The clashes in Cairo on June 28 and 29, 2011, between police and protesters in which more than 1,000 people were injured highlight the urgent need to reform security forces, Human Rights Watch said today. The government should promptly formulate an interim code of conduct for policing demonstrations and order a thorough investigation into any improper use of firearms and riot control weapons by the riot police during the protests.
“The video footage of Central Security officers throwing stones back at protesters and firing teargas recklessly is ample evidence of the need for police to follow basic international standards,” said Joe Stork, deputy Middle East and North Africa director at Human Rights Watch. “With more demonstrations expected on July 8, the government needs to act quickly to prevent more mayhem and injury.”
The Central Security Forces (CSF), Egypt’s riot police, has a well-documented history of using excessive force against peaceful demonstrators as well as of shooting unarmed migrants on the Sinai border. The most recent incident was on June 25. A security official who did not give his name told Agence France-Presse that border police had shot dead four African migrants attempting to cross the border, bringing the total shot dead in 2011 to eight.
Police Violence, Crowd Control Failure on June 28 and 29
The government said on June 29 that it had ordered an investigation into the 16-hour standoff between the CSF riot police and protesters objecting to the government’s failure to prosecute former officials. According to the Ministry of Health, the clashes had injured 1,114 people by the afternoon of June 29. Interior Minister Mansour al-Eissawi denied that police had used excessive force against demonstrators, saying that they had used only teargas, but the quasi-official National Council for Human Rights, as well as independent Egyptian human rights organizations, documented the use of rubber bullets and pellet guns.
Police arrested at least 44 people at the scene and brought them all before military prosecutors, who ordered them detained for 15 days pending investigations on charges of assaulting public officials, destruction of public property, and possession of illegal weapons. The ongoing use of military courts to try civilians reflects a disturbing disregard for international standards and due process rights, Human Rights Watch said.
The violence started at the Balloon Theater in Cairo’s Agouza neighborhood on June 28, though there are conflicting accounts about what set it off. Activists said that police had attacked the families of protesters killed during the January uprising, but officials later said there was a premeditated attack on the police by armed thugs.
At about 10 p.m., activists started sending out calls online for people to gather at the Interior Ministry on Sheikh Rihan Street in downtown Cairo in solidarity with the families of the victims. The demonstration there spread to surrounding streets over the next 14 hours.
Footage from the Balloon Theater incident posted on YouTube by activists appears to show four police officers, three in riot police uniform and one in regular police uniform, surround and beat a civilian man who had one arm in a sling and was holding up a poster of a victim of police violence during the January uprising. The footage shows the officers dragging the man across the street, beating him until he falls to the ground, and giving him what appear from the image and buzzing sound to be electroshocks with a short black device.
One protester told Human Rights Watch that by the time he arrived at the Interior Ministry at around 11 p.m., hundreds of angry protesters had gathered on the street outside, facing rows of riot police guarding the ministry and that the protesters and police were throwing stones at each other.
Human Rights Watch spoke with 10 witnesses, some of them protesters, who gave consistent accounts of seeing men in civilian clothing armed with sticks, and sometimes with metal rods and stones, standing with the riot police officers and apparently operating under their command.
Video footage taken by Mostafa Bahgat, a video-journalist for the news site Masry al-Youm, shows Central Security officers throwing rocks at protesters for several minutes at a time from the evening of June 28 through the next morning. It also shows the police firing teargas into the crowd at eye-level rather than into the air, at times kneeling on the ground as they fired directly at protesters, or shooting out of their vans.
One witness told Human Rights Watch that he saw a young man hit in the face with a teargas canister at around 4 a.m. on June 29. Another witness told Human Rights Watch that at around 1 a.m., on Mohamed Mahmud Street, he saw a young man with a bleeding wound in his stomach that may have come from a rubber bullet. Police also used pellet guns to disperse the demonstrators, witnesses said.
On June 30, Interior Minister Mansour al-Eissawi told the Egyptian private TV station Tahrir TV, “The Interior Ministry used nothing but teargas, there were no bullets, not even rubber ones.”
But a doctor at a makeshift clinic just off Tahrir Square told Human Rights Watch on the morning of June 29 that the injuries he had seen throughout the night included severe breathing difficulties, some knife wounds, and a few cases of wounds caused by rubber bullets as well as second-degree burns caused by teargas canisters fired at close range.
“The interior minister’s denial of wrongful police behavior before any official investigation took place is premature and not a good sign of his commitment to change the way security forces operate,” Stork said. “The first step should be to ensure a full and impartial investigation of the violence captured on video and to hold all transgressors accountable – police as well as protesters.”
Central Security Force Violence at the Border
Since mid-2007 Egypt’s border guards, who are part of the CSF, have shot dead at least 93 unarmed migrants as they tried to cross the border into Israel. Human Rights Watch, the United Nations high commissioner for human rights, and other organizations have repeatedly criticized this lethal and unjustified use of force. Egyptian officials have said that the border police follow a common warning procedure before directly targeting people who are trying to cross.
However, international standards on the intentional use of lethal force by law enforcement agents say that such force should only be used when strictly necessary to protect life, whether or not there are warning shots. The Egyptian authorities have never explained why lethal force is justified when used against migrants fleeing from the police.
“The policy of shooting unarmed migrants along the Sinai border is one of the most abhorrent practices of the Mubarak regime and should not be occurring in post-Tahrir Egypt,” Stork said. “The apparent resumption of this practice shows a blatant disregard for the right to life and is one that the minister can halt immediately with one order.”
Egypt’s Police Law and Impunity for Violence at Demonstrations
The CSF riot police are responsible for policing demonstrations and public gatherings and have frequently used excessive force against unarmed civilians, Human Rights Watch research has shown. Under former President Hosni Mubarak, the authorities did not investigate the use of excessive force against demonstrators or punish those responsible.
Egypt’s Police Law provides overly broad powers to police dispersing demonstrations that are not consistent with international standards, Human Rights Watch said. Article 102 of Egypt’s 1971Police Law No. 109 provides that:
[P]olice officers may use necessary force to perform their duties if this is the only means available. The use of firearms is restricted … to disperse crowds or demonstrations of at least five people if this threatens public security after issuing a warning to demonstrators to disperse. The order to use firearms shall be issued by a commander, who must be obeyed.
Beyond this provision, Egypt has no code of conduct regulating the use of force and firearms by CSF.
The UN Basic Principles on the Use of Force and Firearms stipulate that law enforcement officials “shall, as far as possible, apply nonviolent means before resorting to the use of force” and may use force “only if other means remain ineffective.” When the use of force is unavoidable, law enforcement officials must “exercise restraint in such use and act in proportion to the seriousness of the offence.”
“Peaceful demonstrators who plan to gather in Tahrir Square to call for justice for the victims of the uprising and a full transition to democracy need to feel confident that the police will protect them and that any resort to use of force will be responsible and proportionate,” Stork said. “The minister of interior needs to announce a strategy on how he plans to reform the riot police.”