(Cairo) - The Egyptian government should stop what appear to be organized attacks on pro-democracy demonstrators, which resulted in three deaths and several hundred injuries, and hold all those responsible to account, Human Rights Watch said today. The Egyptian security forces failed to protect those peacefully assembling in Tahrir Square in Cairo on February 2, 2011, from pro-government provocateurs armed with petrol bombs, sticks, and whips.
The United States and the European Union should use their leverage with the Egyptian government to ensure that there is no further violence against peaceful protesters, Human Rights Watch said. They should tell President Hosni Mubarak and Egypt's military commanders that the army's actions on February 2 raised serious doubts about its willingness to protect pro-democracy protestors from violent attacks, and that their failure to uphold fundamental human rights, including prohibitions on extrajudicial killings, torture and enforced disappearances, will prompt an immediate suspension of all military assistance.
"The events in Tahrir Square and elsewhere strongly suggest government involvement in violence against peaceful protesters," said Kenneth Roth, executive director of Human Rights Watch. "The US and other allies should make clear that further abuse will come at a very high price."
The Egyptian government has a responsibility not only to respect the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and expression, but also to protect protesters from violent attack, Human Rights Watch said. This includes ensuring that sufficient and properly trained security forces are deployed on Tahrir Square and other demonstration sites and that they intervene immediately to prevent injury. The Egyptian army has acknowledged the protesters' right to peaceful protest and assembly, and Human Rights Watch said the role of the security forces is to uphold those rights.
Human Rights Watch also warned that soldiers and officers could face prosecution if they unlawfully fire on demonstrators or give orders to do so, or ill-treat people in custody.
The army, which had been controlling access to Tahrir Square very tightly, with tanks at all the main entrances to the square, checking identification cards and searching bags, allowed pro-Mubarak protesters into the square, including men riding horses and camels and brandishing whips. Soldiers mostly stood by and did not act to protect peaceful demonstrators or try to stop the attacks on them. The Egyptian Health Ministry said three people were killed in the violence and more than 600 injured.
The use of force by state security forces is governed by international standards, and subject to international legal obligations that are binding on Egypt. Egypt is a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which prohibits arbitrary killings including those resulting from unlawful or excessive use of force. This prohibition imposes an obligation on states to investigate, and where appropriate prosecute, any such alleged killings. The UN Basic Principles on the Use of Force and Firearms applies to all those who exercise police powers, including soldiers when they are acting in this capacity. The Basic Principles state that lethal force may only be used "when strictly unavoidable in order to protect life." When doing so, the security forces must act with restraint and in proportion to the seriousness of the offense and the legitimate objective to be achieved; minimize injury; and respect and preserve human life.
In addition to numerous media reports suggesting official involvement in the attacks on pro-democracy demonstrators, a number of witnesses have described their belief that the government has coordinated the activities of the pro-Mubarak demonstrators. One source told Human Rights Watch that staff at a state hospital was told to go and protest in favor of Mubarak on February 2. A female pro-democracy protester told Human Rights Watch that men standing near the TV building on the Corniche had offered her 50 Egyptian pounds early in the morning to go into Tahrir Square and demonstrate for Mubarak.
"It boggles the imagination that armed pro-Mubarak demonstrators on camels and horseback could have assembled themselves and passed through army checkpoints without government complicity and coordination," said Roth.
Journalists were also targeted for attack, with several Egyptian and foreign reporters describing beatings at the hands of pro-Mubarak supporters or plainclothes police and several others arrested and still in detention. An Al Arabiya reporter was in intensive care after being attacked by pro-Mubarak demonstrators. A BBC crew was detained for several hours and at least two other journalists, including a correspondent for the Belgian daily Le Soir, were still being held last night. A pro-Mubarak crowd in Alexandria attacked a television crew, who had to be rescued by the army.