the presidential palace and told to confess to being paid.
Supporters of President Morsy that night said they were fighting paid thugs, citing "confessions" they had heard as evidence.
Gehad El-Haddad, senior advisor to the Muslim Brotherhood and its Freedom and Justice Party, described the president's supporters as the "defending group" who first handed "attacking thugs" they caught to the police. Stressing that the same scenario used to happen in Tahrir Square, he explained that police instantly released those arrested, leading the pro-Morsy group to hold them overnight until they could be handed over to the prosecutor.
"When any of the attacking armed thugs was arrested or was caught by the supporters, he was beaten until someone would intervene and stop that beating. And later they would be put back in the ambulance to receive treatment and then were tied and put on the street," El-Haddad said.
One of those arrested was former diplomat Yahya Najm, who said he was beaten and refused medical treatment. His hands were tied and he was held outside the presidential gate until the next day. He appeared in several video reports during this detention and later at the prosecution office with a bloodied and bruised face. Ten days after his release, he was still sporting two black eyes.
"They were putting their shoes on my face, kicking me. They were standing on my face and chest," he said. "I was bleeding everywhere without any medical care all night."
Others at the same detention area, which was cordoned by police and men who identified themselves as Muslim Brotherhood members, had cut wounds resulting from stabbing, according to several eyewitnesses. They said one of those detained was a teenage boy.
Women were also beaten and detained but not for the entire night, according to eyewitnesses.
Ola Shahba, a member of the Socialist Popular Alliance Party, said she was sexually harassed and beaten so she would confess to being paid. "They used to ask naïve questions as to which embassy I was working with," she said, speaking through a bruised face. Her captors, she added, told her their names "because they know there's no accountability."
Her fellow party member Ramy Sabry, who also claims to have been caught and held throughout the night with Najm, said the intensity of the beating increased when it became known that he was a Christian. His head and fingers are still bandaged.
Sabry said he filed reports against his captors, who he identified by name, and several Muslim Brotherhood leaders. He said that while still waiting in line for questioning, he heard the president's speech citing confessions by defendants.
HRW's Morayef noted violence had been documented on both sides of the clashes, with most of the fatalities on the Morsy supporters' side. She was concerned that investigations would only focus on that.
"I'm worried we won't see a real investigation into the detention of those 49 citizens by other private citizens in the presence of the police, basically with police complicity," she explained.
Both El-Haddad and Morayef lambasted the police for their failure to stop the clashes on December 5.
El-Haddad said the current situation reveals "an extremely dysfunctional state," explaining the intervention of the president's supporters that day. "They can't fill in for a police force of course, but I think that the word I would use is a human shield. They have put themselves in between the attacking mob and the sovereignty symbol of the state."
For Morayef, this is "vigilantism."
The group of 49 detained overnight "all had bloodied faces, they had bruises, many of them black eyes. Cuts in their faces, dripping in blood," Morayef said.
"The fact that many of those engaging were members of the president's party meant that he himself had a political responsibility or political influence over one side of the demonstration."