(Gaza) - Egyptian authorities should investigate claims from escaped Palestinian prisoners that prison guards in Egypt used unnecessary lethal force during a prison break, killing and wounding prisoners, Human Rights Watch said today. Officials should also ensure the wounded receive medical care and publish information about the names of prisoners killed, Human Rights Watch said.
Human Rights Watch interviewed one escaped prisoner who described heavy shooting during an escape from Abu Zabaal prison, northeast of Cairo, and spoke to another escaped prisoner who confirmed Palestinian news media accounts of his own escape.
"As Egyptians protest against decades of abuses by Mubarak's security forces, new atrocities should not be taking place," said Joe Stork, deputy Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. "The authorities need to investigate and not use unnecessary lethal force against prisoners."
Omar Shaath, a resident of Rafah in the Gaza Strip, told Human Rights Watch that Egyptian authorities detained him in January 2010 when he tried to enter the Rafah border crossing into the Gaza Strip. He was held without charge for more than a year under Egypt's emergency law on suspicion of being affiliated with the "Army of Islam" in Egypt. On the afternoon of January 28, 2011, Shaath said, prisoners in the criminal wing of the Abu Zabaal prison began burning food supplies and attempting to escape.
Before the recent uprising in Egypt, defense lawyers and human rights groups there estimated that approximately 5,000 people were in long-term detention without charge or trial under the emergency law, some for more than a decade.
Shaath described a chaotic scene as prison guards in a watchtower opened fire on him and other detainees on the third floor of a separate section of the prison as they tried to break through the iron bars and metal mesh on their windows.
"Other prisoners were already out of their cells in the prison yard, and when I waved to get their attention, a guard shot at me," Shaath said. "The guards kept firing when the other prisoners saw us trying to get out and began helping us tear down the windows."
Prison guards used large amounts of teargas as well, according to Shaath, but it is not clear if they first resorted to less lethal means of controlling the prisoners before opening fire with live ammunition.
Shaath shared with Human Rights Watch short videos that he and other prisoners made with their mobile phones during the prison break. One video shows two wounded men hiding in a narrow space inside the prison; gunfire is heard in the background. One of the men is dazed and is bleeding from his ear, and is unable to stand. A second video shows a man in a suit holding an AK-47-style assault rifle directing officials dressed in olive-drab sweaters, pants, and berets, and several prison guards preventing prisoners from leaving a building. The third video shows a burning storage cylinder on the roof of the prison.
"Snipers in the guard tower directed heavy fire towards the third floor" of the detainees section of the prison, Shaath said, "and there were quite a few dead and wounded, but we couldn't get the prison administration to help evacuate the dead and wounded because of all the noise and the ongoing shooting."
As prisoners attempted to escape, Shaath saw some prisoners fall three stories out of windows or when they tried to climb down plumbing pipes on the outside wall of the cell block building. Shaath said other prisoners told him that in total, 30 prisoners had been killed during the escape.
Prison guards also opened fire at local Bedouin residents and families of the detainees who had gathered outside the prison and began trying to break down the walls, including by bringing a small bulldozer, Shaath said. The riots and shooting were over by sundown, as guards fled and the prison emptied.
Human Rights Watch expressed concern for the lives of prisoners wounded during the prison escape and those already in bad health due to torture by Egyptian security officials and lack of medical attention during their detention.
"Another Palestinian prisoner, named Ramzi Al Raey, had an internal laceration in his anus from being tortured by an electrified rod that produced electric shocks, and he had open wounds from a prior time when he had been shot in the legs," Shaath said.
A second prisoner, Moatasem Al Quqa, 27, confirmed to Human Rights Watch accounts of his escape the same day from Abu Zaabal prison reported by the independent Ma'an and the Hamas-affiliated Al-Risala news websites. According to those accounts, Al Quqa was arrested by Egyptian security forces in 2004 as he accompanied a sick friend through the tunnels under the Gaza /Egypt border. Al Quqa said he was interrogated and transferred to Abu Zaabal prison, where he remained in detention despite a 2005 ruling for his release from an Egyptian national security court.
On the morning of the prison break, Al Quqa said he heard people shouting and found out that families of prisoners had come to free their relatives; the prisoners could hear that there were large numbers outside and started a riot. Within hours, they managed to tear down a wall of the prison. He described heavy shooting by guards during the escape and saw 10 to 12 dead bodies of prisoners and protesters.
Al Quqa said he escaped with seven other Palestinians who, with the help of Egyptian Bedouin, found two cars and drove to within eight kilometers of the Rafah border crossing, where four of them were re-arrested by Egyptian forces. Four others, including Shaath, Juma'a Salha, and Hammed abd el-Hadi succeeded in crossing. Shaath confirmed to Human Rights Watch that he had escaped with Al Quqa and the other men.
Under the United Nations Basic Principles on the Use of Force and Firearms by Law Enforcement Officials, security forces may only use lethal force when strictly unavoidable in order to protect life.
Ma'an news interviewed a third escaped Palestinian prisoner, Hassan Washah, who said he had been arrested by Egyptian intelligence and national security forces and detained for more than three years in Egyptian prisons, including Abu Zaabal. According to Washah, Abu Zaabal consisted of three sections, but he is only aware that prisoners from two of them escaped.
In news accounts, both Washah and Al Quqa describe torture, beatings, and solitary confinement during their detention in Egypt. Both said they were interrogated about their involvement with militant groups.