Justice denied: Egypt's Maspero massacre one year on

Ekram Ibrahim , Tuesday 9 Oct 2012

Anniversary of 'Bloody Sunday' stark reminder that no one has been held responsible for deaths of over 25 protesters killed during clashes with Egyptian military at state media headquarters

Egyptain military charge at protesters in armoured vehicles at Maspero 9 October 2011 (Photo: Reuters)

"The moment I saw my brother laying on the ground covered with blood, after he was run over by an armoured military vehicle, fails to leave my memory, even one year later. Especially as I was hit when I tried to pick him up," says Wael Bishay, brother of Ayman, 40 who died in the 9 October Maspero massacre last year.

Wael Bishay, 31, is one of many who cannot forget the bloody events of that night, when at least 25 protesters died during clashes with the Egyptian army at a peaceful protest for Christian rights outside Cairo's state media headquarters.

One year on, only three soldiers, who have been charged with "involuntary manslaughter" and sentenced to just two and three years in jail, have been held responsible for the events.

In a report released last week, Amnesty International criticised the Egyptian authorities for failing "to conduct a full, impartial and independent investigation into the circumstances of the violence and bring those responsible to account."

9 October as it happened

"Bloody Sunday" saw hundreds of peaceful protesters, the majority of which were Copts, march from Cairo's working-class district of Shubra to the state radio and television building Maspero.

Maspero was chosen as state media had sparked widespread disapproval due to its coverage of preceding events.

The protest, which the government and the military reportedly approved, was leveled at the authorities who had failed to investigate the burning of a church, in Merinab village in the Upper Egyptian governorate of Aswan.

The torching of the church, reportedly by Muslim youth, followed an escalation in attacks on Christian buildings and homes after the January 25 Revolution, despite Christians and Muslims fighting side-by-side for a "better Egypt" during the 18-day uprising.

Copts complained that the violent incidents against their community were usually informally resolved by public or religious leaders, without Egypt's legal system being involved.

Protesters were assaulted within an hour of setting off by unknown assailants wielding bottles and rocks. As they neared Maspero, the military attacked.

Video footage taken by activists and journalists shows the army running over protesters in military vehicles, in some cases mounting pavements outside the state media building. Eyewitness accounts and wounds of those who died prove live ammunition was used.

"I saw army soldiers throwing bodies of protesters in the Nile," Bishay told Ahram Online. "I remember seeing three Armoured Personnel Carriers (APCs) intentionally running over protesters, each APC had three to four army personal inside."

"For the first time in my life, I heard soldiers saying Allah Akbar (God is great) after killing Coptic protesters," said Ramy Kamel from the Maspero Youth Union, who claims it was a targeted sectarian attack.
"The army soldiers were firing live ammunition at protesters," added Hani Hanna, a researcher in Coptic issues. "We saw people in civilian clothes firing live ammunition as well, I saw many falling down after being shot."

Nevertheless, the Ministry of Defence denied the use of live bullets and claimed that the vehicles "unintentionally" knocked down protesters.

Three days after the massacre in a televised press conference, SCAF members said that the military was not to blame and claimed soldiers had died but refused to officially announce the number of "fallen" officers. Supreme Council of Armed Forces (SCAF) member General Mohamed El-Assar insisted army personnel were unarmed and conversely were attacked by the protesters.

 The military council then conducted its own investigation into the events in October and officially exonerated the army of wrongdoing.

Justice awarded?

Two legal cases were launched in December following the bloody events. One a military investigation into the 14 protesters killed after they were run over by APCs, the other a civilian investigation into the deaths of eight protesters from live ammunition.

It was not until September of this year that the military prosecutor sentenced Mahmoud Sayed Abdel-Hamid Suleiman, 21, Karam Hamed Mohamed Hamed, 21, to two years and Mahmoud Gamal Taha Mahmoud, 22, to three years in jail, after they were charged with involuntary manslaughter.

The court ruled they were guilty of "negligence and absence of caution, while they were driving armed forces armored personnel carriers in an arbitrary fashion... leading to them striking the victims."

The civil tribunal investigating the use of live ammunition and the deaths of eight protesters, on the other hand, closed the case due to a lack of evidence.

"This sentence is neither fair nor sufficient, in the end, army personal obey orders, the man who gave the order [former head of the military council] Hussien Tantawi should have faced trial," maintained Nabil Gabrial, a Human Rights lawyer representing five of the families of those killed at Maspero.

Illegal trials

The fact that the SCAF was ruling the country, in charge of the officers who attacked the protest and at the same time investigating the case was seen by many as an astonishing conflict of interest.  

“How can a military court rule in a situation where military personal are accused in a civil case?” asks Gabraial, adding that this could only lead to a massively biased verdict.

Accordingly, a case was filled at Egypt's Administrative Court in March 2012 calling for all cases related to the Maspero massacre to be aborted, due to the lack of impartiality and independence, as military personnel were being investigated by a military prosecution.

The case was adjourned until 30 October.

In addition, a conflict of jurisdiction case was filed with the Constitutional Court in February this year demanding that all investigations and rulings in these cases be stopped, this is also ongoing.

"Dividing a case into two pieces across military and civil courts is illegal," Gabraial told Ahram Online.

Protesters blamed, state media involvement

In the aftermath, the military prosecution hauled 31 civilians in front of military courts, including well-known activist and blogger Alaa Abdel-Fattah. They were charged with using violence against the armed forces and in some instances for possession of or stealing army weapons.

"We were not carrying any arms, these kinds of accusations were leveled at protesters to distract and brainwash the public," Kamel asserted.

Although 29 of the 31 were released in December 2011, two, Michael Abdel-Naguib and Mosaad Shaker, are still facing charges of confiscating an automatic gun belonging to the military. Cairo Criminal Court adjourned the case until 4 November of this year.

The belief that the protesters had initiated the violence was propagated by state media during the bloody crackdown.

As demonstrators were dying outside the media headquarters, inside the walls, state television called on the nation to "come and protect the armed forces" from their supposed assailants. State-run Channel One TV host Rasha Magdy repeatedly claimed the military were under attack.

Hanna is one of many who believe that the events on 9 October were "organised" and that "different state agencies collaborated to make it happen." Accordingly a case was filed against the state television channel at the end of last year, accusing it of promoting lies.

After extensive investigations by the civil court, it was ruled that "two of the accused media personal were to face punishment by their work entity," Gabraial told Ahram Online.

The legacy of Maspero

No one has been held responsible for the deaths and so activists promise to keep fighting until the "main" instigators face trial. Several protests are expected to take place on the anniversary, including marches following the route taken a year ago.

"Soldiers don't open fire without receiving an order from their [then ] leader Tantawi, accordingly the military council should face trial for Maspero massacre," Hanna asserted.

It seems that some steps have been taken to achieve this. This month, it was announced that Tantawi, former chief of staff Sami Anan, former military police head Hamdy Badeen and current military police head Ibrahim El-Domiaty are to be investigated for their role in the deaths of protesters.  

This decision was taken after 24 complaints were submitted to the public prosecutor by relatives of the dead and the case was finally transferred to the justice minister.

"I will fight till my last breath to see justice for all in Egypt," Bishay concluded, spurred on by his brother's memory. "Unfortunately, we are moving backwards."

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