(New York) – The new administration of President Mohamed Morsy should take urgent steps to address sectarian violence. The administration should ensure that those responsible for the violence are identified, investigated, and prosecuted in courts that meet international fair trial standards and order a retrial of those sentenced by discredited emergency law courts.
Under the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), which took power after former president Mubarak’s ouster in February 2011, Egypt has had at least 12 incidents of serious sectarian violence, which has left numerous homes and shops destroyed and at least 25 people dead. Only two cases have resulted in prosecutions, but prosecutors referred the cases to Emergency State Security Courts, which were notorious for failing to meet minimum due process standards and whose verdicts cannot be appealed. Other cases were handled with so-called reconciliation meetings, which did not result in justice, Human Rights Watch said.
“Sectarian tensions in Egypt have long been punctuated by outbursts of criminal violence, yet time and again authorities fail to prosecute or punish those responsible,” said Joe Stork, deputy Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “Putting an end to sectarian violence means prosecuting those responsible and making sure that the outcome is fair.”
In October 2011, Human Rights Watch documented three serious attacks on Christians in which prosecutors declined to investigate suspected arsonists, looters, and assailants. Those episodes – in Atfih, Muqattam, and Marinab – have yet to be investigated.
In the few instances in which the government has prosecuted suspects, authorities have used emergency courts, where defendants can’t get a fair trial and there is no right of appeal of even the most questionable verdict, Human Rights Watch said. Human Rights Watch has found in monitoring trials before Emergency State Security Courts that the judges routinely fail to investigate allegations of torture properly, accept confessions obtained under torture, and do not allow defendants adequate access to lawyers outside the courtroom. With the May 31, 2012 expiry of the state of emergency, the public prosecutor can no longer refer cases to these courts.
The new president should ensure a system is in place to speedily review and quash all verdicts issued after unfair trails, including all verdicts issued by emergency courts, Human Rights Watch said.
The use of so-called reconciliation meetings in lieu of prosecutions following violent attacks has allowed those responsible to escape justice and has even led to the forcible eviction of victims from their homes, Human Rights Watch said. Not only have such reconciliation talks failed to calm repeated outbreaks of sectarian tension, but they have provided a cover for impunity for perpetrators of violence.
Coptic Christians make up about 10 percent of Egypt’s mostly Sunni Muslim population. In a study issued in April 2010, the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights (EIPR), an Egyptian human rights group, documented over 50 cases of sectarian Muslim-Christian violence over a two-year period, mostly cases in which Muslims attacked Christians for practicing religious rites or punished them collectively for a real or imagined offense involving a Muslim woman or a perceived insult to Islam. Among the flashpoints have been Muslim objections to Christian church construction, which is subject to discriminatory regulations requiring presidential approval. Egyptian authorities should act quickly to put in place non-discriminatory regulations for construction of places of worship.
The government should ensure that prosecutors investigate and prosecute without discrimination those responsible for religious-based violence, whether the victims are Christian or Muslim, and provide adequate protection for residents who wish to remain in their homes. Given the pattern of impunity and the failure to investigate effectively, the public prosecutor should personally supervise the conduct of such investigations to ensure those responsible are brought to justice, Human Rights Watch said.
In one of the two cases in which prosecutors brought charges, on May 21, 2012, an Emergency State Security Court in the southern city of Minya sentenced 12 Christians to life in prison and acquitted 8 Muslim defendants who had been charged in connection with clashes between Muslims and Christians a year earlier in the nearby towns of Abu Qurqas and al-Fekria. The violence left two Muslims dead, scores of Christian shops and homes torched, and several Muslims and Christians wounded.
Morsy should refuse to ratify the verdict in the Abu Qurqas case and all other rulings by the emergency security courts and order a retrial, Human Rights Watch said. The public prosecutor should order a new investigation in the case and bring the resulting prosecutions before a regular civilian court that meets international fair trial standards.
The second case involves the prosecution of suspects following a May 2011 riot in the Cairo neighborhood of Imbaba in which Muslim residents assaulted two churches and triggered clashes that left more than 13 people dead and hundreds injured. In April 2012, the judge ordered the release of all defendants pending a ruling from the Supreme Constitutional Court on the constitutionality of the Emergency Law article 19 which states that Emergency State Security Courts will remain the competent courts for all trials referred during the state of emergency.
On May 31 the state of emergency expired in Egypt, ending the public prosecutor’s authority to refer cases to Emergency State Security Courts. The prosecutor referred at least six cases in 2011 and 2012 to these courts, and two other trials were ongoing from before 2011. On June 9 the public prosecutor ordered the transfer of cases referred to emergency courts after January 25, 2012, to regular civilian courts but did not do so for cases referred before that date.
Some of the cases of sectarian violence have resulted in the so-called reconciliation meetings. The EIPR has documented the use of such meetings over a period of years in areas of Egypt still dominated by tribal relations. Local or religious leaders conduct the meetings, determine a political settlement and enforce it, sometimes with the assistance of the police. These “settlements” sometimes include instructing families to leave their homes.
In one case handled with such a meeting, in January, several hundred Muslim residents torched and looted homes and properties of Christian villagers in Sharbat, a town near Alexandria, following unsourced rumors that a Christian man had images of a Muslim woman on his mobile phone. The attacks damaged six homes and six shops. Lawyers and residents confirmed to Human Rights Watch that the police had not pursued five suspects identified in a January 28 police report reviewed by Human Rights Watch.
Police and Muslim religious leaders oversaw an informal reconciliation meeting on February 1 that endorsed evicting eight Christian families from the village and the sale of their property. The eviction and forced sale were carried out under the authority of the local religious leaders and the police. Five of the families have since returned to their homes after other religious leaders intervened.
Human Rights Watch called on the authorities to ensure that everyone illegally evicted has their property returned to them and is compensated for their illegal evictions, and that any police or state official involved in illegal evictions is disciplined.
The African Charter on Human and Peoples Rights, and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, to which Egypt is a party, obligate states to provide effective legal remedies for human rights violations and to protect the right to security in a non-discriminatory manner. The African Charter also protects the right to property. This requires authorities to open prompt and impartial criminal investigations into serious crimes of violence and hold those responsible accountable under the law. The same requirement exists under Egyptian law, which prohibits the use of reconciliation agreements in cases in which serious crimes are allegedly committed.
The Abu Qurqas Emergency Court Verdict
On the evening of April 18, 2011, clashes lasting several days erupted between Muslim and Christian residents in Abu Qurqas and al-Fekria, towns in the Upper Egypt governorate of Minya that have significant Christian and Muslim populations. Ishak Ibrahim, a researcher at the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights who investigated the incident, told Human Rights Watch that the dispute started over a disagreement concerning the construction of a speed-bump in front of the home of Alaa Rida Rushdi, a Christian lawyer. Based on an investigation of the incident by EIPR, an initial effort by Muslim and Christian residents that evening to resolve the dispute broke down and subsequently escalated into clashes between the Muslim and Christian residents.
The report that EIPR made available to Human Rights Watch said the escalation may have been triggered by a separate feud between two Muslim families in which shots were fired on the same day. Following rumors that the shots had been directed at Christian homes and after Muslim residents gathered in front of Christian homes shouting religious and sectarian slogans, some Christians fired weapons from their rooftops, injuring Ali Abd al-Kader Ali, 48; Ma’bad Abu Zeid Mohamed, 28; Mustafa Gomaa Mohamed, 25; and Mahmoud Gamal Halim, 25. Ma’bad Abu Zeid Mohamed and Ali Abd El-Kader died from their wounds, and arson attacks damaged some 70 Christian-owned shops and 10 or more homes of Christians.
Police and army personnel, who went to the scene, arrested 12 Christians on suspicion of firing the shots as well as several whom they accused of “endangering public order.” Later that night a cafeteria owned by Rushdi was torched, and the next day unknown people wounded five Christians with sticks and sharp objects, one critically, in the same neighborhood. Police later arrested eight Muslims.
On April 19, the EIPR report said some participants in a funeral procession for one of the shooting victims broke into stores and torched an automobile, and the rioters were joined by others in response to calls from Muslim community members to take revenge for the deaths of the two Muslim men. This was followed by attacks by an enlarged group of rioters on Christian-owned properties in Muslim-majority areas that security forces were unable or unwilling to control.
EIPR viewed video recordings of men breaking into homes, stealing and setting them on fire, in some cases with police and soldiers standing by. When crowds attempted to attack homes and shops in areas where many Christians lived, residents responded with stones and bricks, and were able to prevent attacks on several Christian churches. At one point police diverted a planned funeral march for one of the victims away from Christian residences.
April 20 was calm following a curfew the night before. On April 21, dozens of activists, political personalities, and Muslim and Christian residents of al-Fekria held a peaceful march calling for national unity. As the march neared a church some Christians thought the crowd was threatening to attack and fired weapons into the air. Police sent officers to escort and protect the marchers. The march concluded peacefully.
On April 22, a Friday, an unknown person shot and wounded Fawzi Anwar Gadallah, a Christian farmer. Security forces increased their deployment in front of churches, especially at the time of midday Muslim prayers. At one demonstration, however, protesters threw bricks and broke windows at several churches. The authorities then arrested Rushdi and charged him with instigating the shootings.
In a report on the incidents dated April 30, Minya’s archbishopric wrote that the atmosphere had calmed considerably but that “no one has been arrested [for the attacks on Christians] despite submission of a list of names of persons responsible for the clashes, with video of the incident. In addition the families of those arrested are worried since they feel those arrested were not involved in the killings.”
Twelve Christians and eight Muslims were subsequently arraigned before an Emergency State Security Court in Minya on July 16, 2011. The Christian defendants were: Rushdi, Yacoub Fadl Akoush, Abdallah Michael Abdallah, Adel Abdallah Michael, Fanous Nadi Ibrahim, Magdi Nadi Ibrahim, Gamad Fouad Malk, Eid Ibrahim Fanous, Safwat Kamal Habib, Eid Abdallah Michael Abdallah, Magdi Abdallah Michael, and Said Wahid Deif. The Muslim defendants were: Ahmed Mostafa Rabi’, Taher Atef Taher, Khaled Ibrahim Mohamed, Ahmed Badr Mohamed, Rida Said Mohamed, Ramadan Abdelmoneim Mohamed, Ismail Mamduh Mahmoud, and Akram Abdelnabi Mohamed.
The Emergency State Security Court prosecutor accused all the Christian defendants of endangering public order by inciting sectarian violence and harming national unity, with intent to harm Muslims in Abu Qurqas. Several faced additional weapons charges and two [Abdallah Michael Abdallah and Adel Michael Abdallah] were charged with premeditated murder.
The eight Muslim defendants were accused of participating with others in endangering public order by inciting sectarian violence and harming national unity, and attacking Christian properties in Abu Qurqas with unlicensed firearms.
On May 21, the Emergency State Security Court convicted the 12 Christians on all charges and sentenced each of them to life in prison – which in practice in Egypt is 25 years – and acquitted all eight Muslim defendants. Emergency court verdicts cannot be appealed, but by law the president must ratify the verdict before it takes effect. At that time, the SCAF, headed by Field Marshall Hussein Tantawy, was acting in that capacity, but he had not ratified the verdict at the time of the June 30 handover to Morsy, who also has not acted in the case.
The Sharbat “Reconciliation” Evictions
According to the Maspero Youth Union, an anti-discrimination Christian activist group, Christians make up a tiny minority – 54 families, or about 270 people – out of a total population of around 30,000 in Sharbat, a town near Alexandria. On January 27 at about 3 p.m., witnesses said, a crowd of at least 1,000 Sharbat residents marched on the home of Murad Gerges, a Copt, and demanded that he leave the village, responding to allegations that his mobile phone contained images of a Muslim woman, which they considered offensive. Several hundred Muslim men broke into shops in a compound owned by Gerges, a tailor, and his brother, who owned a computer accessories store and an auto parts shop. The attackers looted the belongings, three witnesses told Human Rights Watch.
The crowd then turned to homes and businesses owned by other Christians in a largely Coptic neighborhood of the village, and sacked and burned property. The crowd looted the home of Abskhron Suleiman, a businessman, and set shops on the ground floor on fire.
It was not until 6 p.m. that police, whose headquarters are in a nearby town, arrived on the outskirts of Sharbat. Witnesses told Human Rights Watch that police did not enter the town until about 9 p.m., after the riot subsided. A police detective, who asked that his name not be used, told Human Rights Watch that police felt violence would get worse if they intervened. “We don’t have the strength for that,” he said. “We are in a revolution and our ability to enforce order is not up to the level it should be.”
The attacks damaged six homes and six shops belonging to Christians; some were torched. Lawyers and residents confirmed to Human Rights Watch that the police had not pursued the five suspected rioters named in the police report reviewed by Human Rights Watch.
Residents told Human Rights Watch that Muslim neighbors prevented the assailants from destroying Murad Gerges’ home and moved other Christians out of danger, keeping them at Muslim homes outside Sharbat. Gerges, having heard that Muslims were about to march on his house, turned himself in to the police before the riot began, for self-protection and to clear himself of the accusations of harboring mobile phone images.
On January 30, police convened a reconciliation meeting at their headquarters in the town of Al ‘Amriya. Participants included Suleiman, known as Abu Suleiman, a Sharbat Muslim resident; Ahmed Sherif, a member of parliament from the Nour Party, a Salafi party; and Boktor Nashed, a Coptic priest. The gathering decided by consensus that the family of Murad Gerges, including his brother and father, none of whom were at the meeting, should not return to the village. They agreed to postpone a decision on whether Suleiman, his father, and sons, would have to leave Sharbat or be allowed to return home.
On February 1, police called Suleiman to a second reconciliation meeting that several Salafi religious leaders presided over. This meeting decided that, along with the Gerges families, Suleiman, his sons, and their families would also not be allowed to return because of the danger of a resumption of mob violence, according to a written record of the decision viewed by Human Rights Watch. The Suleiman family property, according to the document, would be sold “at market price.” There was no discussion of the disposition of the Gerges family property.
On February 7, Suleiman met with Sheikh Ahmed Haweri, designated at the previous reconciliation meetings to represent Sharbat, at the police station. Haweri told Suleiman that he should leave Sharbat for the sake of “protecting Christian and Muslim life,” Suleiman’s eldest son, Suleiman, 41, quoted his father as saying.
Following this third meeting, media reports and a campaign by the Maspero Youth Union brought the issue to the attention of the newly elected national parliament. On February 16, a fact-finding commission led by Anwar al-Sadat, who headed the parliamentary human rights committee, visited the area. On February 19, the committee announced that the banishing of Suleiman and his family had been reversed in an agreement with villagers, but not the prohibition on the return of Gerges’s extended family.
The police report seen by Human Rights Watch named five Sharbat men as suspects in the arson and sacking of Christian homes. As of July, none of the men named as suspects in the police report reviewed by Human Rights Watch had been called for questioning for prosecutors. Gerges was released on bail of 1,000 Egyptian pounds (about US$166) and on February 13 a court acquitted him of all charges, his brother Nabil Gerges told Human Rights Watch.
The Gerges family has not been able to return home. Murad Gerges has left the Alexandria area in fear, Nabil Gerges said. He said he does not know what will happen to their homes and shops. “My father and I cannot return either because of danger,” he told Human Rights Watch.
Background on Reconciliation Meetings
Police use of informal mediation and reconciliation meetings as a substitute for criminal investigations and prosecutions in addressing sectarian violence is not unique to Sharbat. In its 2010 report, EIPR noted that: “Sectarian violence often ends in a reconciliation meeting sponsored by the Interior Ministry and brought about by the use of all means of pressure it possesses, both legitimate and illegitimate. The end objective is to restore the situation to the status quo, as if nothing has happened.”
Reconciliation has a long tradition in Egypt as a remedy for resolving commercial, social, and family disputes, but it is a poor and inadequate substitute for investigation and prosecution of acts that are serious crimes under Egyptian law. Under Egyptian law, reconciliation may be used only for minor crimes, not serious crimes such as murder or assault.
The EIPR April 2010 report documented three expulsions of Christians following reconciliation meetings and one of members of the Baha’i religious group from their homes over the previous two years. In 1997, the United Nations Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights wrote that forced evictions, which include arbitrary evictions with no basis in domestic law and no opportunity to challenge “are prima facie incompatible with the requirements” of the convention.