(Cairo) - Egypt's Supreme Military Council should take urgent steps to end torture, investigate all cases of abuse against peaceful demonstrators, and stop prosecuting civilians before military tribunals, Human Rights Watch said today.
On the evening of March 9, 2011, Egyptian soldiers and men in civilian clothing destroyed a tent camp belonging to demonstrators in Tahrir Square's central garden, where people have camped off and on since January 28. Six witnesses told Human Rights Watch that between 4 p.m. and 6 p.m., soldiers in the square looked on as gangs in street clothes seized and beat demonstrators. The witnesses said that the attackers also forcibly took demonstrators to the grounds of the Egyptian Museum, where soldiers, military police, and men in civilian clothes detained and physically abused them.
"The Supreme Military Council has been ignoring credible reports of arbitrary arrest and torture," said Joe Stork, deputy Middle East and North Africa director at Human Rights Watch. "There can be no break from the abuses of the past while security forces - including military personnel - abuse people with impunity."
Four people detained by the army on March 9 told Human Rights Watch that their captors handcuffed them and beat them with electric cables, sticks, and metal pipes. Two of the four said they had been repeatedly shocked with electric stun devices.
The army removed 190 of those detained in Tahrir on March 9 to military prisons, with plans to interrogate them over the next few days, said Ragia Omrane, a lawyer with the Hisham Mubarak Law Center who has been following military prosecutions of protesters.
Beatings in Tahrir Square
Six witnesses interviewed by Human Rights Watch, as well as local media accounts, said that hundreds of men in civilian clothes armed with metal pipes, wooden sticks, and paving stones entered Tahrir square between 3 p.m. and 4 p.m. and began attacking protesters there. The attacks continued for over an hour before the army entered the square. At that point, army officers and the attackers began arresting demonstrators and detaining them inside the Egyptian Museum, on the north side of Tahrir Square.
"When we saw the army, we became calm because we thought they were coming to protect us," said Aida El-Keshef, an activist who was in the square during the attacks. "Instead, they started destroying the tents while the thugs were beating us and chasing us away."
Galal A., another protest participant, told Human Rights Watch: "Soldiers were just arresting people, taking down the tents, [but] the thugs kept beating us with metal pipes. They stole everything that was with us, our personal belongings. About ten minutes [after the army arrived], they [army soldiers and men] had chased everyone from Tahrir."
One lawyer who had been walking along nearby Kasr al-Aini Street around the time of the events told Human Rights Watch that he saw an army officer holding a whip. When the lawyer, who asked not to be named, asked the officer what the whip was for, he replied, "This is just so that we can deal with things."
Aida El-Keshef said that as the men in street clothes were shoving her and her friends out of the square, they saw soldiers pulling down a medical tent with two wounded people inside.
"We asked them not to destroy it until the wounded people could be removed," she said. "They started insulting us, [saying] things like, ‘Get out of here, you dogs.' Then an army officer told the men in plain clothes, ‘Take them to the museum.'"
Another demonstrator who asked not to be named told Human Rights Watch, "I saw girls dragged on the ground by the baltagiyya [thugs]. The military were there and did nothing."
"In Tahrir Square on March 9 we saw the military use plainclothes thugs the same way the previous government did to do its dirty work," Stork said. "For those who thought this kind of abuse was a thing of the past, it's a huge disappointment."
Beatings, Torture at the Egyptian Museum
Human Rights Watch interviewed four people who said that soldiers detained them inside the Egyptian Museum and severely tortured them there.
"They took us to the museum. From the moment we entered the gate, we were beaten up using everything - wooden sticks, rods, electric cables, and pipes; they hit us everywhere, they slapped our faces repeatedly," said Ahmad M., a 24-year-old demonstrator who asked that his real name not be used. "Inside the museum, I saw various people detained there - street sellers, foreigners, and political activists. I saw the memory cards of cameras get broken. People were forced to stand against the walls while military policemen beat them with wooden sticks."
Sharif Azer, an officer of the Egyptian Organization for Human Rights, told Human Rights Watch that soldiers also detained him inside the museum grounds.
"I told an officer that I am from a human rights organization," Azer said. "He answered, ‘We know nothing about human rights... We have been here for 40 days and this has to stop. We have the upper hand now and we know how to protect the people.'"
Rasha Azab, a 28-year-old journalist for Al-Fajr Weekly, told Human Rights Watch she was handcuffed to an outside wall in a museum courtyard:
They were kicking me in my stomach and hitting me with wooden sticks and slapping my face. They called me dirty names. At one point, one of them came and tied my hands even more tightly. I stood there for four hours. I saw dozens of men being dragged on the floor, being whipped. All of them were the people who had stayed in the square. I heard people screaming from inside the museum, and [the soldiers] said, "You should thank God you are not inside."
Another demonstrator who asked not to be identified told Human Rights Watch, "[The soldiers] forced us to lie on our stomach [inside a room]. They started whipping us, giving us electric shocks, kicking us. They would beat and electrocute us in four main places: the head, the back, the bottom, and the legs." The protester said the beatings lasted from about 5 p.m. to 9 p.m.
"These brutal methods of abuse were the hallmarks of President Mubarak's rule, and protesters sat in the square for 40 days so that they would end," said Stork. "The military that now runs Egypt has yet to investigate or prosecute any of these allegations of torture by the army."
Military Detention and Prosecution of Protesters
Ragia Omrane of the Hisham Mubarak Law Center told Human Rights Watch that 173 men and 17 women who were arrested on March 9 were being held in military prisons. Omrane said that Col. Mohammad al-Shenawy, the head military prosecutor, told her and another lawyer, Mohammad Aissa, that he had not received orders on when their interrogations would begin, and provided no further information.
On March 7 Human Rights Watch interviewed two protesters who had been interrogated in a military prosecutions compound but had been denied access to their lawyers, despite their requests and lawyers' repeated efforts to see them.
On March 1 lawyers from the Front for the Defense of Egyptian Protesters had submitted a legal complaint to the Office of the Public Prosecutor about earlier attacks. The Public Prosecutor transferred the complaint to the military prosecutor. Article 7 of the Military Justice Law states that any crimes committed by the military or against the military must be tried before the military justice system.
Adel Ramadan, a lawyer for the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights, told Human Rights Watch that prison sentences issued by military tribunals thus far have ranged from 6 months to 15 years, and that military trials are particularly problematic because defendants cannot appeal their sentences. Ramadan said that he was present during the military court trial of a 15-year-old boy and that the court-appointed lawyer did not raise the issue of the boy's age or question whether the court had legal authority to try him.
Human Rights Watch interviewed the sister of a 17-year-old boy who said that the army had arrested her brother while he was selling fruit in the street. She told Human Rights Watch that a military court tried him for theft and convicted him, sentencing him to seven years in prison. She went to visit him at the Cairo Appeals Prison, where guards told her that her brother was there but that the prison had a ban on visits.
"Throwing civilians into a military prison, cutting them off from contact with their families and lawyers, interrogating them, and sentencing them without the possibility of appeal, makes a mockery of justice," Stork said. "There is no justification for the continued use of military courts. The Supreme Military Council should immediately order the transfer of all trials of civilians to civilian courts."