(New York) – Egypt’s military rulers should immediately order riot police to stop using excessive force against protesters and to reduce their presence in the areas surrounding Tahrir Square to a level that allows for the maintenance of security while permitting free assembly, Human Rights Watch said today. Riot police and military officers have shot live ammunition and rubber bullets into the crowd, beaten protesters and otherwise used excessive force in the demonstrations that began in Cairo on November 19, 2011, according to numerous accounts from witnesses.
The Office of the Public Prosecutor – the civilian judicial authority – should conduct a transparent investigation into the use of lethal force and military involvement in the abuses, and military command and control over the riot police, Human Rights Watch said.
“With parliamentary elections a week away, the military rulers are facing a serious crisis of confidence because of their management of the transition,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “It has not yet learned the most basic lesson of the January uprising: that Egyptians have and know they have a right to peaceful protest, which repressing a demonstration with brute force cannot take away.”
Confrontations between protesters, the Central Security Forces (CSF), Egypt’s riot police, and the military police raged for a fourth day in the Tahrir square area on November 22. Demonstrations the day before in the coastal city of Ismailiya resulted in the death of three protesters and a high number of injuries in Alexandria. The death toll has reached 28 protesters, with over 1,700 injured, the Health Ministry said. Autopsies conducted on 22 of the bodies of protesters at the Zeinhom morgue in Cairo confirmed that they had been shot with live bullets with three others who died as a result of asphyxiation from teargas, morgue officials told Human Rights Watch.
Doctors in the field hospital set up by protesters in Tahrir Square and hospitals in downtown Cairo reported that they started receiving cases of demonstrators wounded with live ammunition, beginning at 6 p.m. on November 20. One emergency room doctor told Human Rights Watch that Kasr Aini hospital had received six people wounded by live ammunition who subsequently died from their wounds. In three cases, the bullet had entered the top of the person’s head, indicating that it was shot from a height, the doctor said, and three others had been shot in the chest and abdomen. “The six cases arrived at the emergency room, and they were already dying, so we couldn’t do anything for them,” the doctor told Human Rights Watch.
At the Zeinhom morgue in Cairo, one man told Human Rights Watch that he had spent three days searching for his only son, 18-year-old Sayed Khaled Osman, only to find him in the morgue. The preliminary report of the forensic medical doctor who conducted the autopsy stated that Osman had been shot in the head with a live bullet. Another protester Shehab Ahmed Sayed, who was 21, was shot in the chest on Sunday November 20.
Ghada Shahbandar, a human rights activist, told Human Rights Watch that she was walking down Kasr Aini Street on November 19 and as she passed a check point where Central Security Forces officers were stationed, she heard a CSF officer holding a gun say to the soldiers around him, “At their heads, shoot at their heads,” pointing to the demonstrators who were a couple of hundred meters away.
On November 21, the ministry of interior issued a press release saying that “the police has not and will not use any firearms or cartouche during these confrontations and the use of teargas was the most that was allowed during these confrontations.” Human Rights Watch’s research gives lie to these statements.
“Time and time again the military has insisted that it has not used live ammunition against protesters, as if it is somehow not responsible for the riot police operating under military command and control.” Whitson said. “In this case, it is irrelevant whether the live ammunition came from the riot police or the military police; what is relevant is who gave the orders to shoot live bullets on protesters, killing 23 people, and when they will be prosecuted for it.”
Human Rights Watch has spoken to multiple observers who said that the violence started on the morning November 19, when riot police violently broke up a sit-in in Tahrir Square of a few hundred protesters. They had camped overnight after a demonstration by tens of thousands, protesting the military’s insistence on super-constitutional privileges that would place their authority and budget outside the authority of any civilian government. Over the following days, the demands of protesters came to focus on a call for transfer to civilian rule and the resignation of the cabinet.
The news that the riot police had moved on the sit-in brought out more protesters. Riot police responded with teargas and rubber bullets to drive the crowds back, but were themselves pushed back. The police remained in the streets leading from Tahrir to the Interior Ministry. Protesters threw stones and at times Molotov cocktails at the security forces during the altercations. In the afternoon, Human Rights Watch staff saw riot police throwing stones back at demonstrators and firing into the crowd from the top of armored vehicles.
Law enforcement officers have the right to use proportionate force where strictly necessary, but the use of firearms is only permitted against an imminent threat of death or serious injury, and where less extreme means are insufficient, Human Rights Watch said.
The riot police continued to use teargas from the side streets surrounding Tahrir square over the next 24 hours. On November 20, at 6 p.m., Human Rights Watch staff witnessed hundreds of military police dispersing protesters by beating them, shooting into the air and breaking up tents. Military police pulled down a large banner in the middle of the square that said, “We want a transfer of power to a presidential council.” In a period of about 15 minutes, they cleared the square, and then withdrew.
On November 20, General Said Abbas, deputy chief of the Central district, denied that the military police had entered Tahrir square, adding “We did not order the Tahrir sit-in to be broken up.” Footage from that afternoon filmed by the independent daily Al Masry Al Youm showed military and riot police repeatedly beating unarmed protesters with batons and sticks, with three to four officers beating one unarmed protester in the square.
“The use of force by the riot police and military police is reminiscent of the January violence for which Hosni Mubarak and his security chiefs are currently on trial,” Whitson said.
Doctors to whom Human Rights Watch spoke said that a large proportion of the injuries sustained by protesters were in the face and eyes. One anesthesiologist at Kasr Aini hospital told Human Rights Watch that all of the injured protesters hospitalized on November 19 had been shot in the chest, neck, and face with rubber bullets, including many with eye injuries.
Protester Ahmed Harara lost his second eye on November 19 after having lost his first one on January 28, also because of rubber bullet injuries. Witnesses told Human Rights Watch that Malek Mostafa, an activist and blogger shot in the eye with a rubber pellet on November 19 as he was protesting, also lost the use of his eye.
Rubber shotgun pellets are an extreme form of crowd control and can easily blind people if shot in the face, which is why they are supposed to be shot at the legs rather than the face, Human Rights Watch says.
Video footage that Human Rights Watch could not independently verify, but that is consistent with the settings and circumstances on November 20-21, shows CSF officers shooting from Mohamed Mahmoud street toward Tahrir Square, where protesters were gathered. The video footage shows them shooting at shoulder height into the crowd, and then an officer saying to the other, “You got him in the eye, well done.”
Riot police and military officers havearrested at least 127 protesters during the current round of confrontations and brought them before the Kasr El Nil prosecutors’ office, where they were interrogated and accused of demonstrating illegally. The Front for the Defense of Egyptian Protesters, a coalition of human rights organizations, has documented 64 of these cases, including many peaceful protesters such as Islam Mohamed arbitrarily rounded up.
This is the latest episode in which CSF and military police have broken up peaceful protests. On June 28 and 29, riot police engaged in a 16-hour street battle with protesters throwing stones and illegally shooting teargas into the crowd at shoulder height, which resulted in more than 114 injuries. Human Rights Watch has also documented excessive use of force by the military police in breaking up peaceful demonstrations on February 25, March 9, April 9, August 1 and October 9. The military has failed to investigate or punish anyone for any of these incidents of excessive use of force, Human Rights Watch said.
Elections in Egypt have historically been accompanied by violence. Under Mubarak, this was usually police violence in favor of ruling party candidates but election-monitoring organizations have also documented some inter-candidate violence in 2005 and 2000. The Egyptian authorities need to ensure that management of the security of the elections is consistent with human rights standards to inspire confidence in the electoral process, Human Rights Watch said.
“This latest crisis is a reminder of everything that has not happened in the past months during Egypt’s promised transition,” Whitson said. “We have yet to see the military begin reforming the security services or ending the abusive practices and policies of the Mubarak era.”