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Michael Mansfield: Legal redress for violation of right to life in Egypt can be challenged in the African Court on Human and People's Rights

January 30, 2014 at 1:08 pm

In the weeks since President Mohamed Morsi was deposed, Egyptian protesters have taken to the streets with increasing frequency. Their demands for a return to electoral legitimacy have been met with lethal force at the hands of the authorities. Both the military and police forces have been behind some of the fatal responses to protests, resulting in hundreds being killed.

The Interior Ministry has denied using force or live ammunition against the protesters, but a number of videos, as well as eye-witness accounts have contradicted these claims. Apart from the testimonies of those at the marches, doctors treating the wounded at field hospitals on the ground have also presented evidence confirming that the injured and dead were the victims of gunfire. Yet despite the rising number of causalities, the Egyptian authorities continue to plough on, announcing that the sit-ins will be broken up by force.

Despite the Arab Spring, the traditional brutality of Egypt’s security forces seems to be continuing. During the January 25 Revolution of 2011 there were numerous claims of human rights abuses suffered by protesters at the hands of the Egyptian authorities; assaults, injuries and deaths were attributed commonly to the military and the police. The Egyptian security forces of the Mubarak era were notorious for their brutality and during the revolution they exhibited grim determination to exert control. Whilst they were unable to halt the revolution the stories of abuse from protesters brought worldwide condemnation.

In Egypt, the condemnation was less apparent, but concerns were raised by numerous parties who had participated in the revolution. Indeed, one of the major catalysts of the revolution was the death of Khaled Mohammed Said in Alexandria, at the hands of the police. After rallies and protests led by some of the more prominent Egyptian revolutionaries, the authorities pledged to bring to a halt the brutal means employed by the security forces. Nevertheless, the investigation and trial into Said’s death was delayed frequently and resulted in a lenient sentence for just two police officers. Those revolutionaries who brought about Mubarak’s downfall led the strongest condemnation of the security forces but there was little accountability and few officers were ever brought to justice.

As a new phase in Egyptian politics plays out, the military and police forces appear to be falling back into their old ways. The security forces have caused untold harm to the nation’s morale and indeed have faced little condemnation from those Egyptians who supported the removal of Morsi. Despite the numerous killings in recent weeks, the security forces have so far faced no reprimands from the interim authorities. Amnesty International called for “urgent, impartial investigations” after the deaths of 51 people outside the Republican Guards’ Club at the beginning of the turmoil. Hassiba Hadj Sahraoui, Amnesty’s Deputy Director of the Middle East and North Africa Programme said, “Egypt’s authorities have a poor track record of delivering truth and justice for human rights violations … Past military investigations have white-washed army abuses, and the authorities have buried the conclusions of a fact-finding report that they ordered into protester-killings, refusing to make it public.” Egypt’s Public Prosecution, she pointed out, has spent more time charging government critics than it has prosecuting the police and army for human rights violations. “Effective investigations are critical to stop officials from repeating human rights violations.”

The Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights told MEMO, “We have repeatedly stressed that it is the duty of the security forces to protect all citizens, whatever their political views. It is extremely important that security forces do not resort to excessive use of force. People have a right to make peaceful protests. All measures taken by the authorities must fully respect the law and international human rights standards.” High Commissioner Navi Pillay warned on 28 July that the confrontational approach by both sides in Egypt “is leading to disaster” and has called twice for a credible, independent and prompt investigation into large-scale killings, in which the security forces appear to be implicated.

“We continue to monitor developments in Egypt and urge all parties to set aside their grievances and engage in urgent national dialogue with the aim of restoring constitutional order through free and democratic elections and to end the violence and all hate speech,” she added.

Concern about the Egyptian authorities’ lack of respect for human rights and international law has been voiced by numerous parties, both in Egypt and internationally. Leading human rights lawyer Michael Mansfield QC told MEMO, “The killing of peaceful protesters is a violation of the right to life wherever committed and is a breach of human rights law. Legal redress for the breach depends on the region of the world where it is committed. In this case it comes under the African Charter on Human and People’s Rights Article 4 (the Banjul charter Gambia). There is an African oversight Commission established in 1987 and an African Court on Human and People’s Rights. Plus of course there should be domestic provision as well.”

The pressure is now on for international and domestic provisions to be used to bring those responsible for the deaths of Egyptian protesters to justice.