(Cairo) - Egypt's Supreme Military Council should take all necessary measures to end the military and security forces' use of excessive force against protesters and the mistreatment of detainees, Human Rights Watch said today. The council should urgently protect all government records relating to the abusive state security agency, which are crucial for holding past rights violators to account, Human Rights Watch said.
Between March 4 and 6, 2011, government security forces used excessive force to break up protests outside State Security Investigations (SSI) offices and mistreated persons arrested. In Cairo's Lazoughli Square on March 6, government-backed thugs attacked demonstrators and soldiers beat those taken into military custody. In Alexandria on March 4, state security officers shot live ammunition and lobbed petrol bombs at demonstrators.
"Security force attacks on demonstrators sounds like the old Egypt, not the hoped-for new Egypt," said Joe Stork, deputy Middle East and North Africa director at Human Rights Watch. "The Supreme Military Council needs to adopt urgent measures to end the misuse of force once and for all."
From March 4 to 6, demonstrators gathered outside SSI offices in Cairo, Alexandria, and other cities throughout Egypt in response to reports on Twitter and Facebook that SSI officers were destroying documents, including records that might be used to hold former officials accountable for human rights violations. They sought to prevent further destruction of SSI documents and archives and to protest continued operations by the security agency, which had long been implicated in the arbitrary detention and torture of activists.
Demonstrations took place at the SSI headquarters in Nasr City in Cairo, the Lazoughli Square building, and offices in at least four other Cairo neighborhoods, and at the main SSI office in Alexandria. Demonstrators also assembled in front of SSI offices in the cities of Assiut, Fayoum, and Marsa Matrouh, and in the towns of Zagazig and Qena in the Nile Delta, according to local media reports. In some areas, protesters were able to enter SSI buildings.
Crackdown on Demonstrators at SSI Building in Cairo
On the afternoon of March 6, protestors gathered in front of the SSI building just off of Lazoughli Square, near downtown Cairo. Participants told Human Rights Watch that late in the evening, unidentified persons began throwing rocks into the assembled crowd. "I didn't see where the stones were coming from," said one demonstrator. "People kept calling ‘baltagiyya!'" he said, referring to pro-government thugs. "Then I saw a group of them with knives and machetes."
According to demonstrators interviewed by Human Rights Watch, uniformed soldiers then started firing shots into the air. "They started firing... It was really loud and it wouldn't stop. People were running in all directions," said Alia Mossallem, who was at the scene. "They [the soldiers] were holding batons, longer than the black ones that SSI officers use."
Some protestors reported that the soldiers hit them with wooden sticks or batons. "After I heard shots, people started chasing us with sticks," said Ayman Farag, another eyewitness. "We pulled back to the square, but the baltagiyya were coming at us from one side, and the army from another."
The Front for the Defense of Egyptian Protesters, a coalition of human rights organizations, later reported that military personnel arrested 27 protesters that evening, initially detaining them inside the Lazoughli SSI building. Two of the detainees, speaking just after their release on March 7, told Human Rights Watch that soldiers in the Lazoughli SSI building handcuffed them, threw them to the ground, and beat them with rifle butts for approximately two hours. Human Rights Watch researchers saw what appeared to be bruises on their bodies and bloodstains on their clothing. "We kept saying ‘salmiya, salmiya' [peaceful, peaceful]," one told Human Rights Watch. He said that a soldier had stepped on his hands, breaking a finger.
After a few hours, the detainees were taken to a place called "S28," a jail inside the military prosecutions compound in Nasr City. The detainees said they were not physically mistreated there, but military prosecutors questioned them in the presence of military lawyers who had been assigned to them. "When I asked to call my lawyer," one told Human Rights Watch, "they said, ‘That's none of your business, we'll appoint you a lawyer that we have.'"
According to Haitham Mohammadein of the Nadim Center for Torture Victims, the authorities prevented him and other lawyers from meeting with their clients that evening at the military compound. When the lawyers returned the next morning, they were again denied access to their clients. Mohammadein said that the civilian lawyers had not been permitted to attend their clients' questioning by military prosecutors, and that prosecution officials told them that military lawyers would be present instead. The detainees were released on March 7, the day after the Lazoughli demonstration, at around 3:45 p.m.
"Arbitrary arrests and brutal beatings of Lazoughli Square demonstrators show the army's disturbing willingness to run roughshod over basic rights," said Stork. "The military should stop detaining and prosecuting civilians."
Unlawful Use of Lethal Force
A political activist in Alexandria, Maysoon al-Masry, told Human Rights Watch that activists had gone to the SSI building on Fara'ana Street in Alexandria on March 3, suspecting that security officers had begun destroying documents. Finding shredded papers in the garbage bins outside the building, they called for a protest there the next day.
On March 4 at noon, about 50 or 60 protestors were present outside the SSI building. Others joined throughout the day. By evening, protesters began demanding entry to the building and banging on the gates. At around 8 p.m., said al-Masry, she saw Molotov cocktails (petrol bombs) being thrown from the SSI building toward the protesters, and that gunshots followed.
"They were coming from above us, not from our level," she said. "They were coming from inside the building." Al-Masry told Human Rights Watch that five people were injured - three by live ammunition and two from the petrol bombs. Activist Hassan Mostafa was shot twice in the stomach and Esmaat Dostashati, a photographer, was shot in the arm.
Egypt's state security and military forces should abide by the UN Basic Principles on the Use of Force and Firearms, which state that lethal force may only be used when strictly unavoidable to protect life, and must be exercised with restraint and proportionality. The principles also call on governments to "ensure that arbitrary or abusive use of force and firearms by law enforcement officials is punished as a criminal offense under their law."
"The Interior Ministry should instruct all officers never to use deadly force except when it is the only option available to protect lives," said Stork. "Authorities should immediately investigate the Alexandria shootings and hold those responsible to account."
Destruction of State Security Documents
State security documents should be preserved so that those responsible for past torture and other ill-treatment can be held accountable, Human Rights Watch said.
In Alexandria, Ahmad al-Ghonaimy, an activist who attended the March 4 demonstration outside the SSI building, told Human Rights Watch that "some people [wanted] to find [any] papers still inside [that were] still in one piece, and some people were there for the symbolic reason - to say they know officers were shredding paper inside. You don't want to allow this to happen."
The protesters eventually entered the building and found that massive destruction of documents had taken place. "As soon as we got in, there were mountains of shredded paper everywhere, inside every office," Ghonaimy said.
Some positive steps have been taken. On March 5 in Nasr City, Cairo, some of the hundreds of demonstrators gathered outside the SSI headquarters gained entry through a side gate. They dragged from the building trash bags full of shredded paper, computer hard drives, and remaining files, and collected them in the compound's courtyard. Others began searching the building for secret cells that might be holding detainees, shouting, "Where are the prisoners?"
A few hours later, soldiers present permitted larger numbers of protesters to enter through a main gate. After 9 p.m., the protesters called for a representative of the public prosecutor's office to come and ensure safekeeping of the materials inside. Later that night, Zakariya Abdulaziz, former head of the Egyptian Judges' Club, arrived with representatives of the prosecutor's office to take custody of the documents. Army officers searched protesters as they left the premises to ensure that they did not take documents with them.
Since then, photographs and videos of the SSI headquarters have proliferated on Twitter and Facebook. Through these outlets, protestors have reported finding SSI files relating to well-known activists including Ahmed Maher, co-founder of the April 6 Youth group, and Khaled Said, a 28-year-old man beaten to death by two undercover police officers on an Alexandria street in June 2010, whose case set off demonstrations across the country in the following months.
International law requires governments to investigate grave human rights violations such as custodial killings and torture. For instance, the United Nations Principles on the Effective Prevention and Investigation of Extra-Legal, Arbitrary and Summary Executions calls upon governing authorities to establish a secure chain of custody over evidence, including government records, that will permit the prosecution, when warranted, of those former and present officials implicated in abuses. The right to redress entails that victims of human rights abuses and their survivors have access to information that may shed light on the abuses they endured and the parties responsible for them.
"The mountains of shredded government documents that protesters have already discovered suggest that the Supreme Council of Armed Forces is failing its duty to preserve important records from willful destruction," said Stork. "By moving in a decisive and transparent manner to conserve the SSI's files, the council can begin to end the impunity for human rights abuses that the agency has enjoyed until now."