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HRW: Worst Mass Unlawful Killings in Egypt’s Modern History

(New York) – Egyptian security forces’ rapid and massive use of lethal force to disperse sit-ins on August 14, 2013 led to the most serious incident of mass unlawful killings in modern Egyptian history.

The ongoing Human Rights Watch investigation indicates that the decision to use live ammunition on a large scale from the outset reflected a failure to observe basic international policing standards on use of lethal force and was not justified by the disruptions caused by the demonstrations or the limited possession of arms by some protesters. The failure of the authorities to provide safe exit from the sit-in, including for people wounded by live fire and needing urgent medical attention, was a serious violation of international standards.

Based on first-hand documentation and interviews with health workers by Human Rights Watch, and lists of the dead obtained by the Egyptian Center for Economic and Social Rights, the death toll during the dispersal of the Rab’a sit-in appears to be at least 377, significantlyhigher than the latest Rab’a death toll of 288 announced by the Health Ministry.

With the death toll rising day by day, Egypt’s military rulers should urgently reverse recent police instructions to use live ammunition to protect state buildings and use it only when strictly necessary to protect life.

“This excessive and unjustified use of lethal force is the worst possible response to the very tense situation in Egypt today,” said Joe Stork, acting Middle East and North Africa director at Human Rights Watch. “Egypt’s military rulers should rein in police forces to prevent the country from spiraling into further violence. The military should not be encouraging police to use even more lethal force.”

According to the Ministry of Interior, the nationwide August 14 death toll of 638 includes 43 police officers. The dispersal sparked gunfights in the Cairo neighborhood of Mohandessin and an attack on a police station in Kerdassa, in greater Cairo, which left four policemen dead. Human Rights Watch spoke to witnesses, priests, and residents who confirmed that over the course of August 14, immediately following the dispersals, Islamists in at least nine cities attacked and burned at least 32 churches.

Over the following three days, clashes between security forces and Muslim Brotherhood protesters, and anti-Muslim Brotherhood protesters led to at least 173 additional deaths by August 18, according to the Ministry of Health.

Human Rights Watch is investigating the government’s dispersal of Muslim Brotherhood sit-ins at Rab’a al-Adawiya in Nasr City and at Nahda in Giza, in greater Cairo. Human Rights Watch staff interviewed 41 protesters, doctors, and residents from both areas, visited the Rab’a al-Adawiya Medical Center during the dispersal and later visited hospitals and morgues in Nasr City and Giza.

The most significant violence took place during the dispersal of the Rab’a sit-in. Human Rights Watch’s preliminary findings indicate that the security forces used excessive force in breaking up the sit-ins and unlawfully killed a number of unarmed protesters. Security forces failed to plan the operation to minimize the risk to life, including by ensuring safe exits and giving public orders not to kill except in a targeted manner when absolutely necessary.

Four residents told Human Rights Watch that at around 6:30 a.m. security services used loudspeakers to call on protesters to leave the sit-in via the Nasr Street exit. Around 10 to 15 minutes later, at around 6:45 a.m., riot police moved in on the Rab’a protest simultaneously from several sides shooting tear gas, rubber pellets and, very soon after, live bullets. It was not possible to establish whether the first use of live ammunition came from the side of security forces or protesters, but Human Rights Watch found no evidence to suggest that firing by protesters justified the quick resort by police to massive lethal force against largely unarmed protesters.

Two journalists who were present from the start and protesters told Human Rights Watch that they could not reach any of the exits after the security forces had started firing tear gas because of heavy gunfire coming from the direction of security forces. Dozens of women and children hid in the mosque.

Witnesses and video of the protests, as well as observations by Human Rights Watch staff, indicate that the vast majority of the protesters were unarmed, but some carried clubs and a few fired guns at the security forces. Witnesses interviewed by Human Rights Watch and video footage posted on YouTube indicate that the police unlawfully killed protesters who were clearly not engaged in any form of violence.

Video footage posted online that Human Rights Watch believes to be authentic shows a man being shot as he carries a blood-stained lifeless body. One protester, Ahmad Gamal, told Human Rights Watch that at one point he saw three men carrying a blood-stained, injured man and rushing toward a stage set up at the sit-in, when he heard the sound of gunfire and saw the three fall to the ground. He said he then helped carry away two of the bodies.

Other footage clearly shows unarmed men crouching near the remains of the main stage in Rab’a to hide from incessant gunfire. The footage shows two of them being shot and apparently killed, and a third shot in the leg. Some of the killings appeared to be deliberate, targeting people who posed no imminent threat to life at the time they were shot. One resident told Human Rights Watch she saw a policeman summarily execute a man walking in front of the officer. The man’s hands were on his head.

Egypt’s interim president, Adly Mansour, declared a curfew on the afternoon of August 14 and a one-month state of emergency. While some curfews may be legitimate and proportionate measures to reduce severe violence on the streets, the declaration of a state of emergency sends precisely the wrong signal, Human Rights Watch said. Security forces will read it as license for additional reckless and unlawful use of force, particularly given the long history of abuses carried out under states of emergency in Egypt.

“Given the riot police’s track record of routinely misusing lethal force, it’s crucial that Egypt’s military rulers publicly order security forces to use lethal force only when strictly necessary,” Stork said. “That means police should only shoot when faced with armed individuals threatening lives, and only to the extent necessary to address an immediate threat.”

The attacks on the sit-ins sparked serious sectarian violence. Since the ouster of Morsy sectarian tension has been on the rise, with leaders of the Muslim Brotherhood scapegoating Egyptian Christians as responsible for Morsy’s removal. Human Rights Watch has confirmed through interviews with witnesses that mobs chanting Islamist slogans attacked at least 32 churches. This violence left one Christian dead and at least 20 churches torched.

Security forces did little or nothing to protect churches, despite the high likelihood of such attacks. Human Rights Watch documented a rise in sectarian violence since Morsy’s ouster on July 3, with at least six major attacks on Christians in governorates across Egypt, including Luxor, Marsa Matrouh, Minya, North Sinai, Port Said, and Qena.

“Egyptian security officials bear responsibility not only for what they did in breaking up the protests but for their failure to protect churches and Christian communities against predictable reprisal attacks,” Stork said. “An impartial, credible and independent investigation is required to establish a full picture of events in Cairo and elsewhere on August 14 and to start the process of accountability.”

Break-up of the Rab’a al-Adawiya Sit-In 
Since the end of June, Muslim Brotherhood supporters had been holding a sit-in near the Rab’a al-Adawiya mosque in the eastern Cairo district of Nasr City. Using aerial photos, Human Rights Watch calculated that on August 2 there were at least 85,000 protesters present.

Security officials had for weeks been promising that the dispersal of the sit-in would be gradual, starting with a cordon around the sit-in and warnings and a safe exit, in particular for women and children. The Ministry of Interior issued statements on August 1 and 4 calling on protesters to leave the squares, but giving no timeframe for the dispersal.

At around 6:15 a.m. on August 14, approximately 15 minutes before the assault started, security officials used loudspeakers to urge residents to stay away from windows. Egyptian freelance journalist Maged Atef told Human Rights Watch he heard loudspeakers say that protesters should leave by the Nasr Street exit. One resident told Human Rights Watch that from around 8 a.m. onwards she heard loudspeaker announcements giving instructions for safe exit from Tayaran Street. But protesters and journalists told Human Rights Watch that once the dispersal had started, intense gunfire from security forces and tear gas made moving around impossible. The mother of one 15-year-old boy, for example, told Human Rights Watch that her son had called her from the sit-in when the dispersal started saying that he wanted to leave, but that he could not because there was shooting where the army had announced safe exits. The boy ended up sustaining a head-wound, apparently from rubber bullets according to doctors.

At 6:45 a.m. on August 14, riot police moved in on the sit-in from the entrance next to Tiba Mall on Nasr Street, and from the eastern entrances, firing tear gas canisters and shooting in the air. Security forces stationed on the roof of the nearby military intelligence building appear to have started shooting live ammunition almost from the start, although it is unclear who fired the first live bullet. A journalist said he first witnessed shooting at 6:45 a.m. at the eastern entrance to the sit-in on Youssef Abbas Street. A doctor at the sit-in clinic told Human Rights Watch that he received a first patient injured by live ammunition at 7 a.m.

Shooting continued over the next 10 hours, until around 5 p.m., according to numerous witnesses. Firing came from security forces stationed on rooftops as well as in police armored personnel carriers, and with some gunfire from the side of protesters. Women were among those killed, including 17-year-old Asmaa el Beltagy, daughter of Mohamed el Beltagy, a prominent figure in the leadership of the Muslim Brotherhood. The Association for Freedom of Thought and Expression, an Egyptian freedom of expression organization, confirmed four journalists were shot dead: Mike Deane from Sky News, Habiba Abdelaziz from Gulf News, Mosaab al-Shamy from Rassd New, and Ahmad Abdelgawad from al-Akhbar.

Protester Violence 
At a news conference on August 14, the minister of interior said his forces had exercised “extreme restraint” and that 43 police officers had died, many of them at Rab’a al-Adawiya. A resident who had gone outside when he first heard the sound of shooting told Human Rights Watch that at around 7:30 a.m. he saw three dead police officers being carried out of the Tiba Mall shopping center near one of the entrances to the sit-in.

Accounts from witnesses and a review of video footage confirm that some gunfire was fired from the side of the protesters, in particular from around the Rab’a al-Adawiya mosque. For example, one resident said she saw at least three people with automatic rifles and hand guns at around 8:30 or 9:00 a.m. shooting towards police at Youssef Abbas Street. Statements by witnesses interviewed by Human Rights, including international journalists, and personal observations by a Human Rights Watch researcher who was in the area during the break-up, indicate that the vast majority of protesters were not in possession of, let alone displaying or using firearms. Witnesses said protesters lit fires using car tires and wood to mitigate against the effect of tear gas and threw broken pieces of the pavement at police.

International legal standards allow the use of force in limited circumstances, and the intentional use of lethal force is only permitted where strictly necessary to protect life, which would include individuals using firearms targeted at the police. However, while security services may be justified in using a degree of force to stop protesters from throwing stones or Molotov cocktails, protesters’ violence cannot justify use of lethal force, let alone on the scale witnessed on August 14. Those planning the dispersal operations were under a strict duty to take all feasible measures to ensure the operations posed a minimal risk to life, which the organizers comprehensively failed to do.

Higher Death Toll 
Injured and killed protesters were brought to two main “field hospitals” at the sit-in: three rooms attached to the mosque where protesters had stocked basic medical supplies, and the Rab’a al-Adawiya medical clinic, a four-story building with basic medical equipment.

On the morning of August 15, Human Rights Watch staff at the Iman mosque on Makram Ebeid street counted 235 bodies which had been brought from the field hospital and the Rab’a Medical Center at the sit-in. Witnesses told Human Rights Watch that another seven bodies arrived at the mosque later. Since the bodies had not been taken to a government facility, it is unlikely they were included in the ministry of health death toll, which at that time was 102 for Rab’a. In addition,a senior official at the nearby Demerdash hospital said that 20 people from Rab’a died in that hospital from their injuries. Later on August 14, the cabinet announced that the ministry of health would no longer issue death tolls and that going forward only the cabinet would be authorized to publish numbers.

On August 14 protesters had to leave the bodies in Rab’a when the police evicted them from the clinics at 5 p.m. Two men told Human Rights Watch on August 15 that police had allowed them to return to collect bodies from 8 p.m. onwards, and they helped bring them to the Iman mosque.

A local resident told Human Rights Watch that at 8:25 p.m. on August 14 she saw from her apartment a stream of men carrying bodies walk past, that and her cousins had gone to help carry the bodies. A resident on Makram Ebeid Street told Human Rights Watch that at around 9:30 p.m. he had seen a car with two bodies on the roof drive down the street towards the Iman mosque.

Human Rights Watch visited the Rab’a Medical Center, at 3:30 p.m. on August 14, and viewed 64 bodies there. Dr Mohamed Abdelaziz, working at the center, told Human Rights Watch that all but one had been killed by live ammunition, with shots to the head and chest, and that one man had been burnt to death in his tent. One building guard told Human Rights Watch that he had helped carry out two men who had been in their tent when it was set on fire and that one of them had died in a building entrance where they were treating people.

Video footage of nine of those carried into the clinic show that two appeared to have been shot in the chest, five in the back of the head, and two in the face.

Unlawful Killings 
A resident whose flat overlooks one of the side-entrances told Human Rights Watch that at around 6 p.m. there were only two policemen on Mohandessin Askariyeen Street with a group of half a dozen prisoners:

I heard one policeman yelling, “Yalla, walk from here to there,” and you could hear his voice trembling. There was a queue of [around 6] men, they were walking with their hands on heads. The policeman suddenly fired and then I saw a man on the ground. He killed this man for nothing.

Injured protester Mohamed Ali told Human Rights Watch on August 14, as he lay with his right leg bloodied and bandaged in the Rab’a Medical Center, that he had been standing next to his tent, towards the front of Nasr Street when police moved in and he was shot in his right leg above the knee.

Protester Mostafa El Sayed from Daqahliya said that he hid behind a car when the police first moved in at around 6:45 a.m. near the Rab’a al-Adawiya medical center. He said shooting was coming from all directions and that a man next to him was shot in the side. He said he also saw a policeman who was shot.

Journalist Mohamed Hamdy said he was filming on Youssef Abbas Street at 7 a.m. when a man standing next to him was shot in the chest and fell to the ground. Another protester, 26-year-old Abdelmonim, said that just before 7 a.m. he was on Anwar Mofty Street when the police started moving in with tear gas:

We heard the sound of gunshots straight away with the tear gas. I tried to hide because the shooting was everywhere. While I was there I saw three people being shot and fall to the ground, one shot in the eye and one in the side.

Frequent sniper fire in the side streets coming from the direction of where security forces were stationed also killed and injured bystanders. Ain Shams University professor Mostafa Sharif said he had been hiding from sniper fire in Sebawiya al- Masry Street near Rab’a al-Adawiya school at around 8:30 a.m., and saw five people shot and fall to the ground.

No safe exit for wounded 
When Human Rights Watch visited the Rab’a al-Adawiya medical clinic at 3:30 p.m. on August 14, new cases of people shot with live ammunition were constantly entering the clinic, mostly men but also one woman. Doctors were operating on men in the passageways and the clinic was overflowing with injured lying on the ground. There was constant gunfire outside. One volunteer told Human Rights Watch staff to stay away from the passageway next to the stairwell because bullets were being shot through the building by security forces; a journalist in the building confirmed seeing that happen.

For at least 10 hours, the only way for anyone on the outside to enter the clinic inside the main protest area was to run across a street braving sniper fire directed almost constantly into the protest area. During that period gunmen apparently from the sit-in fired some shots back at the security forces. Ambulance workers could go only as far as Anwar al-Mofty street but not cross the 20 meters of sniper fire to access those critically wounded in the clinic. One doctor inside the clinic told Human Rights Watch that the clinic did not have proper equipment for surgical operations but “there’s not much we can do, ambulances can’t reach us.”

At times, four men would brave the gunfire and run across the road carrying a wounded person on a stretcher to ambulances waiting outside. Human Rights Watch spoke to two people outside the medical center who said they had seen an ambulance worker shot dead at around 2 p.m. A Human Rights Watch researcher witnessed the shooting of a man not displaying any weapons or using or threatening any violence as he left the clinic and headed across the road. The fire came from the direction of security forces, towards the sit-in. He fell to the ground, blood seeping out of his head, but was able to crawl to safety.

The live fire at the entrance to the medical center meant that the wounded had no safe way of getting medical help. Constant fire from rooftop security forces towards the mosque and buildings adjacent to the clinic prevented medical staff from saving lives over that ten-hour period, Human Rights Watch said.