(Cairo, December 10, 2013) – Thirteen Egyptian and international human rights organizations called on the Egyptian authorities today, on international Human Rights Day, to acknowledge, and seriously and thoroughly investigate the killing of up to 1,000 people by security forces dispersing Muslim Brotherhood sit-ins on August 14, 2013.
The government has not established a public record of what occurred that day, and the Office of the Public Prosecutor has yet to investigate and hold members of security forces accountable for excessive and unjustified use of lethal force, the groups said. Egypt has a newly created Transitional Justice Ministry, but it has yet to take any meaningful steps toward truth-seeking and justice in relation to allegations of gross human rights violations by security forces over the past three years.
“There can be no hope for the rule of law and political stability in Egypt, much less some modicum of justice for victims, without accountability for what may be the single biggest incident of mass killing in Egypt's recent history on August 14,” said Gasser Abdel-Razek, associate director at the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights. “For almost three years now, successive Egyptian governments have ignored calls for justice, as police brutality and the accompanying death toll continue to mount with each incident.”
The 13 organizations include the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights, Warakom Beltaqrir, the Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies, the Arab Network for Human Rights Information, the Center for Egyptian Women Legal Assistance, the Association for Freedom of Thought and Expression, the Nadim Center for the Rehabilitation of Victims of Torture, Nazra for Feminist Studies, Alkarama Foundation, the Egyptian Center for Economic and Social Rights, Amnesty International, the International Federation for Human Rights, and Human Rights Watch.
As a first step toward accountability, the government should establish an effective independent fact-finding committee to investigate responsibility throughout the chain of command for the unlawful killings, the organizations said. It should have the authority to summon officials and witnesses, and to issue a public report and recommendations, which can only be granted through a cabinet decree.
In September, Prime Minister Hazem Beblawy told the Egyptian daily Al Masry al-Youm that the death toll on August 14 was “close to 1,000.” On November 14, the Forensic Medical Authority said the number of bodies brought to the official morgue or hospitals was 726, but that the number excluded bodies buried directly by their families. The Egyptian Center for Economic and Social Rights has compiled a list of 904 names of people killed in the dispersal of the Rabaa sit-in.
The human rights organizations have documented the use of excessive force by security forces in breaking up the sit-ins and unlawful killings of unarmed protesters. At least 19 of those killed during the dispersal of the Rabaa sit-in were women, as Nazra for Feminist Studies documented in their September 10 report.
A small minority of protesters used firearms that day, but the police responded excessively by shooting recklessly, going far beyond what is permitted under international law, which prescribes that resorting to lethal force may occur only when strictly unavoidable to protect life. Security forces failed to carry out the operation in a way that minimized the risk to life, including by ensuring safe exits and giving clear orders not to use lethal force unless strictly unavoidable to protect lives and used in a discriminate manner.
“The killing of seven police officers during the dispersal of the Rabaa sit-in does not justify the kind of collective punishment of hundreds of protesters and disproportionate use of lethal force that we saw that day,” said Bahey el Din Hassan, director of the Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies.
Before the August 14 forcible dispersals, security forces also used excessive and unlawful lethal force outside the Republican Guard Club Headquarters in Nasr City on July 8, when 61 protesters and two members of the security forces died, and on Nasr Street near the Rabaa al-Adawaiya protest camp on July 27, when 95 protesters and one police officer died. Subsequently, they used reckless fire leading to the death of 120 people around Ramsis Square on August 16, and yet again used excessive and unwarranted lethal force to disperse pro-Morsi marches on October 6, leading to at least 57 deaths.
Over the past two and a half years, in spite of overwhelming evidence gathered by human rights groups, the Interior Ministry has denied any wrongdoing on the part of the police in any incident that led to deaths, just as it did under former President Hosni Mubarak. After the Nasr Street killings, Interior Minister Mohamed Ibrahim said: “I can assure you, we have never, as police, pointed a firearm at the chest of any protester.” In a news conference on August 14, he also said that his ministry had successfully dispersed the two sit-ins in Rabaa al-Adawiya and al-Nahda “without losses,” and referred to a non-existent “international standard death rate of 10 percent in the dispersal of non-peaceful sit-ins.” Other members of the government have failed to distance themselves from these statements or to acknowledge any wrongdoing by security forces, the organizations said.
In all of these incidents, prosecutors have selectively investigated only protesters on charges of assault after clashes with security forces and ignored the steadily rising death toll among protesters, the organizations said. Prosecutors have detained over 1,104 protesters and bystanders in pretrial detention for the past three months, pending interrogation on charges of assaulting security officers and other acts of violence on August 14 and 16, but have failed to investigate or hold accountable any security officer on charges of killing protesters, the organizations said.
Prosecutors have referred to trial former president Mohamed Morsy and other Muslim Brotherhood members on charges relating to the killing of 3 and torture of 54 protesters near the Presidential Palace on December 5, 2012, yet failed to investigate or indict anyone for the killing of at least seven protesters on the Brotherhood side that same evening.
Egypt’s obligation under international law to provide victims of human rights violations and crimes access to an effective remedy includes three elements: the establishment of a truth-seeking process, including publicizing the facts about crimes and violations of human rights; accountability for past crimes through criminal prosecutions; and the provision of full and effective reparation to the victims and their families, which should include effective guarantees that the violations will not be repeated.
Interim President Adly Mansour promised to set up a fact-finding committee into the July 8 Republican Guard headquarters violence – the first major documented incident of excessive and unlawful use of force following Morsy’s overthrow. On September 17, the cabinet website announced that the latest cabinet meeting had agreed to establish a fact-finding committee to look into the “events that have occurred since June 30.” But the government has taken no further steps to establish the committee.
The National Council for Human Rights (NCHR), Egypt’s government-appointed national human rights commission, announced on September 20 that it had appointed four fact-finding teams to produce reports about the events of August 14: the killings during the dispersal of the sit-ins, the attacks on police stations and killing of police officers in Cairo and in Minya, and the attacks on churches in at least eight governorates across Egypt. However, like any other human rights organization, the NCHR can only request information from the Interior Ministry and has no authority to access its documents or to summon security officers for questioning, and is therefore no replacement for an official fact-finding committee.
Prime Minister Beblawy should by decree establish a fact-finding committee that is independent of government and the military, the human rights organizations said. The committee should have the authority to compel witnesses to testify, including former and incumbent state officials, irrespective of their official capacity, and powers of subpoena, search and seizure, all subject to judicial review.
The committee should seek to collect information from a variety of sources, including public archives, medical and morgue records, reports by human rights organizations and previous fact-finding committees, including the Fact-Finding Committee established by deposed President Morsy in June 2012, whose results have yet to be made public officially. It should also gather testimony from victims, families and officials. The government decree should specify that the committee is to make its findings public and share them with judicial authorities, and share full details with victims, their relatives and any individual who suffered harm as the direct result of a human rights violation.
“Victims of human rights violations, as well as society at large, have a right to know the whole truth about past human rights violations,” said Hassiba Hadj Sahraoui, Middle East and North Africa deputy director at Amnesty International. “After the unprecedented levels of violence and casualties seen since the ousting of Mohamed Morsy, investigations must provide real answers and cannot be another whitewash of the security forces record. Egypt’s authorities cannot deal with the carnage through PR in world’s capitals, rewriting events and locking up of Morsy’s supporters.”
The committee should explore the responsibility of senior-level officials in the chain of command for the instructions they issued, their knowledge and role in authorizing and controlling the use of force against protesters or their failure to prevent unlawful behavior by their subordinates.
The committee should also determine whether there is any evidence of any policy to kill protesters or commit other serious crimes. It should also look into the failure of senior-level officials to ensure safe exit for unarmed protesters, the injured, and children, as well as to ensure the lawfulness of the use of force by security forces. Authorities should make public the investigation’s findings and recommendations.
The Public Prosecutor’s Office should open an impartial and credible investigation into allegations of unlawful killings by security forces, while ensuring that sensitive information is not tampered with and that the officials suspected of wrongdoing are suspended from their duties for the duration of the investigation.
A series of sexual crimes took place in Tahrir Square and its vicinity from November 2012 onward, the groups said. Many women were sexually assaulted – some of them raped, with fingers and sharp objects. From June 28 to July 7, 2013 mobs of men sexually assaulted and in some cases raped at least 186 women. Nazra has submitted recommendations to the presidency and government on the need to integrate gender issues and perspective within transitional justice mechanisms by focusing on the structural causes for gender inequalities and addressing discriminatory practices that contribute to weakening and targeting women during periods of oppression and conflict.
“Any truth-seeking process must also include accountability for gender-based human rights violations committed since January 2011 which successive governments have thus far ignored,” said Mozn Hassan, executive director at Nazra for Feminist Studies. “For a start, the government needs to address unprecedented mass sexual violence that took place in Tahrir Square.”
In recent years, Egypt has made some failed efforts to investigate killings of protesters by security forces. In February 2011, Ahmad Shafik, then prime minister under Mubarak, set up a fact-finding committee and appointed independent commissioners to investigate the killing of protesters in January 2011. The committee publicized a summary of its findings and its recommendations in April 2011, which found that police forces had killed protesters and called for security sector reforms, but did not release the complete report.
In July 2012, Morsy set up a fact-finding committee to investigate violence against protesters from January 2011 to June 2012. Morsy’s decree ordered all state agencies to comply with the committee’s request for information and gave the committee the authority to review “measures taken by executive branches of government and the extent to which they cooperated with the judicial authorities and any shortcomings that may exist,” to require cooperation from security agencies that had previously blocked access to crucial information. The committee finalized its report and submitted it to Morsy at the end of December 2012, but he refused to make it public. In April 2012, the Egyptian daily al Shorouk and the Guardian published leaked drafts of several chapters of the report on the unlawful use of live ammunition by the police and the torture of detained protesters by the military.
Efforts to prosecute security forces and senior government officials for the unlawful killing of protesters, including holding accountable those in senior decision-making positions in the chain of command, have also overwhelmingly failed.
The Office of the Public Prosecutor investigated Mubarak and other senior officials for their role in ordering the killing of protesters. The North Cairo criminal court convicted Mubarak and his former interior minister for failing to protect protesters in January 2011 while it acquitted, for lack of evidence the four assistant ministers of interior in charge of ordering the police response to the January protests. The prosecution said that it had received little co-operation from the General Intelligence national security unit and the Interior Ministry, complicating the process of gathering evidence. The court said that it found no evidence to “establish that the perpetrators of the killings of protesters were officers and members of the police.” In January Egypt’s highest appeal court, the Court of Cassation, overturned Mubarak’s conviction on points of law. A retrial of his case opened on April 13.
Since 2011, the courts have convicted and sentenced to prison only three low-level security officers. Almost three years after the overthrow of Mubarak, only two police officers are serving time for the killing of at least 846 protesters in January 2011. Only one police officer is in prison, serving a three-year sentence for shooting at protesters during the protest on Mohamed Mahmoud street in November 2011, when police killed 51 protesters over five days. The public prosecutor has not prosecuted any other police official for the death of the 451 protesters.
Three soldiers are serving two- and three-year sentences for the killing of 13 Christians during a demonstration at Maspero in Cairo in October 2011. There was no investigation into the armed forces’ shooting of 14 other protesters that night. There has been no investigation into the December 2011 violence, when military police beat and kicked women, nor into military police torture of protesters in March 2011 at Lazoghli in downtown Cairo or in May 2012 at Abbasiyya.
Reports by previous fact-finding committees have contributed toward criminal investigations. In May, the public prosecutor submitted an additional evidence brief in the retrial of Mubarak and Habib el-Adly, a former interior minister, based on the supplementary investigations it conducted after it received the report of the Morsy-appointed fact-finding committee.
One of the National Community for Human Rights’ campaigns, Warakom Beltaqrir, (After You with the Report), which calls for the publication of this second fact-finding committee report and the implementation of its recommendations, obtained and published this additional brief. The brief identified evidence that the police used lethal force in January 2011 against peaceful protesters and that the Interior Ministry subsequently tampered with ammunition log books to conceal this.
The transitional justice minister should issue the complete fact-finding committee reports produced by fact-finding committees in February 2011 and July 2012, the groups said.
“The fight for accountability is a comprehensive one,” said Ahmad Ragheb of the Warakom Beltaqrir campaign. “The families of peaceful protesters killed over the past three years, whether in Tahrir, at Mohammed Mahmoud, at Ettihadia, Port Said, or in Rabaa, all have a right to know how their loved ones died and to see their killers held accountable.”
The organizations called for the fact-finding committee also to develop recommendations for legal and institutional reforms aimed at ensuring that the human rights violations of the past will not be repeated. The changes should include reforming security institutions and amending national legislation to bring it in line with international law and standards. For example, all crimes under international law should become distinct crimes under national law, including crimes against humanity, war crimes, torture, enforced disappearance, and extrajudicial executions.
Legislation regulating public gatherings currently proposed by the government explicitly authorizes security forces to use firearms to defend “property,” contrary to international law and standards, which require that firearms only be used to prevent deaths or serious injuries. Legislation regulating the use of force and firearms by the police should be amended and brought in line with international standards and national best practices, the human rights organizations said. The concepts of necessity and proportionality should be integrated into the Police Act and complementary decrees, and use of lethal force should be explicitly restricted to situations where there is a grave threat to life or a threat of serious injury.
The fact-finding committee should also recommend the establishment of a vetting mechanism to ensure that all those found to be responsible for gross human rights violations and crimes under international law are removed from their duties.
Finally, the Egyptian government should cooperate with the United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, as it committed to doing during the September session of the Human Rights Council. The Egyptian government failed to grant visas requested in August to observers from the high commissioner’s office.
“It will be impossible for all of Egypt’s people to gain trust in their new government and justice system unless they see that those responsible, including those at the highest command levels, are held to account for the killings of protesters,” said Joe Stork, deputy Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “That Egyptian authorities have failed in their promise to examine the facts of these killings, much less punish those responsible, does not inspire confidence in their commitment to justice and truth.”
Please see below for a list of incidents in which security forces have killed protesters since January 2011.
List of incidents in which security forces have killed protesters since January 2011: