(New York) – The Egyptian military’s intention to control the investigation of the use of force against unarmed Coptic Christian demonstrators during a night of clashes on October 9, 2011, raises fears of a cover-up, Human Rights Watch said today. The Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, Egypt’s military rulers, should transfer the investigation from the military prosecution to a fully independent and impartial investigation into the killing of unarmed protesters by military forces. The violence left two dozen protesters and bystanders and at least one military officer dead.
Human Rights Watch interviewed 20 participants in the demonstration who consistently testified that between 6 and 7 p.m. on October 9 at least two armored personnel vehicles (APCs) drove recklessly through crowds of demonstrators, in some cases appearing to pursue them intentionally. The protest of thousands of Copts had been peaceful until that point, and the military’s subsequent response was disproportionate. The large, heavy vehicles crushed and killed at least 10 demonstrators, as autopsies later showed.
“The military cannot investigate itself with any credibility,” said Joe Stork, deputy Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “This had been an essentially peaceful protest until the military used excessive force and military vehicles ran over protesters. The only hope for justice for the victims is an independent civilian-led investigation that the army fully cooperates with and cannot control and that leads to the prosecution of those responsible.”
In the dozens of cases of torture by the military that Human Rights Watch has documented this year, the cases of seven women subjected to virginity tests by the military on March 9 and the excessive use of force by the military in policing demonstrations, there has been not one prosecution, Human Rights Watch said. These include hundreds of documented cases of torture, excessive use of force in policing demonstrations, and sexual assaults on female detainees through so-called virginity tests.
Gen. Adel al-Morsi, head of Egypt’s military justice system, said on October 13 that military prosecutors would investigate the violence on October 9, when Copts marched to the government television building known as Maspero to protest the authorities’ failure to punish the attack on churches. The Office of the Public Prosecutor confirmed that civilian prosecutors would play no role in any investigation. Military prosecutors and judges are serving members of the military and therefore subject to the chain of command, and ultimately receive instructions from the head of the SCAF, Defense Minister Field Marshall Tantawy, who is the ultimate executive authority in Egypt. The SCAF’s October 12 news conference, at which two generals denied any use of live ammunition or intention to run over protesters, shows why an investigation by the military, and subject to military command, is likely to perpetuate military impunity, Human Rights Watch said.
At the news conference, Generals Mahmoud Hegazy and Adel Emara made public the military’s narrative of the events at Maspero, absolving soldiers of any wrongdoing. Emara insisted that “the armed forces would never and have never opened fire on the people,” and the generals claimed that armed protesters had attacked the soldiers.
“The soldiers driving armored vehicles were trying to avoid protesters, who were throwing stones and Molotov cocktail bombs at them,” Emara said, adding that the soldiers were in an “unprecedented psychological state.”
“I can’t deny that some people may have been hit, but it was not systematic,” he concluded.
Consistent and credible witness testimony, as well as independent media and video footage, contradict the military’s version of events, Human Rights Watch said.
The military has arrested at least 28 people, almost all Copts, in connection with the clashes and brought them before military prosecutors. The prosecutors ordered their detention for 15 days, pending investigation.
At the insistence of human rights lawyers working with the families of victims, forensic medical doctors from the health ministry conducted 24 autopsies on October 10, concluding in their preliminary reports that eight of the people had died of bullet wounds, two from blows to the head, and 13 from injuries and fractures inflicted by the vehicles. The 18th body had been slashed with a large knife. Autopsies were not performed on the bodies of eight other victims, which were in different morgues at that time and have since been buried.
The October 9 march started at around 4 p.m. from the northern Cairo neighborhood of Shubra, home to many Coptic Christians, with thousands of mainly Copt protestors marching to the government television building on the Nile River. This was the second demonstration within a week by Copts to protest the authorities’ failure to investigate the burning of a church in Marinab in the southern governorate of Aswan. The protesters also demanded the removal of the governor of Aswan, who appeared to justify the destruction of the church by saying it had been built without a permit.
Some residents along the route of the march pelted the demonstrators with stones, and some marchers retaliated, also throwing stones. The demonstrators eventually made their way to the state television headquarters on the Corniche, Cairo’s Nile riverfront drive. They joined another group of protesters already there, surrounded by military police and Central Security Forces (CSF). At that point, at around 6 p.m., witnesses said, shots were fired in the air and at the demonstrators, though the witnesses could not always identify the exact source. Armored personnel carriers careened down the Corniche, sometimes onto the sidewalks, crushing demonstrators.
Military officers raided and stopped the live broadcast of two independent TV news channels, Al Hurra and 25TV, whose offices are next to the state television building. The stations had been broadcasting footage of the clashes.
At the same time, the state-run Channel 1, Nile News, and Radio Misr broadcast reports claiming that armed Coptic demonstrators had shot and killed three military officers and calls for “honorable citizens” to “defend the army against attack”. Such calls could easily have been taken as a signal for citizens to attack Copts and therefore would have amounted to incitement to discrimination and violence against Copts, Human Rights Watch said.
Hossam Bahgat, director of the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights, told Human Rights Watch that, a short time after the government channels broadcast the reports, he encountered groups of armed men in civilian clothes from the Boulak neighborhood, next to Maspero, who said they had heard that armed Christians were attacking the army. Bahgat told Human Rights Watch that he witnessed attacks on Copts that evening by people in civilian clothes.
Under international law, the military, in its law-enforcement capacity, may arrest people who are committing violent acts or who assault police or army officers. It may also use force, but only as necessary and proportionate, to control a crowd. Evidence from video and witness statements do not indicate any justification for running people over at high speed with army vehicles. Deliberate use of firearms is lawful only if “strictly unavoidable to protect life,” a high standard to meet, Human Rights Watch said.
Human Rights Watch also called for an investigation into attempts by the military and the information ministry to control media coverage, as well as the statements by state TV presenters that may have amounted to incitement to violence.
Egyptian authorities also should look into the underlying causes of the October 9 demonstration and address legitimate grievances by Coptic Christians, Human Rights Watch said. These include discrimination in their right to worship and the failure to punish perpetrators and instigators of attacks on churches and other forms of sectarian violence. Human Rights Watch has examined three incidents of sectarian violence involving Muslim attacks on Christians and Christian churches since the February 2011 ouster of President Hosni Mubarak that have gone entirely unpunished.
A September 30 attack on the Mar Girgis (St. George) church in Marinab, in Aswan governorate, prompted the march on October 9. As in previous incidents, police and public prosecutors failed to investigate and insisted that differences be resolved in informal reconciliation deals between suspects and aggrieved parties.
This failure to investigate and prosecute perpetuates official policies of the Mubarak era, when authorities also failed to provide a remedy to victims of sectarian violence, resorted to extra-legal settlements to resolve disputes, and played down periodic outbursts of sectarian violence as private disputes unrelated to religious differences.
The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, to which Egypt is a party, obligates states to provide an effective remedy for human rights violations. Investigations into serious human rights abuses should be conducted promptly, with independence and impartiality.
“The generals seem to be insisting that they and only they investigate the Maspero violence, which is to ensure that no serious investigation occurs,” Stork said. “The military has already tried to control the media narrative, and it should not be allowed to cover up what happened on October 9.”
The Maspero Massacre
Human Rights Watch interviewed 20 witnesses among the protesters. Their testimony, along with ample video footage by various independent media such as Tahrir, Al Arabiyya, Euronews, and CNN, and phone videos by protesters, confirmed that at least two and perhaps as many as three APCs drove into the crowd and crushed protesters.
Remon Henawi, an actor, said that he and other protesters were approaching Maspero from the south along the Corniche when soldiers wielding batons drove them back and other soldiers fired into the air. Protesters then attacked two unoccupied military vehicles parked by the Nile with wooden sticks and metal rods.
“The soldiers by Maspero moved to the side of the road and let two armored cars come,” Henawi said. “They both drove at high speed toward us. The one closest to the river drove up a bridge and [those in the vehicle] shot at demonstrators. I saw one person hit.”
Henawi said the crowd then attacked another vehicle that came down the Corniche, lighting a gas canister under it and setting it aflame. Two soldiers inside escaped. Protesters beat one of them, who was rescued by a priest. The other fled toward Maspero. Henawi told Human Rights Watch that he saw a military vehicle strike one man near the bridge, and then saw four dead bodies laid out in a building along the road.
Hany Kamal, a lawyer, told Human Rights Watch that he arrived at the Ramses Hilton Hotel, just south of Maspero, at about 6 p.m.
“I saw two APCs running crazy at very high speed,” he said. “I saw from the top of one of them there was a machine gun firing at the protesters. The first body I saw was of a man whose head was totally crushed. People were screaming, ‘His brain is out, his brain is out.’ I ran toward El Gala’a Street and there I saw a second body. People were lifting him up on their shoulders. I couldn’t tell if it was the result of a bullet or a car ran over him.”
Milad Ibrahim told Human Rights Watch that he saw soldiers atop a careering armored vehicle shoot his brother, Mina, in the upper chest. Ibrahim said trouble began as Shubra marchers neared Ramses street, toward downtown from Maspero:
Civilians threwrocks and stones [at protesters] from the rooftops. Central Security Forces also threw rocks at us. When we arrived at Maspero we found the armored vehicles running crazy over the people and crossing the sidewalks where the people are standing. Mina ran toward one of those vehicles but he was shot.
Activist Lobna Darwish told Human Rights Watch that at about 6 p.m., lines of military soldiers and Central Security Forces on foot rushed at demonstrators in front of Maspero, shooting rifles in the air:
The shooting started to be at the level of our bodies. I started running to see where my friends were but all the people were running and army soldiers and CSF were surrounding us from everywhere. All of a sudden people were shouting at us to stand on the sidewalks. I saw armored vehicles driving in high speed through a street full of people, forward and backward in a zigzag pattern, crossing onto sidewalks and crushing people. I saw young kids 14 or 15 years old hiding behind a parked car when an armored vehicle drove over it and crushed it and crushed one of the boys while the others ran away.
Darwish said that three armored vehicles sped away, but when one slowed down people gathered around and threw rocks and broken traffic lights at it and set it on fire.
“Some people were shouting, ‘Stop the rocks’ and, ‘Get out, get out, get out’ to the soldier inside” Darwish said. “When he got out people beat him. Later I saw this soldier running away protected by two elderly men.” She said the soldiers fired teargas at the Corniche.
Darwish said she saw a Molotov cocktail thrown from a nearby bridge but could not see who threw it. She said she saw a man’s body in the street shot multiple times in the chest. Inside a nearby building she saw another body with a chest wound and two other dead bodies on the floor, one adult man with a bullet wound to the chest and a boy whose head and chest had been crushed. She said that she later saw one man shot down in the street as protesters threw stones at soldiers on a bridge.
Darwish told Human Rights Watch that she approached a weeping woman whose husband had suffered a bullet wound to the chest. An ambulance arrived and medical workers pronounced him dead. Later, Darwish ran into a group of men in civilian clothing brandishing what she described as a sword and chanting anti-Christian slogans.
Sarah Carr, a journalist, witnessed the march from beginning to end. She wrote in Al Masry Al Youm English that as the protesters rounded the corner at the Ramses Hilton Hotel onto the riverfront drive, they were “immediately met with gunfire in the air.” She wrote:
Suddenly, there was a great surge of people moving back ... Two armored personnel carriers began driving at frightening speed, through protesters, who threw themselves out of its path. A soldier atop of each vehicle manned a gun and spun it wildly, apparently shooting at random. An APC mounted the island in the middle of the road, like a maddened animal on a rampage. I saw a group of people disappear, sucked underneath it. It drove over them. I wasn’t able to see what happened to them because it then started coming in my direction.
Akram Qarqar, who displayed a bandaged arm, told Human Rights Watch that he joined the march from Shubra to Maspero at 5 p.m.
“I arrived at Maspero at 6 and as soon as we arrived military officers began to shout, ‘Criminals, infidels.’ I don’t know how it started,” he said. “All of a sudden I saw military men shooting at us then they started running after us with their sticks. Then armored vehicles started driving at very high speed, crushing protesters.”
Bishoy Rasmy, who was on crutches because he had earlier fractured his left thigh, said that marchers had stuck to the sidewalk and that traffic on the Corniche was moving normally when men in street clothes carrying what he said were swords and knives attacked demonstrators at Abd El-Menim Riad Square, in front of the Ramses Hilton Hotel, about a block from Maspero. He described the scene:
We were chanting and clapping a lot, and then suddenly the military started shooting at us.They ran after us with their sticks. People were panicking. I fell on the ground from the pushing. Fifteen soldiers surrounded me and four other men who fell next to me. The soldiers beat me on my head, leg, and hip with sticks. Other protesters came and dragged us away. They took me to a coffee shop next to Maspero. I was bleeding severely from my left leg.
At 9 p.m., security forces tossed teargas inside the coffee shop, Ramsy said. A friend took him by motorcycle to the Coptic Hospital on Ramses Street.
Atef, a Coptic protestor who did not want his full name used, said that soldiers shot in the air as demonstrators arrived at Maspero and one called out from an armored vehicle shouting, “I won’t let any one of you live, Christians, sons of dogs.” Atef said:
Some of us ran away but others continued walking and then the shooting started. Armored vehicles suddenly came running in high speed, running over many of us and crossing the median strip. We started running toward Abd El Menim Riad [Street] but thugs were there with swords and were running after us. I saw a military officer grab a girl who was with us in the protest, throw her to the pavement, and beat on her hips. Central Security Forces personnel were next to the Hilton. They didn’t engage in any violence. The army did everything.
Sami, another Coptic protester who did not want his full name used told Human Rights Watch that he was walking on a road behind the Ramses Hilton when the violence broke out and that soldiers began to assault the marchers with sticks.
“Then I heard gunshots,” he said. “I could not tell from where. We moved back toward the Hilton and then these armored cars raced toward us on the Corniche, and they zigzagged trying to chase people. Some young guys tried to hide behind a car, but the armored vehicle drove right over it.”
International Law on Military Investigations of Human Rights Abuses
In the draft principles on military justice adopted by the United Nations Human Rights Commission, principle no. 9 states: “In all circumstances, the jurisdiction of military courts should be set aside in favor of the jurisdiction of the ordinary courts to conduct inquiries into serious human rights violations such as extrajudicial executions, enforced disappearances and torture, and to prosecute and try persons accused of such crimes.”
The European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) has taken the position that trials before military courts raise concerns of fairness. In Findlay v. United Kingdom, the court found that a military court’s ruling was neither independent nor impartial because members of the court who issued the decision were subordinates of the prosecuting officer, who had the authority to change any decision that the court made. In Al Skeini and others v. United Kingdom the Court said:
For an investigation into alleged unlawful killing by State agents to be effective, it is necessary for the persons responsible for and carrying out the investigation to be independent from those implicated in the events. This means not only a lack of hierarchical or institutional connection but also a practical independence
In Suleiman v. Sudan, the African Commission on Human and People’s Rights held that the military tribunal was not impartial and reaffirmed that military tribunals should only “determine offences of a purely military nature committed by military staff” and “should not deal with offences which are under the purview of ordinary courts.”
Background to the Protest: The Burning of Mar Girgis Church in Marinab, Edfu, September 30, 2011
On September 30, a group of Muslim residents in the village of Al Marinab, near the town of Edfu in the south of Egypt, set fire to the Church of St. George (Mar Girgis) as it was undergoing reconstruction, destroying the walls, domes, and columns. Those involved in the attack believed the property was a “rest stop” and that Christians did not have a permit to worship there and objected to the height of a steeple that bore a cross and bell.
However, a cabinet-appointed “Justice Committee,” set up in the aftermath of the earlier sectarian violence in the Cairo district of Imbaba in May, confirmed that local church authorities had a church license for the property, according to the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights (EIPR), which said it examined documents showing the Copts had government permission to build the church.
The local church authorities had met with Muslim residents at the instigation of a security official, and had agreed to lower the height of the building and take down the cross and bell, EIPR said. Before the alterations were complete, however, mobs attacked the church.
Mustafa El Sayed, the SCAF-appointed governor of Aswan governorate appeared to justify the Muslim attack on the grounds that the original building was not a church but a service center for local Christians. The cabinet Justice Committee conducted a fact-finding mission to Edfu and submitted its report to the cabinet on October 4, recommending the governor’s removal, prosecution of people who destroyed the church, and the reconstruction of the church at state expense. No action has been taken in response.
Pattern of Impunity for Sectarian Violence
Sectarian violence in Egypt is not new. For the period from January 2008 to January 2010, the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights (EIPR) documented 53 cases, in 17 of Egypt’s 29 governorates. Most were attacks by groups of Muslims on Christians and Christian churches or property. Most of the attacks, EIPR said, were either assaults on Christians for practicing their religious rites or supposed collective retribution for real or imagined offenses for which the Christian community at large is held responsible. “Many state officials, security officers and legislators deny the existence of sectarian violence in Egypt,” EIPR noted, adding that others minimize it.
Since the ouster of President Hosni Mubarak on February 11, 2011, the chronic government denial and mishandling of sectarian violence that marked his rule continues. Protests by Muslim groups over church construction and renovation have been a particular source of friction and violence. Under existing law, Coptic Christians must both get approval from the president and endorsement of the local Muslim community before they can renovate or build churches. On May 8, following a bloody incident in Cairo’s Imbaba neighborhood that left 12 dead, Justice Minister Abdel Aziz al-Guindi pledged to use an “iron hand” against “all those who seek to tamper with the nation’s security.” He said the government would act “immediately and firmly to implement laws that criminalize attacks against places of worship and freedom of belief.”
On May 11, the cabinet announced a set of measures to address Egypt’s sectarian problem. This included a promise to investigate church attacks in Sol and Atfih, to introduce a law criminalizing discrimination, to change the law discriminating against Christians in the construction of churches, and to establish a special committee to address sectarian violence.
Al-Guindi also said the prosecutors would use “regular law, not exceptional laws or the emergency law” to address sectarian violence. Despite his remarks, in the two cases where the authorities did investigate, they turned alleged perpetrators over to the Emergency State Security Courts, which does not meet fair trial standards or allow the right to appeal. Despite his promises, prosecutors failed to investigate the destruction of the church in Marinab on September 30, which sparked the October 9 protest in Cairo.
Human Rights Watch also found that despite high-level promises to end impunity for sectarian violence, in some post-Mubarak cases public prosecutors did not question suspects and in others opted for informal reconciliation deals rather than legal proceedings. Reconciliation agreements generally end with victims agreeing to forego legal complaints in return for monetary compensation.
In two cases, sectarian violence was handed to Emergency Special Security Courts, which Human Rights Watch strongly opposes because they are courts created under the Emergency Law which do not meet basic fair trial standards and not provide the right to an appeal.
Atfih, March 4
On March 4, a crowd assaulted and torched the Church of the Two Martyrs in the town of Atfih, 15 miles south of Cairo. Two days later, Field Marshall Mohammed Hussein Tantawi, head of the SCAF, had the church rebuilt at government expense.
Two lawyers working on behalf of the church told Human Rights Watch that on March 7 they provided names of about 100 suspects and video evidence of the arson attack to the district public prosecutor’s office in Al Saf. They said the videos showed people who could be identified inciting and carrying out the destruction, they said. They said no one has been prosecuted.
“This is not a case where the public prosecutor has no information,” one of the lawyers said. “He just refuses to make a decision.”
Muqattam, March 8
On March 8, Coptic Christians in the east Cairo suburb of Muqattam held a march to protest the church arson in Atfih. They blocked a main road that runs by their neighborhood for two hours. A crowd attacked the demonstrators, and fighting and shooting broke out. Thirteen people died, according to the state-run Al-Ahram newspaper and the health ministry. Those attacking the demonstrators set fire to several Christian homes and businesses.
Christian residents trapped 11 Muslim men trying to set fire to a business and turned the men over to a military officer on the scene. On March 15, church lawyers said they gave the list of the 11 Muslims to the Cairo public prosecutor’s office and filed a formal complaint. None of them had been called in for questioning as of May, the lawyers said.
Qena, March 20
On March 20, unknown arsonists set fire to a flat owned by Ayman Anwar Mitry, a schoolteacher, who had rented it to three women. After firefighters extinguished the blaze, Mitry spent the day there on guard, he told Human Rights Watch. Three men he identified as Salafis visited him, he said, and accused him of renting the flat to prostitutes. Later 20 men entered the apartment, beat him, and cut off his ear.
Mitry provided his account of the incident to police the next day. He told Human Rights Watch that the alleged assailants then began to threaten his relatives to get him to change his story. The public prosecutor told Mitry that the alleged assailants would be called for questioning but, Mitry and a lawyer said, they were not.
In the absence of any steps by the authorities to arrest the perpetrators, and fearing reprisal, Mitry attended a reconciliation meeting with representatives of the dozen men who assaulted him, along with Coptic priests.
“The reconciliation was basically that I drop charges but get no compensation in return,” Mitry said. He agreed out of fear, he added.
On March 27, Mitry traveled to Cairo to meet with the Ahmed al-Tayeb, Grand Imam of Al Azhar, the chief Islamic institution in Egypt, who promised to pay for surgery to repair his ear. Mitry told Human Rights Watch he decided to return to Qena and finance his own operation because “he didn’t think the hospital was a good one.”
Attacks Prosecuted in State Security Courts
Imbaba, May 7
Muslim residents, identified in the press and EIPR’s report on the incident as Salafis, attacked the Mar Mina and Virgin Mary Coptic churches in Cairo’s Imbaba district on May 7. The mob torched the Virgin Mary church, badly damaging it. The EIPR said that security forces “knew in advance that groups of Salafis had assembled in front of the Mar Mina church in Imbaba, but they failed to anticipate the events – despite evidence suggesting the potential for violence.”
EIPR found that police assigned to protect the Virgin Mary church “fled upon the assailants’ arrival.” EIPR said that according to testimony it had collected, “Police forces on the scene left the responsibility to intervene wholly with the army, which informed the victims that its role was limited to securing the church and its directives did not include engaging with local residents.” Several Christian houses and businesses were also vandalized.
What apparently set off the incident was the claim of some Muslim residents of Imbaba that a Christian woman who had converted to Islam was being held against her will in Mar Mina church. The SCAF ordered and paid for repair of the Virgin Mary church. Forty-eight suspects were put on trial before the Emergency State Security Court.
Abu Qurqas, April 19
On April 19, in Abu Qurqas, 120 miles south of Cairo, a dispute between a Muslim minibus driver and security guards at the house of a prominent Coptic politician escalated into an assault by dozens of Muslims on the house and Coptic-owned businesses. Rioting broke out and dozens of Christian homes and businesses were burned. According to Al-Ahram, two people died in the unrest.
The circumstances are in dispute. A lawyer for a Christian defendant said those killed were Muslim and were victims of an intra-Muslim shootout that was then blamed on the Christian security guards.
Ten Muslims and eight Copts, including a Christian politician, Alaa Reda Roushdi, the owner of the house, are being tried in the episode in the Emergency State Security Court.