The US NGOs Egyptians Abroad for Democracy (EAD) and CODEPINK have filed a complaint at the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) following the dismissal by France’s Prosecutor for Crimes against Humanity and General Prosecutor of their complaint against Egypt and France for crimes against humanity, complicity and torture committed during a secret military operation in western Egypt known as “Operation Sirli”.
In their submission, the NGOs’ legal counsels Haydee Dijkstal and Louise Dumas argue that the refusal to initiate an investigation or a prosecution and the failure of the French legal system to provide for an independent review of the Prosecutor’s decision violates the rights of the NGOs and Egyptian civilian victims to the truth as a reparation, as per Article 6 of the European Convention; and to an effective remedy, as per Articles 2 and 13 of the convention.
Today’s submission argues that France violated its obligation to protect the right to life (Article 2) by failing its procedural obligation to investigate alleged violations of the right to life involving State agents.
“The case before the ECHR is about the fundamental principles of the rule of law which allow for serious international crimes and human rights violations to achieve accountability and justice – access to justice, the right to the truth and the right to a remedy,” explained UK barrister and US attorney Dijkstal. “By not affording the NGOs with an effective investigation into the grave and systematic crimes against victims they raised, and providing no mechanism for review before an independent and impartial tribunal, these principles have been breached and the protections they afforded put at risk.”
French lawyer Dumas added: “Since Disclose published its amazing investigation on Operation Sirli two years ago, the only person who has been threatened is the very journalist thanks to whom the public knows about these crimes. Operation Sirli is obviously a highly sensitive case, but we need the ECHR to put an end to this impunity circle.”
In November 2021, Disclose revealed the existence of this aerial surveillance operation on the Egyptian-Libyan border and exposed France’s knowledge that Operation Sirli was actually and mostly being used by Egypt to target and kill extrajudicially civilians involved in contraband activities and not terrorism. The data collected by France made possible the summary bombardment by the Egyptian forces of hundreds of vehicles, thus killing and injuring several hundred civilians, without any other form of trial or more advanced verifications.
Information and evidence indicate that in April 2016 and on several occasions in 2016, 2017, 2018 and 2019, the French operators alerted their superiors to Sirli’s lack of interest in the fight against terrorism and the risks of French involvement in what constitute crimes against humanity. Despite these warnings, Operation Sirli was maintained.
It was with French assistance, said the President of EAD, Mohamed Ismail, that the Egyptian regime has massacred civilians at the Libyan border. “So far, France’s judiciary has turned a blind eye to these unspeakable crimes. But justice will prevail if we keep trying.”
In November and December 2021, attempts by French MPs to question the French Government on the revelations made by Disclose fell through after the Ministry of Armed Forces announced an internal investigation “into the information revealed”, the findings of which were kept confidential and concluded that the ministry was released from any responsibility.
Nevertheless, CODEPINK believes that the fight must go on for the victims of Operation Sirli. “The operation began in February 2016,” said Medea Benjamin, co-founder of the peace group. “It is the result of a confidential anti-terrorism cooperation agreement between the French government and the Egyptian authorities.”
In September 2023, the independent journalist whose work on Operation Sirli was published by Disclose in November 2021, Ariane Lavrilleux, was detained and questioned for 48 hours by agents of the DGSI, France’s intelligence agency, after the French Army Ministry filed a legal complaint for “violation of national defence secrets”. Although she has not been indicted so far, this move was criticised as a huge blow to media freedom by rights groups and “a serious attempt at the confidentiality of journalists’ sources” by Reporters Sans Frontières.
Today’s legal action follows the submission of a complaint Egyptians Abroad for Democracy and CODEPINK in Paris on 12 September, 2023. The case was filed with the Crimes against Humanity, War Crimes Unit of the French National Anti-Terrorist Prosecutor’s Office (PNAT).
On 19 December 2022, the Prosecutor’s Office sent a letter to the NGOs’ legal counsels dismissing the case with no explanation other than that the complaint was “insufficiently substantiated” despite extensive reference to supporting evidence therein.
Although witness statements were added to the application in April 2023 providing information on the safety and security of victims and witnesses, the decision of 19 December was not reconsidered. EAD and CODEPINK appealed on 30 May last year to the French General Prosecutor who affirmed the PNAT’s Prosecutor’s decision on 9 October. This final communication exhausted EAD and CODEPINK’s domestic remedies to challenge the decision not to open an investigation into international crimes under the principle of universal jurisdiction.
Ghada Naguib, a founding member of EAD Turkey, described the French Prosecutors’ decision as truly disappointing and undeserving of the reputation of France as a champion of human rights. “We remain determined to get justice for the countless civilians who were bombed by their own army with the knowledge and support of the French army.”