Four years ago today 37 Egyptians were gassed to death in a police van outside the Abu Zaabal prison in Cairo. Temperatures outside topped 31 degrees and many had already lost consciousness in the overcrowded vehicle. After around six hours policemen fired teargas through the windows and the prisoners inside suffocated. Only eight survived.
What: Police van gassing
When: 18 August 2013
On 14 August 2013 Egyptian security forces violently crushed a sit-in at Rabaa Al-Adawiya, massacring over 1,000 protesters who were demanding the return of their first democratically elected President Mohamed Morsi.
Thousands of the protesters were arrested, as were people who happened to be in the area at the time but had not attended the demonstrations. Five days later police Captain Amr Farouq supervised the transfer of these prisoners to Abu Zabaal prison.
Forty-five of them, handcuffed in pairs, were forced into a police van big enough for 24. The van was parked in a queue outside the prison but unlike the others its doors remained locked shut.
The temperature was over 31 degrees and many of the prisoners had already lost consciousness by the time policemen fired teargas through the window some six hours after the van had first arrived. Thirty-seven of the prisoners suffocated to death and only eight survived.
What happened next?
State officials – backed as always by the state-run media – claimed the prisoners had kidnapped a policeman and that they were forced to fire the gas inside to resume control. As most of detainees were unconscious from the heat and lack of water which would have made this virtually impossible.
Four of the 15 policemen who accompanied the van that day were later put on trial for negligence but the trial was postponed.
Eventually, in March 2014, Egyptian police Captain Amr Farouq was sentenced to ten years in jail for manslaughter, one of the first sentences given to an official since the July coup and one of the lengthiest sentences ever given to a policeman. The three other officers were given suspended sentences.
In June Farouq’s sentence was reversed on appeal and the case was sent to retrial. Many rights activists pointed out that this was confirmation of Egypt’s deeply-entrenched lack of accountability.
Not one official has been held accountable for the death of protesters during the January 2011 revolution, the Rabaa massacre, or any other deaths of protesters. Meanwhile, high profile officials – including former dictator Hosni Mubarak himself – have walked free.
Meanwhile, thousands of members of the opposition have been forcibly imprisoned, tortured, denied medical attention in prison and been handed the death penalty in mass trials and on scant evidence.