July 23, 2013

In Blog

Accountability Essential to Break Cycle of Impunity
July 14, 2013
  • Supporters of deposed Egyptian President Mohamed Morsy carry mock coffins during a symbolic funeral for the four men killed during clashes with police outside the Republican Guard headquarters a day earlier in Cairo. Photo taken July 6, 2013.

    © 2013 Reuters
Witness after witness described the military shooting into the crowd, including at unarmed people. The government needs to find out who was responsible and ensure they are held accountable if it hopes to show it will respect basic rights during this interim period.
Joe Stork, acting Middle East director.

(New York) – Egypt’s interim president Adly Mansour should ensure impartial investigations of military officers and police for killings outside the Republican Guard headquarters on July 8, 2013, Human Rights Watch said today.

The investigations need to be conducted by the civilian judiciary, independent both institutionally and practically from the military chain of command.

Witnesses described a sequence of events on July 8, in which the military and police used unnecessary force, leading to the deaths of 51 protesters. Prosecutors have investigated only Muslim Brotherhood supporters and leaders for their alleged roles in the clashes, but not the military and police forces.

“The military has a track record of resorting quickly and excessively with lethal force to break up protests,” said Joe Stork, acting Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “Witness after witness described the military shooting into the crowd, including at unarmed people. The government needs to find out who was responsible and ensure they are held accountable if it hopes to show it will respect basic rights during this interim period.”

On July 8, army troops and police moved just before dawn to break up a peaceful sit-in of Muslim Brotherhood supporters. Violence broke out over the next six hours with military officers, including snipers posted on military building rooftops, shooting live ammunition, in many cases killing and wounding unarmed protesters. Protesters threw stones, Molotov cocktails, and in some cases shot guns. By the end of the morning, fifty-one protesters, three security force members, two police officers, and one military member were dead, according to the Health and Defense ministries.

The military spokesman, Col. Ahmad Ali, claimed that protesters tried to storm the Republican Guard building. Butthe military has not made public any evidence supporting its claim and Human Rights Watch found no evidence that this occurred, finding instead that protesters were peacefully praying or gathering when the military and police moved in to break up the sit-in.

Muslim Brotherhood members and supporters had gathered outside the Republican Guard headquarters on Salah Salem Street starting on July 5, and their numbers grew after the group called for a sit-in there on July 7.

Human Rights Watch spoke to 24 witnesses, including protesters and neighborhood residentsand interviewed seven doctors. Human Rights Watch also visited the site of the incident, four hospitals where dead and injured were taken, and the morgue, and reviewed video footage obtained from protesters and news outlets that Human Rights Watch considered credible. All those interviewed who witnessed the start of the violence agreed, and video evidence also suggested, that just before dawn on July 8, military troops and Central Security Forces, Egypt’s riot police, moved in to break-up the peaceful sit-in, simultaneously approaching protesters outside the Republican Guard building at one end of the street and outside the Mostafa Mosque, at the other end.

Security forces fired teargas and blanks into the air, and moved in on protesters from two sides by foot and with more than a dozen armored vehicles. The protesters backed off and scattered down side streets. Over the next four hours, the witnesses said, many protesters responded with rocks and Molotov cocktails as army troops shot live ammunition and the riot police fired birdshot into the crowd, which at that point numbered in the thousands. Witnesses as well as video footage viewed by Human Rights Watch confirmed that at least a few Muslim Brotherhood supporters had guns, and fired both live ammunition and birdshot. Military snipers stationed on nearby rooftops, and officers positioned elsewhere, shot a number of unarmed protesters or bystanders. It is not clear from the footage which side used live ammunition first.

In response to the killings, President Mansour ordered an investigation by a civilian “judicial panel,” but authorities have made no further information available about its composition and powers. The Constitutional Declaration announced by Mansour on July 8 gives the military justice system exclusive jurisdiction over crimes involving military personnel, meaning that this civilian panel could not investigate and try army officers involved in the violence. To deal with this and other incidents, President Mansour should issue another declaration to authorize independent civilian courts to investigate military personnel in the case of serious human rights abuses in which the victims are civilians, Human Rights Watch said.

“We have seen again and again how Egypt’s military justice system cannot investigate serious human rights abuses with any impartiality,” Stork said. “Military prosecutors and judges remain in the same line of command as those they are investigating, making independence and impartiality impossible.”

Prosecutors have announced only that they are investigating 206 Muslim Brotherhood supporters arrested at the scene and still in detention. Prosecutors issued arrest warrants for 10 Muslim Brotherhood leaders, including the group’s supreme guide, Mohamed Badie, on charges of inciting violence in connection with the incident. No investigation of army or police personnel has been announced to date, though the vast majority those who died were among the protesters.

It is impossible to say precisely which of the lethal shootings may have been lawful – that is, where those killed were armed and shooting at security forces, Human Rights Watch said. What is clear from the death toll and witness evidence is that the army responded with lethal force that far exceeded any apparent threat to the lives of military personnel.

All of the deaths – protesters, bystanders, and security forces – should be investigated and those responsible for unlawful use of force should be prosecuted, Human Rights Watch said.  

“This is the single bloodiest incident that Egypt has seen since the uprising against Mubarak, and it comes at a moment of extreme political polarization,” Stork said. “President Mansour should issue a constitutional declaration that will give independent civilian judges the authority to examine the responsibility of the military and police at all levels of command as well as demonstrators, and issue criminal indictments against those found responsible for using excessive or otherwise unlawful force and violence.”

Military and Riot Police Break Up Muslim Brotherhood Sit-in
At dawn on July 8, Muslim Brotherhood members at the sit-in prayed at both ends of Salah Salem Street, in an area they had closed off to traffic – in front of the Republican Guard Headquarters at one end and inside and outside the Mostafa Mosque at the other end. In between is a set of residential buildings, the Obour buildings, and a number of military and government buildings, including the Planning Ministry.

At the Mostafa Mosque
Witness accounts indicate that security forces began to move in on demonstrators around 3:20 a.m. Protesters appear to have had more warning of the approach of security forces at the end of the street near the Mostafa Mosque. Ahmed Hussein, who lives high-up in Obour building 9 overlooking the mosque, told Human Rights Watch:

I heard the noise of banging on metal downstairs, which was the rallying call during the revolution when there was danger, so I went on the balcony, and hundreds of Brotherhood members had just finished prayer and were coming out of the mosque when I saw the military and riot police moving in on them. I could see they weren’t expecting this because they started hurriedly breaking up stones. There were around 12 military APCs and two CSF [riot police] trucks. They started shooting teargas at the Brotherhood.

Hussein added that heavy shooting, including automatic gunfire, began at approximately 3:53 a.m., and that most of the shots came from the army side, but he heard some coming from the protesters’ direction as well.

His account corroborated that of a Brotherhood protester, Hazem Mamdouh, who told Human Rights Watch that police began moving in at approximately 3:20 a.m., before the dawn prayer, which he had prayed that morning at the Mostafa Mosque, ended:

We heard the protesters guarding the sit-in hitting rocks on metal, which is always a warning. We saw what seemed like police trucks – it was still dark so I couldn’t really tell – coming from Salah Salem toward the Republican Guard headquarters and all of a sudden there was teargas everywhere. Straight away we heard the loud sound of automatic weapons. I ran in the direction of the Republican Guard headquarters to hide in the side streets. We were not prepared at all.

Hossam al-Qadi, a resident of Obour building 10, across the street from the mosque, said he woke up at 4 a.m. to the sound of automatic rifles and teargas canisters being shot. “From my window I saw the police firing [tear]gas, and right behind them the military was standing firing in the air, because obviously if they had targeted the Muslim Brotherhood [supporters] they would have shot the police, but they weren’t, they were firing in the air. The mosque’s imam was calling for help… I saw people running toward the mosque and not the other direction. 

At the Republican Guard Headquarters
At other end of Salah Salem Street, Muslim Brotherhood protesters were praying the dawn prayer directly in front of the Republican Guard headquarters when they heard shots in the distance. A Muslim Brotherhood supporter, Mohsen Sudan, 43, from Kafr al-Sheikh, told Human Rights Watch:

The night before there was no indication anything would go wrong. We were thanking the head of the Republican Guard for his behavior and how he was treating us well. We were thousands – we didn’t expect this to happen.

[At dawn] we were finishing up our prayers. We heard the sound of gunshots and the imam rushed the end of the prayer. Then there was the sound of shooting from the left side [from the direction of Mostafa Mosque]. After 15, maybe 20 minutes, people started to fall. I ran back, away from the Republican Guard headquarters. There were snipers on one of the military buildings. I was in the middle of the road [perpendicular to Salah Salem and leading to the Republican Guard headquarters] and I saw two youth filming from their balcony. The snipers [across the road] shot at them. They continued shooting until 10:30 a.m.

A resident in the building overlooking the Republican Guard told Human Rights Watch that she saw teargas being fired over several hours and that the army was breaking up the sit-in. Karam Mahmoud, 29, from Bani Soueif, a participant in the sit-in, said that after the dawn prayer he heard the sound of teargas being fired and went in that direction: 

At the beginning we heard the sound of banging on lampposts. Then we saw the Republican Guard coming from the left of the building. They were firing birdshot and then security forces came from the left and from the right. The gas was so heavy. We fell back, the moment they came toward us they fired birdshot at us immediately. It was a horrible scene: dense and continuous fire. This was in front of the Ministry of Planning. I was wounded by birdshot, I went to the field hospital.

Mohamed Hassan, a Muslim Brotherhood supporter, said: 

We were praying when the protesters in charge of securing the sit-in started to call out. Some people went to see what was happening, others kept praying. We went up to the barrier that we had made and we were surprised to see the army face to face with us, and on the other side of the street, the police.

Human Rights Watch spoke to Mohamed Shehata, a driver who was standing in front of a residential building next to the Republican Guard headquarters guarding cars. He said that the military had shouted warnings through loudspeakers. Then, he said, “The army shot teargas at them and the Muslim Brotherhood threw stones back at them.” Shehata did not witness any use of live ammunition at that point.

Clashes and Unlawful Killings
Over the next six hours, witnesses said, army troops shot live ammunition and riot police shot teargas and birdshot as Muslim Brotherhood supporters threw stones and Molotov cocktails, and in some cases fired guns back at the security forces. Video footage released by the military and footage from mobile phones of witnesses supports those accounts, showing military snipers stationed on rooftops with automatic rifles shooting into the crowd. Footage reviewed by Human Rights Watch showed three Muslim Brotherhood supporters firing guns.

Mohamed Mahmoud, a resident of Obour building 4, told Human Rights Watch that the noise and smell of teargas woke him up. He said he saw one Muslim Brotherhood supporter shoot birdshot at the security forces.

Hossam al-Qadi, a resident of Obour building 10, across the street from the Mostafa Mosque,  said he saw Muslim Brotherhood supporters throwing rocks at the army and that he saw “at least one person [among the protesters] firing birdshot. I saw the spark.”

In at least two incidents reviewed by Human Rights Watch, security force fire appears to have killed unarmed, peaceful demonstrators. In one video viewed by Human Rights Watch, which appears to be authentic, a group of men are standing watching the clashes in the distance without appearing to have participated in them, when one man on the left suddenly falls to the ground. As the others pick up his body, which appears lifeless, blood seeps through the back of his shirt. In another incident, photographer Ahmed Assa, 26, was killed by a sniper while filming the events. In the footage posted online, he films a military sniper on the roof of the defense ministry building who fires shots in another direction, then turns and fires directly at the cameraman.

Ashraf Sayed, a wounded protester who Human Rights Watch spoke with in the hospital, said that security forces shot him though he had no weapon:

There were two lines of army and police. The black-clothed men [Central Security Forces] shot me with birdshot. There was nothing in my hands.

At least four more protesters interviewed said they were unarmed and were wounded by gunfire, in some cases while retreating from the clashes. Wael Badr said that just before 4 a.m. he had heard that the sit-in was being attacked and ran down with others from the sit-in at the mosque of Rab’a al-Adawiyya, the site of the main Muslim Brotherhood protest, a 15 minute walk from Salah Salem Street, and found that there was constant shooting:

They [security forces] had snipers on the rooftops. Teargas was being fired, we could hardly see, there was continuous gunfire. I ducked down to avoid the teargas at one point and thank God I got up because at that point a bullet entered my leg and the bullet is still there. It hasn’t been removed.

 Mohamed Hassan, a Muslim Brotherhood supporter, said:

There were two armored vehicles firing a lot of teargas so we couldn’t really see. At that point the army started shooting live gunfire. I saw two people shot in the head who were standing in front of me at the barricades. We started to retreat when we were surprised to see dozens of people wounded on the ground. We don’t know where they were hit. We kept retreating. One of my friends was shot through the leg. When I went to pick him up I was shot [with birdshot] in the chest.

Ahmad Salah, a pharmacist and Muslim Brotherhood member, said:

I was in Rab’a [mosque] when I heard that the sit-in was being attacked so I ran down from Tayaran Street and came out where the tunnel is. They were shooting teargas non-stop. There was a big armored vehicle moving backward and forward. They were shooting birdshot at the ground in front of us. I was standing alone on the pavement in front of the Sonesta hotel trying to decide which way to go when I suddenly was shot in the lower calf of my left leg.

In one video filmed that morning, protesters carry away from Tayran Street on motorcycles at least ten wounded people over a seven minute period, while regular shooting is audible, though not the continuous fire of machine guns. Many appear to have been shot by bullets rather than birdshot, and two appear to be shot in the head, two in the chest, and two in the stomach.

A Muslim Brotherhood protester, Hazem Mamdouh, said he had prayed at the Mostafa Mosque:

We saw a number of both police trucks and military APCs behind lines of military police and CSF conscripts carrying plastic shields. We honestly started throwing rocks at them at this point. They were very organized. They started shooting teargas, birdshot, and everything. Near the Sonesta Hotel some people started making a metal fence from whatever they found in the area to protect everyone. We were also throwing rocks. A couple of people climbed the roof of one of the Obour buildings, a tall one, and they were throwing Molotov cocktails, a couple of them, not a lot.

The security forces started approaching us from Tayaran Street, and that’s also when I noticed the snipers on top of the building opposite to one that was on fire. I even saw a cameraman standing with his camera for like two minutes without hiding, which proves that we weren’t armed or else he’ll protect himself. I took cover, but I saw corpses of people on the ground whenever I looked to see what was happening.

 Ahmed al-Sayed, 21, a Muslim Brotherhood protester, said:

It was around 4:45 [in the morning] and we were running from Tayaran Street to Mohamed Talaat Street, and they were shooting live ammo, teargas, and birdshot. I only got shot in the nose, thanks to the helmet I was wearing. The youth were fighting back with fireworks, flares, and by pelting rocks.

[By]7 a.m. the snipers were deliberately killing people. I carried seven bodies, all shot in the upper body. The last one I carried was shot in the head.

Al-Sayed told Human Rights Watch that his friend Ammar Hassan, from Luxor, had been shot in the neck: “I saw his body as they pulled it out of the ambulance and saw the bullet wound in the left side of his neck.”

The Injuries
Preliminary reports by the official Forensic Medical Authority confirm that all those killed were shot with live ammunition. Dr. Ahmed Abdulbar, emergency room doctor at the Health Insurance Hospital, which is the closest to the Rab’a sit-in, told Human Rights Watch that the hospital had received 400 cases, including 30 dead bodies, between 4 a.m. and 8 a.m. on July 8, and that: “Most of the cases here were gunshots to the abdomen. Most were shot with live bullets or birdshot.” An emergency room doctor at the same hospital said, “I’ve been more than 20 years at this hospital and I’ve never seen this many deaths in one day.”

The director of the Demerdash Hospital, which specializes in surgery, told Human Rights Watch that on July 8:

We received 40 cases from those in front of the Republican Guard. The first death we received today was Farag Mohamed Mohamed Abdullah, 35, dead when he arrived at the hospital. He died of a bullet wound to the chest. All of the cases that came in today were injured with live bullets, most in the lower half of their bodies, but one was also shot in the chest [in addition to Farag], four in the eye, and one in the neck.

Military Account of Shootings
In an official statement reported by the State Information Service website, the army said that an “armed terrorist group” attempted to break into the Republican Guard headquarters in the early hours of July 8, and “attacked security forces.” The army said it had arrested at least 200 people who had “large quantities of firearms, ammunition, and Molotov cocktails.” It also said that it had reopened Salah Salem Road, which pro-Morsy protesters had blocked for several days. In a July 8 news conference, the military spokesman, Col. Ahmed Ali, defended the military’s actions as necessary to protect the Republican Guard building, denied any wrongdoing on the part of the military, and did not say that the military had ordered an investigation into the killings. He said:

The army is a target of psychological warfare and campaign of lies. The Egyptian army only kills its enemies, never its children. This is part of the psychological war they are waging… Every country would allow soldiers to protect a military installation.

That same day Colonel Ali told the Associated Press: “What excessive force? We were dealing with people shooting at us with live ammunition. It would have been excessive if we killed 300.”

Lawyers from the National Community for Human Rights obtained a copy of the July 8 police report, number 9134/2013, by the Cairo General Investigative Bureau. The report states:

Security services learned that protesters at the sit-in in front of the Republican Guard on Salah Salem Street attacked the premises, shooting live ammunition and birdshot, throwing stones from neighboring buildings toward the Republican Guard base…  In response to this, the armed forces units protecting the base shot sound bullets and the Central Security Forces shot teargas to disperse the groups responsible.

Prosecutors arrived at the scene at least four hours after the shooting started, and witnesses said that, as far as they were aware, prosecutors had not questioned any witnesses and family members in relation to the 51 deaths. Two Muslim Brotherhood lawyers told Human Rights Watch that they began calling prosecutors at 10 a.m. to come to the scene, but that they appeared at 1:30 p.m. Prosecutors arrived at the Health Insurance Hospital at 1:30 p.m. and told Human Rights Watch staff at that time that they were just starting the investigation, and would visit only formal hospitals and not the informal field hospital at the sit-in. Prosecutors are investigating only Muslim Brotherhood members, for their alleged role in throwing rocks at the military and for the deaths of the two policemen and one military officer. Lawyers for the victims told Human Rights Watch that prosecutors have not summoned any police officers or attempted to summon any military officers to investigate their role in the killings.

Military and police forces arrested 652 protesters at the site and took them before various prosecutors’ offices. Prosecutors interrogated them and released 446 on a 2,000 Egyptian Pounds (US$285) bail. The prosecutors ordered the detention of the 206 others for 15 days, on charges of: assembly that violates public order and safety; the possession and use of firearms and knives in circumstances other than those authorized by law; thuggery; destruction of public and private property; attacks on military installations; assault of armed forces personnel; murder and attempted murder; and injury of civilians and military personnel.

In the afternoon on July 8, interim president Mansour ordered the formation of a “judicial fact-finding committee” and expressed sorrow at the deaths of Egyptians “in relation to the attempt to break into the Republican Guard [headquarters].” Authorities have made no information public about the composition or powers of that committee. The test of whether this panel will be able to conduct a genuine investigation will be whether it has the authority to subpoena military officers, an authority that can only be granted by an additional Constitutional Declaration by the president, who at present has sole legislative authority, Human Rights Watch said.

As with the 2012 Constitution passed while President Morsy was in power, the interim president’s July 8 Constitutional Declaration gives the military justice system sole jurisdiction over crimes related to military personnel.

The military justice system in Egypt has for years consistently failed to investigate adequately and prosecute cases involving military abuses, such as extrajudicial killings, torture, beatings, and violence against women. 

The military has not investigated incidents in which video footage captured groups of military police beating and kicking women on December 16, 2011, including one veiled woman who lay on the ground with her torso exposed, while six military police officers beat and kicked her.

There has been no investigation of the torture of protesters in March 2011 in downtown Cairo at Lazoghli, or in May 2012 at Abbasiyya.

The only cases for which the military justice system has investigated abuses of civilians were the sexual assault of women protesters in March 2011 in a military prison under the guise of “virginity tests,” and the killing by the military of 27 protesters in front of the Maspero building in October 2001. Neither investigation addressed the responsibility of any senior commanders; in the Maspero case, prosecutors refused to investigate the role of the military in the shooting of protesters, but focused only on the role of low ranking soldiers responsible for crushing protesters with military vehicles.

The investigations and trials in these two cases underscore the continuing failure of the military justice system to investigate those at senior levels, even when faced with strong evidence of serious crimes, Human Rights Watch said. This is hardly surprising, because the military justice system, including the prosecutors and judges, are not independent of those they are investigating, and remain in the same chain of command.

On March 11, 2012, a military court acquitted the only military officer charged in connection with the March 2011 “virginity tests” incident. The military prosecutor summoned no witnesses for the prosecution to establish the charges under which he had referred the case to court, nor did he challenge apparently factually inconsistent testimony by defense witnesses. Despite clear statements from senior military leaders conceding that the incident had taken place, the trial did not examine who, and at what rank, ordered the tests.

The 1989 UN Principles on the Effective Prevention and Investigation of Extra-legal, Arbitrary and Summary Executions provide guidance on criteria for an appropriate investigation. Principle 9 states that:

The purpose of the investigation shall be to determine the cause, manner and time of death, the person responsible, and any pattern or practice which may have brought about that death. It shall include an adequate autopsy, collection and analysis of all physical and documentary evidence and statements from witnesses.

And principle 11 states that:

In cases in which the established investigative procedures are inadequate because of lack of expertise or impartiality, because of the importance of the matter or because of the apparent existence of a pattern of abuse, and in cases where there are complaints from the family of the victim about these inadequacies or other substantial reasons, Governments shall pursue investigations through an independent commission of inquiry or similar procedure. Members of such a commission shall be chosen for their recognized impartiality, competence and independence as individuals. In particular, they shall be independent of any institution, agency or person that may be the subject of the inquiry. The commission shall have the authority to obtain all information necessary to the inquiry and shall conduct the inquiry as provided for under these Principles.