Impunity Encourages Excessive Force
November 2, 2013
In dealing with protest after protest, Egyptian security forces escalate quickly and without warning to live ammunition, with deadly results. Thirteen hundred people have died since July. What will it take for the authorities to rein in security forces or even set up a fact-finding committee into their use of deadly force?
Joe Stork, deputy Middle East and North Africa director

(New York) – Egypt’s authorities have yet to announce any move to investigate security force killings of protesters on October 6, 2013. Almost four weeks after police used lethal force to break up protests by Muslim Brotherhood supporters, the authorities have not said they have questioned, or intend to question, security forces about their use of firearms that day.


The clashes left 57 people dead throughout Egypt, according to the Health Ministry, with no police deaths reported.

“In dealing with protest after protest, Egyptian security forces escalate quickly and without warning to live ammunition, with deadly results,” said Joe Stork, deputy Middle East and North Africa director at Human Rights Watch. “Thirteen hundred people have died since July. What will it take for the authorities to rein in security forces or even set up a fact-finding committee into their use of deadly force?”

Judicial authorities have held security services to account in only one case since the military removed President Mohamed Morsy from power in early July, setting off a wave of protests by supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood. On October 22, Public Prosecutor Hisham Barakat ordered the pretrial detention of four police officers for the deaths of 37 detainees they were transporting to Abu Zaabal prison on August 18. He referred them for trial on charges of “negligence and involuntary manslaughter” for shooting tear gas into the locked van. The detainees suffocated. The trial of the police officers opened on October 29.

“Egypt showed in the case of the police officers who fired teargas into a truck full of detainees that it is capable of holding security forces accountable,” Stork said. “It should do the same when police officers open fire on largely peaceful demonstrators.”

Throughout the past three months, in spite of over 1,300 people killed during demonstrations, the authorities have not established a fact-finding committee or attempted to rein in security services.

However, when it comes to violence by protesters prosecutors have arrested, investigated, and prosecuted protesters for assault and use of violence. The government should prosecute its agents who injure or kill people while using unjustifiable levels of force, Human Rights Watch said.

Small protests of up to a few thousand Brotherhood supporters have taken place in Cairo and other cities every Friday for the past two months. While security forces have frequently arrested participants, the speed with which the police resorted to wide-scale lethal force on October 6 had not been seen since police dispersed two massive protest camps in Cairo on August 14, Human Rights Watch said.

Human Rights Watch interviewed 23 witnesses to the three major clashes in Cairo on October 6. Fourteen of the witnesses saw events in the western Cairo district of Dokki, six in the Ramses Square area, and three in Garden City. Human Rights Watch also reviewed extensive video footage of the events. The evidence indicates that the police resorted to live gunfire on demonstrators in situations that were not life-threatening.While some protesters threw stones and Molotov cocktails at the police, all 23 witnesses said they did not observe any protesters using or carrying firearms before the police opened fire on them.

Human Rights Watch visited Cairo’s main morgue and saw the bodies of six people the morgue authorities indicated had been killed in the October 6 clashes. A source in the Forensic Medical Authority told Human Rights Watch that live ammunition caused the death of 44 of the 49 people whose bodies were handled by morgues in Cairo and Giza, and that birdshot killed the other 5. The source told Human Rights Watch that 20 had fatal wounds to the chest, 17 to the head, 6 to the stomach, 4 to the limbs, and 2 to multiple places on the body, and that 1 minor was among those killed.

International human rights treaties ratified by Egypt obligate the government to safeguard the right of peaceful assembly and to restrict it only when required by law and when necessary to achieve a greater public good. When dispersing a demonstration or responding to acts of violence, security forces should abide by the United Nations Basic Principles on the Use of Force and Firearms by Law Enforcement Officers.

These principles state that law enforcement officials “shall, as far as possible, apply non-violent means before resorting to the use of force and firearms.” Whenever the use of force is unavoidable, security forces should not use firearms against people “except in self-defense or defense of others against the imminent threat of death or serious injury.”

Interim President Adly Mansour did promise to set up a fact-finding committee into the events of July 8 in Cairo in which 51 protesters and 2 members of the security forces were killed – the first incident of excessive use of force following the ouster of Morsy. But there is no sign the interim president has taken any steps to form such a committee.

Adly Mansour should set up a fact-finding committee of independent experts to look into the violence of the past three months, Human Rights Watch said. He should ensure that the investigation is impartial and credible, in line with international standards and looks at whether security forces used excessive force resulting in the death of protesters. Authorities should make public the investigation’s findings and recommendations.

In addition, Egyptian authorities should establish accountability for the security forces’ repeated use of unjustified lethal force. The government should also ensure that security forces respect the right to demonstrate peacefully and use only the measure of force necessary and proportionate to protect order.

Military and civilian authorities should publicly order security forces to adhere to standards consistent with the UN Basic Principles on the Use of Force and Firearms by Law Enforcement Officials, Human Rights Watch said.

Other countries should halt any transfer to Egypt of small arms, light weapons, related ammunition, and equipment if there is a high likelihood that Egyptian security forces might use these items to commit human rights violations involving use of excessive and indiscriminate lethal force against protesters and in dispersing crowds, Human Rights Watch said.

“That Egyptian police are using excessive lethal force is nothing new, but now they open fire as if they do not fear being held to account,” Stork said. “Until Egypt’s military rulers take strong steps to rein in the police force, the killing of protesters will continue.”

For further details about the October 6 events, please see below. 

The October 6 Demonstrations
The Muslim Brotherhood had called for demonstrations on October 6, the 40th anniversary of the 1973 war with Israel, with the stated purposes of opposing what they call the “military coup against legitimacy” and “reclaiming” Tahrir Square. Clashes broke out when the police sought to disperse Muslim Brotherhood marches headed for the square, where people who supported the army had gathered to celebrate the anniversary.

On October 4, deputy minister of interior General Sayed Shafik warned in an interview on Al Hayat TV that the police would not allow “any sit-ins in any square” on October 6 and would prevent them “at all cost.” October 6 is a national holiday honoring Egypt’s military.

Over the past three months, security forces have repeatedly used excessive lethal force in dispersing mostly peaceful protests, Human Rights Watch said. The degree of force used has been vastly disproportionate to the occasional acts of violence by some demonstrators.

Human Rights Watch has documented three other incidents since July 3 in which the security forces employed disproportionate force in Cairo: outside the Republican Guard Headquarters in Nasr City on July 8, on Nasr Street near the Rabaa al-Adawaiya protest camp on July 27, and during the dispersal of the Rabaa al-Adawiya protest camp itself on August 14. In September, Prime Minister Hazem Beblawy told the Egyptian daily Al Masry al-Youm that the death toll on August 14 was “close to 1,000.”

After the violence erupted on October 6, the Interior Ministry in a news release described the day’s events as a result of “clashes between residents and Muslim Brotherhood members.” However the evidence obtained by Human Rights Watch indicates that police gunfire was responsible for the majority of the day’s fatalities in Cairo and Giza, and also that “residents” clashing with Muslim Brotherhood protesters included groups of men who appeared to be acting in cooperation with the police.

Prosecutors placed 98 protesters whom police arrested on October 6 in pretrial detention and have since renewed their detention orders. On October 10, the Public Prosecutor announced that he had referred 16 members of the Muslim Brotherhood to the Cairo Criminal Court to stand trial on charges that include assault and the killing of citizens during the October 6 clashes. On October 26, the Boulak Misdemeanors Court sentenced 16 Muslim Brotherhood members to 3 years in prison on charges of “illegal assembly” and “thuggery” related to the events of October 6.

The Health Ministry said that 57 people were killed and 391 injured throughout Egypt in the violence on October 6. Most of these fatalities took place in Cairo and Giza (Cairo’s western suburb), with 30 killed in the district of Dokki, 18 in Ramses, and 1 in Zeitoun, according to the Forensic Medical Authority.

In Dokki, witnesses told Human Rights Watch that Muslim Brotherhood protesters marching toward Tahrir Square were met by the police, who stood alongside people in civilian dress – “honorable citizens,” as some Egyptians call these civilian participants – some holding sticks and knives. Eight witnesses told Human Rights Watch that the police fired teargas and rubber bullets as the marchers approached, causing protesters to quickly scatter. The police issued no warning but soon opened fire, the witnesses said.

Witnesses in Dokki consistently told Human Rights Watch that, based on the sounds they heard and the activity around them, the shooting appeared to originate from the side of the street where armed police were concentrated. Tarek Shalaby, a blogger and political activist who was on the scene, said police officers fired live ammunition at protesters from the ground and from atop green police vans.

All 14 witnesses from Dokki told Human Rights Watch that they did not see any Muslim Brotherhood protesters using violence or openly carrying firearms before the police opened fire. Several witnesses said that protesters threw rocks and glass bottles toward the police after clashes began.

The men in civilian clothes who stood near the police also participated in the violence. A reporter from the website Mada Masr on the scene in Dokki told Human Rights Watch that the police gave these men “free rein” to do what they wished to protesters.

Human Rights Watch interviewed the person who filmed footage in Dokki showing a police vehicle slowly approaching a group of men in civilian clothes beating a protester. A uniformed police officer can be seen in the video conversing with members of the group, but taking no action to stop the beating. A freelance journalist told Human Rights Watch she saw men in civilian clothes grabbing and beating protesters from the front lines and then handing them over to the police for arrest.

Events in the Ramses Square area followed a similar trajectory. A 42-year-old protester, Ahmed Serag, told Human Rights Watch:

Even before we started chanting, teargas was fired on us… Five minutes later, [the police] started shooting birdshot at us and ten minutes later they used live ammunition… ‘honorable citizens’ attacked us during the pauses when the police weren’t shooting at us. They were pelting us with rocks and empty glass bottles, and we did the same.

Many witnesses described the police beating people when making arrests, even when they offered no resistance or were already in custody. One witness, Salah, who works for a cement company and witnessed clashes in Garden City near the Four Seasons Hotel, said: “Central Security Forces beat the hell out of protesters they caught… single protesters would be held by three or four guys, who would hit them even though they put up no resistance.” He also told Human Rights Watch about one protester he saw who was “dragged by the arms while security forces kicked him in the gut” before arresting him.