Port Said: Egypt's city of the dead

Bel Trew in Port Said, Wednesday 13 Mar 2013

Families of the condemned and those acquitted speak out after Port Said football massacre ruling sentences 21 to death and five to life in prison

Port Said:
"I just want someone to hear me out and explain to me what my son's charges are" says the father of an 18-year-old sentenced to life in Port Said trial (Photo: Bel Trew)

"My brother wasn't even at the game; he was watching the match from a nearby coffee house. His friends confirmed this but their testimonies were ignored," claims Intesar, sister of 20-year-old student Fouad Ahmed El-Saby, one of 21 people from Port Said sentenced to death in the recent football killings trial. "There is no evidence linking my brother to the stadium."

After Saturday's verdict confirming the 21 executions and sentencing a further five people to life imprisonment for the killing of over 70 Cairo-based Ahly football fans in February 2012, Port Said, its residents say, is a city of mourning, a city condemned.

The air still stings from teargas absorbed into the rubble surrounding the gutted Security Directorate, the focal point of a bloody five-day battle between protesters and police ahead of the final verdict.

Police were ordered to withdraw from the city ahead of Saturday's ruling in a bid to prevent further unrest, leaving the army to stand guard at the police headquarters. The city is full of tanks.

Mother of death sentence
Mother of death sentence
Families of the condemned gather at Port Said's Cheef cafe after Saturday's verdict sentencing 21 to death (Photo: Bel Trew)

Relatives of the condemned, like Intesar, gather at Cheef café, an activist hangout.

They claim their loved ones are innocent, framed by flimsy or false evidence, as the government, not wanting to punish security officials, bows to pressure from the Cairo's football fans (particularly the hardcore Ahly supporters, the Ultras Ahlawy) to find someone responsible.

The hum of the popular café is punctuated by angry shouts and sobs. It feels like a funeral as people try to console each other.

"My husband's lawyers told him the best option was to turn himself in, as there was no evidence against him, so he did," explains 25-year-old newly-wed Wafaa Mohamed, her veiled face in her hands.

Wafaa's husband, Mohamed Mahmoud El-Boghadady, 26, a local tuk-tuk (rickshaw) driver, was caught on camera running across the pitch in an undershirt.

"The attorney-general let Mohamed go but he was summoned again when his name was mentioned by [TV sports presenters] Medhat Shalby and Ahmed Shobier; now he will be executed."

Wafaa, wife of condemned man
Wafaa, wife of condemned man
"I'm dying; even if his sentenced is reduced, he will get life," Wafaa, wife of man condemned to death (Photo: Bel Trew)

"We only received this verdict because we are from Port Said," adds Amr Nasr El-din, whose 18-year-old son, a military student, received a 10-year prison sentence.

Nasr El-din claims the witness who testified against his son never appeared in court and failed to recognise him when questioned during preliminary investigations.

They all allege there is a Cairo Ahly fan amongst the 21 sentenced to death, and that one of men facing execution left the match at half time to go to a wedding, which can be proved by the wedding video.

Port Said
Port Said
Mother of Ahmed, 15, weeps after he was sentenced to 5 years in jail (Photo: Bel Trew)

None of the stories professing innocence can be legally verified, however.

Lawyers close to the trial say the court has withheld the evidence and details of each case. Until the information is released, they say, it is impossible to comment on the record about the individuals involved. This indicates a lack of transparency surrounding the trial.

Even the much-hated Port Said police force admits there were problems with the investigation.

In an unusually frank interview at Port Said's El-Sharq police station, where officers were holed up after being ordered off the streets and staging a strike, some policemen say they are against the verdict.

"It was chaos after the massacre. We didn't know who to arrest, so we detained anyone at the stadium who had a criminal record and people we thought might be behind it," says police officer Rahib Mohamed Atef. "We arrested hundreds, so there could be people on trial who are innocent."

His commanding officer, the station's deputy chief Mohamed El-Kady, says the subsequent orders by the Ministry of Interior to move the prisoners to different prisons are "evidence that the system is wrong."

In the background, the striking policemen huddle around a TV set, cuddling their guns and, for their part, protesting their innocence in the massacre.

Acquitted pray
Acquitted pray
The exonerated pray at graves of protesters killed during recent clashes with police (Photo: Diaa Adel)

Many of the acquitted, who were released from prison following the verdict, say they found out they had been charged from TV reports or when security forces turned up on their door steps and ransacked their homes.

In addition, some of those sentenced still have not been rounded up by the police.

Mahmoud*, one of the 21 facing the gallows, is currently a fugitive.

"I was sentenced to death in absentia; no one came to take me away and I knew if I entered the police station I would never come out again. If I had really had appeared in incriminating footage from the match they would have no problem recognising me and finding me," Mahmoud says, adding that he has not been hiding – he continues his daily life, despite facing execution.

"I'm waiting for my lawyer to figure things out before I turn myself in. I've had the opportunity more than once to escape the country but chose to stay as fleeing would make me appear guilty."

Mahmoud claims he was charged because he refused to disclose to the police the names of key members of Port Said's Ultras, the Green Eagles.

Again with no access to the trial files, it is impossible to verify his story.

However, the very fact a man, who is supposedly a convicted murderer on death row, is conducting interviews in popular café a few minutes walk from the main police headquarters raises concerns about the way the authorities are handling the trial.

Mohamed El-Dosouky
Mohamed El-Dosouky
"Port Said is the government's scapegoat" Mohamed El-Desouky, with his 15-year-old son, after being acquitted (Photo: Diaa Adel)

"We were never told anything by the police. Mohamed, my husband, was never arrested. I found out he was among the defendants from a TV channel. We called the channel afterwards and he ended up in court," says Safaa Osman, 39, wife of Mohamed El-Desouky who helped manage security at the Port Said stadium and is one of the 28 exonerated on Saturday.

She hands around chocolates in her tiny dilapidated flat, where some of the acquitted are meeting before they go to the main Port Said cemetery to pray at the graves of protesters who died in recent clashes with security forces.

"It was such a mess, the judge actually asked Mohamed in the court room, are you a witness or a killer? Next thing I know he's in prison for 13 months and I'm alone."

Mohamed maintains that after the match, which he attended with his 16-year-old son, he went to the police station "to be an eye-witness to the atrocity."

His wife tried to stop him. At some point during the confusion he ended up being listed as one of the defendants.

At the gravesides of slain protesters, the exonerated men highlight further issues with the way the authorities handled the case.

"They stripped us naked, beat us brutally and tortured us. I was afraid they would actually kill me," says salesman Mohamed Nasr Malazy, 29, explaining he was eventually released from Tora prison in Cairo when the prosecution failed to find any proof of the charges against him.

"They even tortured a guy who was already injured and stopped giving us food and water," adds Khaled Hussein Ahmed Sedik, a 33-year-old electrician, who explains how the witness who testified against him kept changing his story, which led to his release.

Khaled Sedik acquitted
Khaled Sedik acquitted
"They treated us appallingly in prison" Khaled Sedik, 33, acquitted Saturday (Photo: Bel Trew)

Back at Cheef café, the human cost of the life sentences and death penalties for the relatives are clear.

“My life is ruined. My two-year-old daughter, as young as she is, keeps saying please God, save Daddy. She doesn’t understand,” says Wafaa.

One of her friends quietly points out that whether Wafaa's husband is guilty or not, there is little hope of a positive future for the penniless widow of an executed convict in a conservative neighbourhood.

In another corner, Hosny Abdel-Moneim El-Khayat, who is partially blind, holds a picture of his 18-year-old son, Mohamed, who received a life sentence. Hosny, like the others, demands to see the evidence against his child.

"Mohamed's mother is dying. If my mind wasn't shielded by my religion, I would have attempted suicide already. They were taking people randomly. My son was arrested outside a shop. Twenty-five years in jail, even if he did commit the murder, is too much for a child."

A woman behind Hosny interjects to say her son is even younger. Ahmed, she explains, is just 15 years old and was sentenced to five years in prison.

Nasr El-din, meanwhile, joins in, saying he fears a decade in Egypt's notorious prison system will turn his son into a "thug."

"He will never be the same person again, he has already lost his innocence, he says he doesn't have a problem sleeping naked on the ground and peeing in front of his friends."

Fouad condemned to death
Fouad condemned to death
Fouad, 21, defendant sentenced to death, although his sister claims he was not at the match (Photo: Bel Trew)

There are a number of theories amongst the acquitted and the relatives of those charged concerning what happened on the night of the massacre.

The majority believe the violence was deliberately instigated by the police who they say failed to secure the Ahly stands as they normally do, ordered the lights be switched off and sealed the exits.

Some point to the then-ruling Supreme Council of the Armed Forces and its head, Field Marshall Tantawi. They say the massacre was a government-initiated attack against the highly-politicised Ultras Ahlawy, which, as Mahmoud points out, has a large, countrywide membership.

However, none of them believe Port Said residents were involved: a fact that those close to the case say cannot be true.

Many people in Port Said claim no weapons were used in the killing of the Ahly fans, instead they say the 74 perished in the ensuing stampedes. This view has been refuted by official forensic reports and Ultras Ahlawy eyewitness accounts, which document the presence of knives, sticks and machetes and people being thrown from the top of the stadium.

The only point that the football fans from Port Said and Cairo seem to largely agree on is that the military council, the authorities and the police are somehow involved, and that this is proved by the fact that only two of the nine security officials on trial were found guilty.

The 15-year jail sentence for former Port Said security chief Essam Samak, both Port Said and Cairo football fans say, is not long enough.

Nevertheless the two cities are becoming increasingly polarised. Ultras Ahlawy reportedly set fire to the Egyptian Football Association HQ and the capital's Police Club, because the verdicts were not harsh enough.

Desperate to secure justice for their slain friends, Ultras Ahlawy celebrated when the death sentences were confirmed.

Dialogue between the two sides seems impossible.

If the 21 being hanged are included, the death toll in Port Said since the verdict was first announced matches the number of Cairo football fans who died in the initial tragedy.

With protests and subsequent clashes on the horizon in both grieving cities, further deaths are expected.

Due to the chaotic nature of the trial, many fear the truth may never be uncovered and, for both sides, justice will not be served.

*Name has been changed to protect identity

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