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Mass killings in Egypt get neither justice nor recognition

January 27, 2014 at 10:07 am

Today on International Human Rights Day, 13 local and international human rights organisations have called on the Egyptian authorities to acknowledge and investigate thoroughly the killing of up to 1,000 people by security forces dispersing Muslim Brotherhood protests on August 14, 2013. So far, the government has neglected to produce a public record of the atrocities.

Furthermore, the Office of the Public Prosecutor has yet to investigate and hold members of the security forces accountable for excessive and unjustified use of lethal force, the groups complain. Indeed, the recently-formed Transitional Justice Ministry has failed to take any meaningful steps toward documentation and justice with regards to such serious allegations of gross human rights violations by security forces committed 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 government needs to establish an effective independent fact-finding committee to investigate responsibility throughout the chain of command for the unlawful killings. 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 that the number of bodies brought to the official morgue or to local hospitals was 726; this excludes bodies buried directly by their families. The Egyptian Centre for Economic and Social Rights has compiled a list of 904 names of people killed in the dispersal of the Rabaa Al-Adawiyya Square sit-in.

According to the director of the Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies, the killing of seven police officers during the dispersal of the Rabaa sit-in did not justify the kind of collective punishment of hundreds of protesters seen on that day. “Nor did it justify the disproportionate use of lethal force by the army and police,” added Bahey El-Din Hassan.

Despite several reports about these gross violations over the last two and a half years from human rights organisations, the Interior Ministry rejects any wrongdoing on the part of the police in any incident that led to deaths. This was exactly what the ministry used to do under ousted President Hosni Mubarak.

After the Nasr Street killings, Interior Minister Mohamed Ibrahim claimed, “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 dispersed “successfully” the two sit-ins in Rabaa Al-Adawiyya and Al-Nahda Squares “without losses” and referred to a non-existent “international standard death rate of 10 per cent in the dispersal of non-peaceful sit-ins.”

Prosecutors have been selective in the cases investigated. More than 1,100 protesters and bystanders were detained on charges of assault after clashes with security forces, ignoring the steadily rising death toll among protesters, the organisations allege.

The National Council for Human Rights (NCHR), Egypt’s government-appointed national human rights commission, announced this September 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 all of the other human rights bodies in Egypt, the NCHR can only request information from the Interior Ministry and has no authority to gain access to the its documents or to call security officers for questioning. This council is, therefore, an inadequate substitute for an official fact-finding committee.

The Egyptian government needs to cooperate with the UNHCR, as it committed itself to do at the September session of the Human Rights Council. It has very conveniently failed to grant visas which were requested in August for 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.”

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.