(Cairo) - The Egyptian government should order security forces, especially police and plainclothes agents, not to use live fire against peaceful protesters and bystanders, Human Rights Watch said today. Following reports that dozens have been killed at demonstrations, Human Rights Watch confirmed at least 33 dead in Alexandria and heard plausible reports of at least 50 to 70 dead at a single morgue in Cairo.
Human Rights Watch urged the Egyptian army to continue to exercise restraint in the face of legitimate protests and warned that soldiers and police could face prosecution if they open fire on demonstrators without justification or give orders to do so. The authorities should immediately open investigations into the live fire in Alexandria and elsewhere by police and plainclothes agents and prosecute those responsible for unjustified killings and injuries, Human Rights Watch said.
"We hope the Egyptian army will not follow the ruthless brutality of Egyptian riot police in their confrontations with demonstrators," said Joe Stork, deputy Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. "Police and plainclothes agents seem to be shooting people without justification, using live bullets or firing teargas canisters straight at protesters. Those giving the orders to shoot, no matter how senior, should also be held to account."
Human Rights Watch urged the United States to immediately suspend all assistance to and cooperation with Egyptian law enforcement agencies because of the suspicion they opened fire on peaceful protesters. Washington should also suspend licensing of crime control equipment, including teargas, Human Rights Watch said.
There are reports of looting in Cairo and also in the Sidi Bishr, Bokkla, and Assafre neighborhoods of Alexandria. If security forces are trying to control looters, they may use reasonable and proportionate force to prevent crimes under international standards, as set out in the United Nations Basic Principles on the Use of Force and Firearms by Law Enforcement Officials. But these state that firearms should only be used in situations of grave and imminent threats of death or serious injury.
In Alexandria, residents told Human Rights Watch they are setting up neighborhood committees to protect their houses; at least one group asked the army for help in protecting them from looters, but was told the army is overstretched and could do nothing for now. The army in Alexandria has asked locals to coordinate a Popular Committee for Protection of Property and said reinforcements will arrive on January 30. In Cairo there were reports of looting in the middle-class areas of Heliopolis and Mohandessin, as well as in Maadi and Shoubra, and in several areas there are reports of locals setting up neighborhood patrols to protect their homes.
A Human Rights Watch researcher in Alexandria saw the bodies of 13 men in the morgue at the Alexandria General Hospital and a lawyer told Human Rights Watch he had seen 20 bodies at a second morgue in the city. Many people with gunshot wounds were waiting to be treated in the hospital's emergency room. Several of the wounded told Human Rights Watch they had been shot with live ammunition by uniformed police and plainclothes security agents. Some said they were in their homes at the time they were shot, but that police thought they were throwing objects.
A doctor at the Qasr al Aini hospital told Human Rights Watch researchers who visited the hospital that he had seen nine dead from gunshot wounds to the head, saying there were "at least 50 to 70 bodies" in the hospital on the night of January 28, 2011. The doctor, who did not want to be identified, also said he had treated a man who had been hit by a teargas canister and then died, apparently of cardiac arrest from teargas asphyxiation.
A lawyer told Human Rights Watch that he had seen 20 bodies at the morgue in the Com al-Dikka hospital in Alexandria after he went to try to identify the body of a cousin shot dead. There is a third morgue in Alexandria, but Human Rights Watch was not able to get information from there.
Human Rights Watch said that uniformed police and plainclothes intelligence agents appear to have used live fire in two situations in Alexandria, most often by police when protesters went to attack police stations and also by plainclothes agents who believed citizens were throwing objects at police from their windows. Witnesses told Human Rights Watch that most of the live fire came from plainclothes agents rather than uniformed police. Human Rights Watch also witnessed officers firing teargas canisters directly at the heads of protesters, and later saw the body of at least one man apparently killed when he was hit in the face by a canister.
One man who had been shot in his leg told Human Rights Watch he had been drinking tea in a cafe with friends at 6:30 p.m. on January 28 when police ordered them to leave because of the curfew. When the men walked past the police station about 30 minutes later, officers threw stones at the group and then opened fire without provocation, injuring the man.
Another man interviewed by Human Rights Watch said that plainclothes intelligence agents came to his apartment, accused him of throwing things at police from his windows, and then shot at him.
By late afternoon on January 29 the atmosphere in Alexandria was very tense, with large protests ongoing. Many police stations in the city were burned down on January 28, and demonstrators tried but failed to burn down the intelligence services building. The army was present on the streets of Alexandria but by nightfall had not intervened.
According to media reports and information from other sources, demonstrators in Cairo's Tahrir Square and on the Corniche were attacked overnight by police who returned to the areas, despite having earlier handed over control to the Egyptian Army. The army does not appear to be helping to put down the protests; some television images showed soldiers helping demonstrators to put up banners.
A woman who was outside Cairo's Qasr al Aini hospital with her relatives told Human Rights Watch her son, who was on the streets at night, had been shot through the neck, damaging his spinal cord and leaving him paralyzed from the waist down. Human Rights Watch researchers at a private hospital in the Dokki neighborhood of Cairo saw a 31-year-old taxi driver who was badly wounded with what appeared to be shrapnel in his right shoulder, hand, and ribs. He said he had been shot, but it was not clear what projectile had caused his wounds.
By late afternoon, at least 10,000 peaceful demonstrators had gathered in Tahrir Square despite a curfew, observed by soldiers in tanks, in a festive atmosphere. But Human Rights Watch researchers could hear gunfire near the Interior Ministry, and sources at the scene saw at least four people carried away with gunshot wounds.
Human Rights Watch urged the United States and the European Union to reconsider their strategy of supporting repressive regimes and instead put maximum pressure on the Egyptian president, Hosni Mubarak, to start an immediate transition to a government that respects basic human rights. The first step should be an immediate repeal of the emergency laws, which have underpinned repression and attacks on human right in Egypt for decades. The next steps should include accountability for egregious abuses by the security forces, including the systematic use of torture.
"The strategy of supporting repressive regimes in the Middle East is well past its sell-by date and is now a major cause of instability," said Stork. "The US and the EU should pressure the Egyptian government to end the emergency laws at once. The next step will be to hold to account the security forces who have abused Egyptians for so long."
Human Rights Watch also said the Obama administration should suspend military aid to Egypt if the Egyptian army's role in dealing with the protests becomes abusive.