Egyptian authorities accused of 'covering up' 23-26 January protester deaths - new evidence

A crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood and perceived supporters of Mohamed Morsi has already lasted 18 months © REUTERS/Mohamed Abd El Ghany
At least 500 people - including at least nine children and two disabled people - held in post-demonstrations round-ups
 
‘The authorities … appear to have orchestrated a cover-up’ - Hassiba Hadj Sahraoui
 
Evidence gathered by Amnesty International published today indicates that the Egyptian authorities are attempting to cover up the deaths of more than two dozen people who were killed in protests marking the 2011 uprising last weekend.  
 
At least 27 people were killed in protests between 23-26 January, during which some protesters resorted to violence and two members of the security forces were also killed.
 
Amnesty has reviewed testimonies from protesters, eyewitnesses and human rights lawyers, as well as video footage and photographs of the protests - including the shocking footage of the deaths of Shaimaa Al-Sabbagh in central Cairo on 24 January and Mina Maher on 25 January in the Cairo neighbourhood of Ain Shams. The organisation has found that security forces repeatedly fired tear gas, shotguns and occasionally other firearms at random into crowds of protesters and bystanders who were posing no threat. Prosecutors have threatened eyewitnesses with arrest and at least 500 demonstrators - including two disabled people and children - and bystanders are being held in unofficial detention centres across the country. Two journalists have also been detained while covering the protests.
 
Amnesty is calling on the Egyptian authorities to immediately and unconditionally release all those who are detained solely for peacefully exercising their rights to freedom of expression or assembly. The organisation is also demanding that the Egyptian authorities conduct prompt, independent investigations into the 23-26 January violence to identify individuals responsible and ensure their prosecution in fair trials without recourse to the death penalty
 
Amnesty International Middle East and North Africa Deputy Director Hassiba Hadj Sahraoui said:
 
“The authorities have not only used unnecessary or excessive force but they also appear to have orchestrated a cover-up of the disastrous events of last weekend to hide the brutal reality that Egyptian security forces have once again resorted to arbitrary and abusive force to crush protesters.
 
“The latest bombings in the Sinai are a stark reminder that Egypt is facing a security threat. However while the Egyptian authorities must ensure the safety of Egyptians, they cannot do so by trampling on human rights and ignoring their obligations under international law. 
 
“Threatening eyewitnesses and locking up anyone present at the protest in a bid to silence them is no way to conduct an impartial investigation. It smacks of a deliberate attempt at a whitewash.”
 
Amnesty said that robust action is now needed by the international community to address the mounting death toll and human rights crisis in Egypt. Amnesty has urged the USA and EU to continue to freeze deliveries of arms and equipment that may facilitate human rights violations by the security forces. Meanwhile, months of silence on Egypt at the UN Human Rights Council have emboldened the authorities to commit human rights violations on an unprecedented scale.
 

Deaths and cover-up 

The Egyptian authorities are trying to cover up the deaths of more than two dozen people killed in protests marking the 2011 uprising. Against the backdrop of a government smear campaign against protesters, Amnesty has gathered information on prosecutors threatening eyewitnesses with arrest and security forces detaining at least two journalists for their coverage of the protests - as well as holding at least 500 demonstrators and bystanders in unofficial detention centres. Official investigations ordered into the killings appear aimed at whitewashing mounting evidence of the security forces’ ruthless and unlawful actions. 
 
Security forces repeatedly used excessive force to disperse demonstrations between 23-26 January, or else failed to intervene in clashes between residents and protesters to stop the violence, Amnesty’s research has found. Some protests became violent, with a few individuals firing live ammunition. There were also a number of bombings across the country, particularly in Cairo, Alexandria and North Sinai. At least 27 people died in the violence, according to information available to Amnesty. They include at least two women, Sondos Reda Abu Bakr and Shaimaa Al-Sabbagh, as well as a ten-year-old boy, Mina Maher. Two members of the security forces also died in clashes with protesters, the Interior Ministry has said.
 
Amnesty has found that security forces repeatedly fired tear gas, shotguns, and occasionally other firearms at random into crowds of protesters and bystanders who were posing no threat. In other instances the security forces waited for several hours before intervening to stop the violence between protesters and residents, leading to several deaths. Security forces failed to take control of the situation or to respond to violence in a proportionate manner. The presence of armed individuals among protesters does not allow security forces to shoot randomly. Amnesty said that the Egyptian authorities must make clear that excessive use of force and firearms will not be tolerated, and they must ensure that security forces protect all Egyptians from violence regardless of their political affiliation. 
 

Muslim Brotherhood blamed

In recent days, Egypt’s government has hit back at criticism of its actions, pointing to investigations ordered into the violence by the public prosecutor. However, even as they are promising independent investigations, the authorities are scrambling to cover-up the security forces’ actions. In a statement on 26 January, the interior minister flatly denied accusations that his forces had fired on peaceful protesters and claimed the demonstrations were the work of the Muslim Brotherhood, which he said was intent on causing “chaos”. Security forces are meanwhile holding at least 500 people across the country, according to the minister of interior. The minister has accused all of them of being supporters of “the Muslim Brotherhood terrorist group”.
 

Detentions and intimidation

NGOs are aware of at least 200 protesters and bystanders who were arrested and held in Cairo in riot police camps at the edge of the city - which Egyptian law does not recognise as being official places of detention and which are not under judicial oversight. The detained include at least one woman, nine children and two disabled persons. The police are also detaining at least two journalists who were documenting the protests, an Egyptian human rights organisation told Amnesty. Prosecutors have refused to disclose where the detained protesters are being held and have blocked attempts by some human rights lawyers to represent the detainees or to file complaints for enforced disappearance. Lawyers told Amnesty that some were tortured during investigations by intelligence services.
 
A prosecutor has also ordered the arrest of eyewitnesses to Shaimaa Al-Sabbagh’s killing who had come forward to testify about what they had seen, in a move apparently aimed at intimidating eyewitnesses against testifying against the police. Official investigations into the killings are relying entirely on police witnesses and reports by the security forces and intelligence agencies, human rights lawyers have told Amnesty. The Egyptian authorities have long proved unwilling or incapable of delivering independent and impartial investigations into human rights violations.
 

Past failures to investigate

Despite the deaths of hundreds of protesters at the hands of the security forces since July 2013, investigations have yet to hold the security forces or government officials to account.
Former president Hosni Mubarak and his interior minister Habib El Adly were cleared last November of charges of killing hundreds of protesters during the 2011 uprising. The authorities have taken no action to rein in the security forces, despite the frequency and mass scale of the abuses they have been committing, particularly in policing protests. In fact, by enacting the November 2013 Protest Law, they have given the green light for such violations to continue with impunity.
 

CASES

Alexandria, 23 January

Sondos Reda Abu Bakr, a 17-year-old student, was killed during a protest in Alexandria on 23 January. She had sustained shotgun pellets to the head and face. Protesters had marched through the El-Asafra neighbourhood in Alexandria following communal prayers at midday. Security forces dispersed the march using shotguns and tear gas. Egyptian national media portrayed the killing of Sondos as a direct result of her participation in protests supporting the “banned Muslim Brotherhood terrorist group”. They also accused supporters of ousted president Mohamed Morsi of shooting her. It remains unclear who is responsible for Sondos Reda Abu Bakr’s death. Some protesters claimed that “thugs” working for the security forces shot her. The Egyptian government has stated that she was shot during clashes between protesters and residents in El-Asafra. The prosecutor opened an investigation into her killing but has yet to reveal the results.
 

Cairo, 24 January: the killing of Shaimaa Al-Sabbagh 

Security forces shot 32-year-old Shaimaa Al-Sabbagh on 24 January during a protest in central Cairo. Video footage and photographs of her last moments, captured by journalists and activists, have sparked widespread outrage in Egypt and beyond. Shaimaa Al-Sabbagh had been taking part in a peaceful commemoration march to Cairo’s iconic Tahrir Square by the Socialist Popular Alliance Party. The small group of around 35 protesters had been carrying a banner with the party’s name, as well as flowers to pay tribute to the hundreds who died during the 2011 uprising. They were marching on the pavement to avoid blocking traffic, chanting “bread, freedom and social justice” as they walked towards the square.
 
A party official told Amnesty that the protesters had planned to lay flowers on the “Martyrs Statue” at Tahrir Square and had chosen to march on 24 January to avoid any association with pro-Muslim Brotherhood protests, as they only wanted to commemorate the hundreds killed during the 2011 uprising and not to protest against the government. Security forces guarding the entrance to Tahrir Square stopped the march on nearby Talaat Harb Street.
 
Nagwa Abbas, a Socialist Popular Alliance Party official, told Amnesty:
 
“The party’s secretary general, Talaat Fahmy, approached the head of the security forces and asked him to let five of us pass to reach Tahrir Square to lay down the flowers. The conversation did not last more than two minutes. And then the head of the security pointed his finger at us. Then there was a heavy firing of shotgun pellets from the sides of security forces, at a distance of not more than ten metres. An armoured vehicle then started moving towards us, shooting birdshot. The people and I escaped to side streets. About five minutes later, I found my colleague Said Abu El-Ela holding Shaimaa and she was bleeding and not moving. The police followed us and arrested six of us, including the people who were carrying Shaimaa. I took Shaimaa in a private car and headed to a hospital nearby. She was lying on my lap and was bleeding from her mouth and neck. She was not moving and there was no any sign of life on her face. We reached a nearby hospital. Once the doctor saw her, she mourned with me, telling me that she was dead.”
 
The head of Egypt’s Forensic Authority later stated that Shaimaa Al-Sabbagh had sustained birdshot in the back and the back part of the head at a distance of eight metres. The birdshot had lacerated her lungs and heart and caused heavy bleeding in the thorax area. Azza Suleiman, Chair of the Center for Egyptian Women’s Legal Assistance, who was in a café on Talaat Harb Street, told Amnesty:
 
“A peaceful protest organised by the SPAP was marching in Talaat Harb Street on the sidewalk towards Talaat Harb Square in Downtown Cairo. The protesters were around 30 and were holding banners and flowers and chanting “bread, freedom and social justice”. I went outside the café. There was an intense presence of security forces stationed in Talaat Harb Square where the protesters were chanting. Some of them were wearing black masks. It lasted just minutes and then the security forces started to shoot tear gas and birdshot at the peaceful protesters. I started to run back to avoid the shooting. While running, I saw on the right side Shaimaa Al-Sabbagh falling on the ground. I hid in a side street to avoid the shooting. Some protestors carried Shaimaa to the side street. She was bleeding and people were calling for an ambulance and then she was taken to the hospital.”
 
Nagwa Abbas and Azza Suleiman and three other people later went to the Office of the Public Prosecution to testify about what they had seen and to formally accuse the security forces of killing Shaimaa Al-Sabbagh. Azza Suleiman said that prosecutors kept her waiting for over five hours before finally calling her in to give her account. However, the prosecutor who questioned them ended his investigation by accusing the five witnesses of protesting without authorisation and attacking the security forces, and ordered their arrest. The prosecutor claimed that the accusations against the witnesses were based on their testimonies which he said proved that they had taken part in an unauthorised protest, Azza Suleiman said. The five were only released after negotiations between the lawyers and the Public Prosecution.
 
Though prosecutors have yet to conclude their investigations into Shaimaa Al-Sabbagh’s death, the prosecution has already announced that the security forces only used tear gas to disperse the protest on Talaat Harb Street after protesters threw stones and fireworks at them. According to lawyers interviewed by Amnesty, the public prosecutor’s statement came out at around 1.00am, before the investigation into Shaimaa Al-Sabbagh’s killing had started. Lawyers expressed concerns that the public prosecutor had formed his opinion about the case before the investigation had even begun. Responding to public outrage over the incident, the minister of interior denied that the Ministry’s forces had shot Shaimaa Al-Sabbagh, stating that the police had only used tear gas to disperse peaceful protests and not shotgun pellets. Video and photographic evidence of the Taaat Harb Street protest contradict the interior minister’s account, clearly showing security forces firing shotguns at protesters at close range.
 

Cairo, 25 January

Protests erupted in different districts in Cairo on 25 January, including in Downtown Cairo, El Mattariya and Ain Shams.
 
In Downtown Cairo, the security forces used tear gas and shotgun pellets to disperse a protest at the Press Syndicate. The protesters at the Press Syndicate had been particularly angered at a November court decision to dismiss a case against Hosni Mubarak on charges of killing protesters during the 2011 uprising and to acquit his interior minister. One protester, Tarek Hussien (AKA “Tarek Tito”), told Amnesty:
 
“We were protesting at the Press Syndicate against the violations over the last four years and specifically clearing Mubarak, his Minister of Interior and Mubarak’s two sons of any charges. The protest did not last more than 30 minutes and we saw the security forces approach the demonstration and fire tear gas at us. Then they pulled back. Five minutes later, people dressed in civilian clothes - we believed them to be security forces - started to throw glass at the protestors at the Syndicate. Later the security forces intervened and started shooting tear gas and shotgun pellets at us randomly. The protest was peaceful according to what I saw. I only saw people sustaining injuries as a result of the pellet shootings from the security forces. After the clashes erupted and security forces started to arrest people randomly, I ran towards Talaat Harb Street. I did not participate in any further protests as the security forces were arresting and searching people randomly in the streets of Downtown Cairo. We knew that there was no room for protests opposing the government on that day.”
 
Security forces arrested around 200 protesters and bystanders from Downtown Cairo on 25 January and detained them all in Azbakeya Police station.
 
Protests also erupted in the working class district of El Mattariya in Cairo on 25 January. Security forces fired shotgun pellets and tear gas to disperse the protesters, with some protesters then hurling stones and fireworks at the security forces and in some cases also firing shotgun pellets at them. The security forces responded by firing randomly into the crowds of protesters and bystanders. The number of protesters increased throughout the day. Faced with increasing violence, the security forces pulled back before clashing with the protesters for over four hours. Security forces used live fire throughout these clashes. Some protesters also used other firearms, witnesses told Amnesty. Security forces also used tear gas and shotgun pellets to disperse protests in the nearby area of Ain Shams. Protesters responded by throwing stones and Molotov cocktails at the security forces, and firing shotgun pellets at them. Some protesters and the security forces also used other firearms. Eyewitnesses told Amnesty that the security forces appeared to be shooting at random into the crowds.
 
At least 17 people died in the violence in El Mattariya and Ain Shams, according to Amnesty’s information. They include a ten-year-old Coptic Christian child, Mina Maher and one member of the security forces. Mina Maher, a ten-year-old Coptic Christian boy, died after he was struck by a bullet in the neck. According to the Egyptian Commission for Rights and Freedoms, he was trying to save one of his friends when he was shot dead. The circumstances around Mina Maher’s death are unclear. He was shot before the security forces arrived at the scene. The prosecutor has not yet opened an investigation into his killing. A leaked document from El Mattariya Hospital, seen by Amnesty, names 13 people, including one security officer, killed in the protests after sustaining gunfire to the upper part of their body.
 

Arrests and ill-treatment

Security forces have arrested 516 people in connection with the protests over the last week, the minister of interior stated on 26 January. The minister claimed that all were supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood. The Association for Freedom of Thought and Expression and the Egyptian Commission for Rights and Freedoms have said they are aware of at least 200 people arrested in Cairo who were detained in police stations and Central Security Forces camps of Tora and Salam. The camps, run by the riot police, are unofficial places of detention and not subject to judicial oversight. Lawyers have told Amnesty that security forces arrested around 200 protesters and bystanders in the Downtown area, most during protests at the Press Syndicate, Abdel Moniem Riyad Square, Ramsis and Sherif Streets. Those arrested included one woman and at least nine children who are currently being held in the same detention centres as adults.
 
Security forces took those they had detained to Azbakeya Police Station in Downtown Cairo, refusing to allow lawyers searching for the detained protesters access to the station and denying that they were holding anyone there. The following day the Public Prosecution in Cairo told lawyers searching for the detained protesters that the security forces had not notified them of any arrests. The lawyers then tried to file complaints of enforced disappearance with the attorneys general within the Prosecution Office, but they refused to accept them. The authorities released 120 of the 200 arrested the next day, lawyers told Amnesty. They were not sent to a prosecutor office or any judicial authority before their release.
 
On the evening of 26 January, the Qasr al-Nil Public Prosecution Office confirmed that there were 79 men detained in Tora and Al Salam Central Security Forces Camp. One woman is also detained in Kasr El Nile police station. The prosecution told the lawyers that they would begin their official investigations the next day in Tora camp. The decision flouted both Egypt’s Constitution and Code of Criminal Procedures, which state that security forces must refer anyone arrested to the judicial authorities within 24 hours of detaining them. The lawyers tried to attend the investigations by the Public Prosecution when they began on the morning of 27 January, however prosecutors initially allowed just ten lawyers to represent the 80 people in detention, though they later allowed 30 lawyers in. Lawyers told Amnesty that the prosecution’s investigations lasted less than an hour, with prosecutors questioning groups of at least ten people together. Prosecutors have accused all 80 of protesting without authorisation, attacking the security forces, disturbing public peace and destroying public and private property, failing to consider each person’s individual criminal responsibility. The only evidence in the case was two banners and a stone. One banner bore the motto “We are all Khaled Said”, a reference to an iconic case of a young man killed by police before the 2011 uprising. Another banner had a picture of ousted president Mohamed Morsi.
 
The Public Prosecution ordered the detention of all 80 people for four days while investigations continued. Lawyers told Amnesty that prosecutors have depended entirely on the police report of the protests, police witnesses and investigations by the National Security Agency, which stated that the protesters had used violence against the security forces. On 29 January, the prosecutor ordered that the 80 detainees’ detention be renewed for a further 15 days. 
 
Around five people showed signs of torture, lawyers added. Lawyers also stated that those who were held in Al Salam camp were ill-treated during the police investigations. Lawyers who attended the investigations told Amnesty that at least four people were injured as a result of beatings in the camps by security forces. Ahmed Abdel Gawad, 51, was arrested after praying in Ramsis street on 25 January. Lawyers told Amnesty that his left cheek was blue and areas around his eyes red as a result of beatings. He told his lawyer that he was beaten during investigations by police and the national security because they found a Quran in his pocket. He was questioned about participating in the protest, about the organisers and how they secured funding. He was also questioned about his political affiliation and asked whether he belonged to the Muslim Brotherhood. He was later escorted to a hospital by the security forces.
 
Mahmoud Zakaria, 14, had his arm broken during the investigations by the police. He informed the prosecutor that he was beaten by the security forces during his arrest and detention in Al Salam camp. Mahmoud is currently held in Tora camp with adults. Ashraf Mohamed Abdel Maksoud, a university professor, sustained an injury to his head as a result of beatings during investigations inside the Al Salam camp, lawyers told Amnesty. He was also arrested randomly from Ramsis Street on 25 January. Abdel Rahman Mohamed Abdel Rahman, 14, who works in a car repair shop, was arrested randomly in Ramsis Square while trying to buy car parts. Abdel Rahman was held alongside adults in Al Salam camp but was later transferred to a juvenile detention centre.  Lawyers also informed Amnesty that among those arrested were Mohamed Douma and Mohamed Elsayed Awad. Douma is blind as a result of being shot in the eyes during the 2011 uprising, while Mohamed Elsayed Awad is half-paralysed. Despite this, both are accused of attacking security forces and are held in Tora camp.
 
Security forces arrested at least 21 people in connection with the protests in El Mattariya and Agouza. They face accusations of belonging to a banned group, protesting without authorisation, attacking security forces and destroying public and private property. The Public Prosecution has ordered their detention for 15 days, again depending entirely on police witnesses, the police report and investigations by the National Security Agency. Lawyers defending the group say there is no evidence against them.
 

Journalists attacked

Security forces also attacked and arrested journalists who were covering the protests. BBC correspondent Orla Guerin tweeted from Ain Shams that plain-clothes security forces had warned her team that they would be shot if they continued to film in the area. Journalist Ahmed Elsherif who works for Vetogate, an online news website, said that security forces arrested him, beat him and then took him to Omraneya Police Station. Security forces later released him without charge. Security forces also shot Al Fagr journalist Amr Abdel Rahman with shotgun pellets while he was covering the Press Syndicate protest in Downtown Cairo. Amr sustained three pellets to his leg, arm and head when security forces dispersed the protest. Two journalists arrested by security forces while covering protests still remain in detention: Vetogate journalist Hamdy Bakry, arrested in Downtown Cairo, and Al-Youm Al-Saba’ reporter Ahmed Masoud, arrested while covering protests in El Mattariya.
 

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