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Egypt: Many Protesters Shot in Head or Chest

Risk of Further Killings as Security Officials Threaten to Forcibly Break up Sit-Ins

(London) – Many of the at least 74 pro-Morsy protesters killed in clashes with Egypt’s riot police and plain clothed men who stood alongside were shot in the head or chest. They were killed on July 27 over a period of several hours during clashes on a road near the Muslim Brotherhood’s sit-in at Rabaa al-Adawiya in eastern Cairo.

Human Rights Watch interviewed seven witnesses to the violence and reviewed extensive video footage of the events. Medical staff interviewed by Human Rights Watch judged some of the deaths to be targeted killings because the position of the shots would likely result in death. 

The violence came hours after Interim President Adly Mansour announced, “the state has to impose order by all force and decisiveness.” The same day, Interior Minister Gen. Mohammed Ibrahim warned that security forces would be clearing pro-Morsy sit-ins from Rabaa and Nahda squares “soon.”

Protesters were shot and killed over a period of at least six hours, during clashes with Central Security Forces (riot police) on a major Cairo road. Human Rights Watch was in the field hospital as many of the dead and wounded were brought in, and was told by medical staff that  the “majority of the bullet injuries were to the head, neck, and chest.” Four doctors interviewed said that the angle of gunshot wounds indicated they were shot from above.

The Ministry of Health announced that at least 74 civilians died in the morning’s violence. At a press conference earlier that day, the minister of interior insisted that “We never, as police, pointed any firearms at the chest of any demonstrator.”

“The use of deadly fire on such a scale so soon after the interim president announced the need to impose order by force suggests a shocking willingness by the police and by certain politicians to ratchet up violence against pro-Morsy protesters,” said Nadim Houry, deputy Middle East and North Africa director at Human Rights Watch. “It is almost impossible to imagine that so many killings would take place without an intention to kill, or at least a criminal disregard for people’s lives.”

According to seven witnesses and footage reviewed by Human Rights Watch, protesters threw rocks and teargas canisters at the police. Egypt’s minister of interior, during a press conference held later the same morning, said that police officers had sustained injuries from both birdshot and live fire, but cited no police fatalities as a result of the clashes that lasted at least nine hours. Riot police maintained their position on the road, blocked by armored vehicles, for at least 11 hours.

Protesters at the clashes and doctors providing first aid to protesters said that the first shots were fired against protesters at approximately 1 a.m., and witnesses said they continued until at least 7 o’clock in the morning.

Egypt’s military and civilian interim rulers should immediately order an end to the use of live gunfire except where strictly necessary to protect life, Human Rights Watch said.

According to seven witnesses and footage reviewed by Human Rights Watch, the clashes between pro-Morsy supporters and police accompanied by men dressed in civilian clothes began at approximately 11 p.m., as pro-Morsy protesters approached the off ramp of the 6th of October bridge leading to Nasr Road. The site was just a few minutes’ walk from Rabaa mosque, where pro-Morsy supporters have been staging a 30 day sit-in. A doctor who was accompanying the protesters said that police, accompanied by men in plain clothes and armored police vehicles, were under the 6th of October bridge and initially fired teargas at the crowd. In videos posted online, Human Rights Watch also viewed a large group of civilians standing opposite pro-Morsy protestors, flanked by at least four armored police vehicles and personnel carriers, as well as Central Security Force officers.

According to a doctor who was at the scene, the police began to fire teargas when the protesters were approximately 200 meters away. A skirmish ensued between the protesters and the police and men in civilian clothes, lasting for about two hours: protesters set cars on fire and threw rocks, while police fired birdshot and more teargas from their position near the bridge. The doctor told Human Rights Watch that after approximately two hours, live bullets were fired at the protesters from what appeared to be an elevated position, possibly from a nearby building. The timing was corroborated by two other witnesses. Fouad, another doctor working in the Rabaa field hospital, said, “The pattern of injuries we saw here was completely the opposite of the Republican Guard. In the Republican Guard incident [on July 8, 2013] it was mostly random live fire, it only looked like 10 percent [of those killed] were shot by snipers. This time it was like 80 percent were shot by snipers targeted from above.”

The violent response by the police came after days of official statements threatening severe responses to deal with the Muslim Brotherhood protests. On Wednesday July 24, Defense Minister Gen. Abdel Fattah al-Sisi called for Egyptians to gather “to give [him] a mandate and an order to confront potential violence and terrorism.”

Just before 1 a.m. on July 27, Interior Minister Gen. Mohammed Ibrahim announced that the ministry would clear pro-Morsy protests at Nahda Square in Giza and at the Rabaa al-Adawiya mosque in Nasr City “soon” and “in a legal way,” according to the Ahram daily newspaper. In a televised interview with al-Hayat channel shortly after, Interim President Adly Mansour said that the government “cannot accept security disorder, cutting roads and bridges, attacking public buildings. The state has to impose order by all force and decisiveness.”

Ibrahim, a medic who accompanied the protesters, said they were approaching the bridge when they were blocked by Central Security Force police wearing black uniforms. Another protester described how, while the police fired teargas, he and other protestors threw rocks at the police and civilians standing opposite them, and how the others threw rocks as well. Ahmed, another protestor, said he and others picked up teargas canisters thrown into the crowd and lobbed them back towards the opposite side.

The police responded by firing teargas and birdshot at the crowd, protesters said. Within two hours, beginning after 1 a.m., three witnesses reported that live bullets were fired into the crowd, followed by more teargas, which protesters described as “dense.” One protester interviewed said that he fainted at the site from teargas inhalation and woke up in the field hospital.

Four eyewitnesses who were with the protesters described the sounds of successive gun shots and men in the crowd falling to the ground. Ibrahim, a doctor treating protesters at the site, told Human Rights Watch, “at 11 p.m. they fired teargas and birdshot; the teargas continued and then the live fire started. It was aimed single-fire.” Eyewitnesses repeatedly told Human Rights Watch that the scene was dark and the air heavy with teargas, limiting their visibility, but that they were being fired upon from an elevated position, as well as by the police positioned in front of them. Beginning at approximately 1:30 a.m., Ibrahim said, “I picked up five men all [hit] with a single shot to the head.” 

At approximately 1:45 a.m., the first dead body arrived at the Rabaa al-Adawiya field hospital, a witness who recorded the details at the time told Human Rights Watch. Four doctors interviewed at the field hospital said that fatalities arrived in a steady stream beginning at approximately 2 a.m. and ending between 7 and 8 a.m. Another doctor who treated protesters with emergency first-response care, Mohammed, told Human Rights Watch that at around 2:45 a.m., he started consistently treating protesters who had been shot in the head and chest, as well as others wounded by birdshot.

Human Rights Watch arrived at the Rabaa al-Adawiya field hospital at approximately 4:30 a.m. to find a steady stream of wounded being carried into the hospital. During a 30 minute period, eight men with bullet injuries entered the hospital, of whom five had been shot with live bullets in the head, neck, or upper chest. During the next two and a half hours, Human Rights Watch researchers saw approximately six dead bodies being brought from the protest frontline into the makeshift field clinic. Medical staff told researchers that at least two of the dead, including a 22-year-old man and a 17-year-old boy, had received single gunshot wounds to the forehead.

Doctors at the field hospital told Human Rights Watch that they had moved at least two other bodies with identical wounds to the nearby Health Insurance Hospital. The four other fatalities witnessed by Human Rights Watch sustained single gunshot wounds to the chest and torso.

“Opening deadly fire for hours on end is no way to respond to civilians who are mainly throwing stones and teargas canisters,” Houry said. “If this is the new leadership’s idea of a ‘lawful’ response, it sets a very grim tone for days to come.”

During a press conference conducted at approximately 12:30 p.m. on July 27, Interior Minister Gen. Mohammed Ibrahim announced:

“[Protesters] were trying to block the bridge. We were successful in driving them back to the military parade grounds using only teargas. At this point we were surprised to find them firing live ammunition, birdshot, and throwing stones on security forces. This continued for some time, when some residents from nearby neighborhoods came to fight with them [the pro-Morsy protesters], and the back and forth continued with us attempting to separate between the two sides through the early hours of the morning.

[From the] security forces, I have a large number of wounded with birdshot and live rounds from among the conscripts; maybe the worst of these is two officers currently in the Nasr City hospital. One has a bullet wound to the head, entering through his left eye and exiting through the right, in addition to birdshot pellets in his [inaudible] and stomach.

We never, as police, pointed any firearms at the chest of any demonstrator.”

Over the past several years Human Rights Watch has documented the shooting of protesters with live ammunition and birdshot by the Central Security Forces, including during the uprising in January 2011, in November 2011 during the Mohamed Mahmoud protests which left 45 dead, and in January 2013 in Port Said which left 46 dead. The ministry of health put the death toll at 74 by the end of the day. 

Under international human rights standards applicable to Egypt at all times, law enforcement officials need to take all reasonable steps to protect lives, especially when aware of specific threats. But they may only use intentional lethal force when it is strictly necessary to protect life. Both the past excessive use of lethal force and police failure to minimize casualties during protests indicate the pressing need for security sector reform and accountability for abuses perpetrated by the police and military.

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