(Cairo) - Thousands of protesters in Cairo and Alexandria defied a heavy deployment of riot police and other security forces and government warnings not to participate in demonstrations on January 28, 2011, Human Rights Watch said today. The government shut down access to the internet and most mobile phone networks and ordered the army onto the streets of Cairo ahead of a curfew.
Witnesses described dozens of demonstrators being injured by the police. Reports say security forces are restricting the movements of the opposition leader Mohamed el-Baradei and have arrested several leaders of the Muslim Brotherhood. Police briefly detained several journalists covering the protests.
"The Egyptian people are on the streets demanding reform and a government whose police no longer attack them," said Joe Stork, deputy Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. "After decades of torture and brutality, the Egyptian government is all too comfortable beating and shooting at its own citizens. But the government and its security forces should heed the message that the people have had enough."
Protesters in Cairo tried to force their way towards Tahrir Square, the scheduled meeting point for the January 28 protest. Human Rights Watch researchers observed demonstrators as they made their way across Qasr al-Nil Bridge toward the central square, only to be turned back, at first with water cannons and teargas fired at close range, and then with rubber bullets fired by riot police. Protesters also attempted to cross the 6 October Bridge, but riot police there also fired teargas into crowd.
At approximately 3:15 p.m., riot police at Qasr al-Nil Bridge started shooting rubber bullets into the crowd and beating them with batons, eventually leading to the retreat of demonstrators back across the bridge. Eyewitnesses said that dozens were injured. Human Rights Watch researchers near the bridge counted nine bloodied victims as other demonstrators carried them out. One appeared to be unconscious, another had what appeared to be a dozen bullet wounds, and a 67-year-old man had a bullet wound to his neck.
An eyewitness, an elderly female demonstrator who said she was at the front lines of the demonstrators on the bridge, said that the police fired both the teargas and the rubber bullets at extremely close range. Another demonstrator, a 62-year-old retired army officer who said he was a veteran of the 1973 war with Israel, said police beat him with batons.
Meanwhile in the northern port of Alexandria, Egypt's second largest city, a Human Rights Watch researcher witnessed security forces shooting teargas canisters and rubber bullets at about 600 peaceful protesters after the Friday noon prayer at the Sidi Beshr mosque. The protesters left the mosque with banners and started marching, shouting, "We are peaceful, we are peaceful." After an hour of sporadic clashes a large column of protesters came from the other direction and blocked in police, holding up their hands and repeating, "We are peaceful." Police later withdrew from the area and thousands of protesters marched down the Alexandria seafront. Later in the day Human Rights Watch saw police cars and trucks burning on the city streets.
International human rights standards on the use of force by law enforcement agents, as set out in the UN Basic Principles on the Use of Force and Firearms by Law Enforcement Officials, state that force can only be used when "unavoidable" and when it is used it must be applied proportionally. Arbitrary and abusive use of force by law enforcement officials must be punished. Similarly the Egyptian authorities are have a duty to recognize and protect everyone's right to peaceful assembly, including permitting demonstrations to move freely.
Human Rights Watch urged the government to reverse its decision to shut down most communications in Egypt, saying the blackout poses a major threat to human rights. The shutdown of the internet came in apparent response to the demonstrations, which began as protests against police torture and quickly escalated into calls for an end to President Mubarak's three decades of rule.
"Egypt's information blackout is an extreme step designed to disrupt planned marches, to block images of police brutality, and to silence dissent once and for all," said Stork. "Attacks on journalists are also intended to censor reporting. The government should order police to let reporters work freely."
According to media reports, on January 28 police arrest yesterday at least four journalists, beat a BBC reporters, and seized a camera from a CNN crew. Starting January 25, they briefly detained at least 10 other reporters.
Mubarak has ruled Egypt since 1981 under emergency laws which give his security forces the power to arbitrarily arrest and detain thousands without charge for unlimited periods of time, and to ban demonstrations. A culture of impunity has enabled systematic torture. Against this backdrop, determined young internet activists have increasingly taken to the internet and used it to organize street protests and share information about cases.
Human Rights Watch said that the internet and mobile communications are essential tools for rights of expression, to information, and of assembly and association. The United States, the European Union, and influential regional governments should take immediate steps to press Egypt to end the nationwide telecommunications blackout. Companies and internet service providers in and outside of Egypt should act responsibly to uphold freedom of expression and privacy by pressing Egypt to stop censoring their products and services.
"A state-directed shutdown of all internet access is deeply chilling," said Stork. "The international community should respond swiftly to put an end to Egypt's information blackout and human rights abuses."