Human Rights Watch report warns Egypt not to cover up military killing of Coptic protesters

Tuesday 25 Oct 2011

Official Denials Suggest Investigation Will be Flawed, says New York-based international rights group Human Rights Watch in a report issued Tuesday, October 25. Below is the text of the report

Maspiro clash
Egyptian Christians clash with soldiers and riot police during a protest against an attack on a church in southern Egypt, in Cairo October 9, 2011. (Photo: Reuters)

The Egyptian military’s intention to control the investigation of the use of force against unarmed Coptic Christian demonstrators during a night of clashes on 9 October 2011 raises fears of a cover-up, Human Rights Watch said today. The Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, Egypt’s military rulers, should transfer the investigation from the military prosecution to a fully independent and impartial investigation into the killing of unarmed protesters by military forces. The violence left two dozen protesters and bystanders and at least one military officer dead.

Human Rights Watch interviewed 20 participants in the demonstration who consistently testified that between 6 and 7pm on 9 October at least two armored personnel vehicles (APCs) drove recklessly through crowds of demonstrators, in some cases appearing to pursue them intentionally. The protest of thousands of Copts had been peaceful until that point, and the military’s subsequent response was disproportionate. The large, heavy vehicles crushed and killed at least 10 demonstrators, as autopsies later showed.

“The military cannot investigate itself with any credibility,” said Joe Stork, deputy Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “This had been an essentially peaceful protest until the military used excessive force and military vehicles ran over protesters. The only hope for justice for the victims is an independent civilian-led investigation that the army fully cooperates with and cannot control and that leads to the prosecution of those responsible.”

In the dozens of cases of torture by the military that Human Rights Watch has documented this year, the cases of seven women subjected to virginity tests by the military on 9 March and the excessive use of force by the military in policing demonstrations, there has been not one prosecution, Human Rights Watch said. These include hundreds of documented cases of torture, excessive use of force in policing demonstrations, and sexual assaults on female detainees through so-called virginity tests.

Gen. Adel al-Morsi, head of Egypt’s military justice system, said on 13 October that military prosecutors would investigate the violence on October 9, when Copts marched to the government television building known as Maspero to protest the authorities’ failure to punish the attack on churches. The Office of the Public Prosecutor confirmed that civilian prosecutors would play no role in any investigation. Military prosecutors and judges are serving members of the military and therefore subject to the chain of command, and ultimately receive instructions from the head of the SCAF, Defense Minister Field Marshall Tantawy, who is the ultimate executive authority in Egypt. The SCAF’s October 12 news conference, at which two generals denied any use of live ammunition or intention to run over protesters, shows why an investigation by the military, and subject to military command, is likely to perpetuate military impunity, Human Rights Watch said.

At the news conference, Generals Mahmoud Hegazy and Adel Emara made public the military’s narrative of the events at Maspero, absolving soldiers of any wrongdoing. Emara insisted that “the armed forces would never and have never opened fire on the people,” and the generals claimed that armed protesters had attacked the soldiers.

“The soldiers driving armored vehicles were trying to avoid protesters, who were throwing stones and Molotov cocktail bombs at them,” Emara said, adding that the soldiers were in an “unprecedented psychological state.”

“I can’t deny that some people may have been hit, but it was not systematic,” he concluded.

Consistent and credible witness testimony, as well as independent media and video footage, contradict the military’s version of events, Human Rights Watch said.

The military has arrested at least 28 people, almost all Copts, in connection with the clashes and brought them before military prosecutors. The prosecutors ordered their detention for 15 days, pending investigation.

At the insistence of human rights lawyers working with the families of victims, forensic medical doctors from the health ministry conducted 24 autopsies on 10 October, concluding in their preliminary reports that eight of the people had died of bullet wounds, two from blows to the head, and 13 from injuries and fractures inflicted by the vehicles. The 18th body had been slashed with a large knife. Autopsies were not performed on the bodies of eight other victims, which were in different morgues at that time and have since been buried.

The 9 October march started at around 4pm from the northern Cairo neighborhood of Shubra, home to many Coptic Christians, with thousands of mainly Coptic protesters marching to the government television building on the Nile River. This was the second demonstration within a week by Copts to protest the authorities’ failure to investigate the burning of a church in Marinab in the southern governorate of Aswan. The protesters also demanded the removal of the governor of Aswan, who appeared to justify the destruction of the church by saying it had been built without a permit.

Some residents along the route of the march pelted the demonstrators with stones, and some marchers retaliated, also throwing stones. The demonstrators eventually made their way to the state television headquarters on the Corniche, Cairo’s Nile riverfront drive. They joined another group of protesters already there, surrounded by military police and Central Security Forces (CSF). At that point, at around 6pm, witnesses said, shots were fired in the air and at the demonstrators, though the witnesses could not always identify the exact source. Armored personnel carriers careened down the Corniche, sometimes onto the sidewalks, crushing demonstrators.

Military officers raided and stopped the live broadcast of two independent TV news channels, Al Hurra and 25TV, whose offices are next to the state television building. The stations had been broadcasting footage of the clashes.

At the same time, the state-run Channel 1, Nile News, and Radio Misr broadcast reports claiming that armed Coptic demonstrators had shot and killed three military officers and calls for “honorable citizens” to “defend the army against attack”. Such calls could easily have been taken as a signal for citizens to attack Copts and therefore would have amounted to incitement to discrimination and violence against Copts, Human Rights Watch said.

Hossam Bahgat, director of the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights (EIPR), told Human Rights Watch that, a short time after the government channels broadcast the reports, he encountered groups of armed men in civilian clothes from the Boulaq neighborhood, next to Maspero, who said they had heard that armed Christians were attacking the army. Bahgat told Human Rights Watch that he witnessed attacks on Copts that evening by people in civilian clothes.

Under international law, the military, in its law-enforcement capacity, may arrest people who are committing violent acts or who assault police or army officers. It may also use force, but only as necessary and proportionate, to control a crowd. Evidence from video and witness statements do not indicate any justification for running people over at high speed with army vehicles. Deliberate use of firearms is lawful only if “strictly unavoidable to protect life,” a high standard to meet, Human Rights Watch said.

Human Rights Watch also called for an investigation into attempts by the military and the information ministry to control media coverage, as well as the statements by state TV presenters that may have amounted to incitement to violence.

Egyptian authorities also should look into the underlying causes of the demonstration at Maspero and address legitimate grievances by Coptic Christians, Human Rights Watch said. These include discrimination in their right to worship and the failure to punish perpetrators and instigators of attacks on churches and other forms of sectarian violence. Human Rights Watch has examined three incidents of sectarian violence involving Muslim attacks on Christians and Christian churches since the February 2011 ouster of President Hosni Mubarak that have gone entirely unpunished.

An attack, on 30 September, on the Mar Girgis (St. George) church in Marinab, in Aswan governorate, prompted the march on 9 October. As in previous incidents, police and public prosecutors failed to investigate and insisted that differences be resolved in informal reconciliation deals between suspects and aggrieved parties.

This failure to investigate and prosecute perpetuates official policies of the Mubarak era, when authorities also failed to provide a remedy to victims of sectarian violence, resorted to extra-legal settlements to resolve disputes, and played down periodic outbursts of sectarian violence as private disputes unrelated to religious differences.

The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, to which Egypt is a party, obligates states to provide an effective remedy for human rights violations. Investigations into serious human rights abuses should be conducted promptly, with independence and impartiality.

“The generals seem to be insisting that they and only they investigate the Maspero violence, which is to ensure that no serious investigation occurs,” Stork said. “The military has already tried to control the media narrative, and it should not be allowed to cover up what happened on October 9.”

For details of the events on October 9 and violence against Christians and further details about international law, please see below.

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