(New York) – Egyptian police used water cannons, teargas, and batons on November 26, 2013, to disperse several hundred activists peacefully protesting military trials of civilians, Human Rights Watch said today. The police assault came two days after Interim President Adly Mansour issued a new law restricting public assembly.
A group of about 200 activists had gathered in front of the Shura Council, where a committee is discussing draft provisions for a new constitution. The crowd chanted slogans to protest proposed provisions for military trials of civilians. Human Rights Watch staff at the scene observed that the protest was entirely peaceful. Dozens of police arrived and warned the crowd to disperse. Minutes later, police fired water cannons and then charged the crowd, beating and detaining protester after protester, according to witnesses, lawyers, and video footage reviewed by Human Rights Watch
“Tuesday’s protest against military trials provided an opportunity to see how Egyptian authorities would use the new assembly law,” said Joe Stork, deputy Middle East and North Africa director at Human Rights Watch. “What we saw was police treating the new assembly law as a carte blanche to attack protesters, all too familiar to Egyptians after years of police impunity.”
The human rights group No Military Trials for Civilians called for the demonstration in front of the Shura Council, where the Committee of 50, the group appointed by Interim President Mansour to propose constitutional amendments, had convened to discuss the draft document. On November 24, two days before the protest, Mansour issued Law 107 of 2013 on the Right to Public Meetings, Processions, and Peaceful Demonstrations. The group had not notified the Interior Ministry three days ahead of the demonstration, as the new law requires.
The new law allows the police to forcibly disperse a demonstration if “any criminal act emanates from the participants, or if the assembly diverges from peaceful expression,” and says the chief police officer on the ground will make the decision.
Abdel Fattah Othman, assistant interior minister for media affairs, said that the police dispersed the demonstration after protesters blocked roads in violation of the law, the government-owned al-Ahram newspaper reported. In a statement on its official Facebook page, the Interior Ministry blamed protesters, saying they had not complied with the new requirement for advance notification or obtained the necessary security clearance. The statement further claims that protesters threw rocks and bricks at police officers.
But Human Rights Watch staff observing the demonstration saw no sign of protester violence, and none of the witnesses Human Rights Watch interviewed or extensive video footage Human Rights Watch reviewed indicated that protesters used force.
Police arrested at least 72 demonstrators, according to the Egyptian Center for Economic and Social Rights (ECESR), a rights group whose lawyers went to police stations to represent detainees. The Association for Freedom of Thought and Expression, which also had lawyers on the scene, said they documented 89 arrests. Lawyers, family members, and released detainees outside the First New Cairo police station told Human Rights Watch that at least 35 protesters were held there and 12 in the nearby Third New Cairo police station.
Detainees included well-known activists – Mona Seif, Nazly Hussein, and Salma Said; human rights lawyers – Ahmed Heshmat, Mohamed Abdelaziz, and Osama al-Mahdy; and journalists – Ahmad Ragab of al-Masry al-Youm, and Rasha Azab of al-Fagr.
By the end of the evening, police had released all detained women, journalists, and lawyers, according to ECESR, including 14 female protesters dropped off in the late evening on the side of a desert highway over 30 kilometers south of the protest site. Human Rights Watch staff visited the scene and four of the women confirmed that authorities had dropped them there and that they were waiting for friends and family to pick them up.
Aida al-Kashef, one of the women, told Human Rights Watch that a man wearing a suit and flanked by other men in civilian clothing approached her and other female detainees on the stairs of the First New Cairo police station and told them to leave with him.
When they refused, the man nodded and the other men “held us one-by-one, dragged us down the stairs, beat us, threw us inside the police truck… [and took us] until we were dumped in the desert.” Three other detained protesters Human Rights Watch interviewed corroborated this account.
Nazly Hussein tweeted immediately after her arrest that police sexually harassed her and other female protesters while detaining them. She told Human Rights Watch after her release that police officers “grabbed me, groped me, and tried to pull off my clothes.”
Twenty-four protesters remained in detention at the First New Cairo police station as of the afternoon of November 27. One of their lawyers told Human Rights Watch that they faced charges both under the new assembly law – including participating in a protest at which weapons were present, blocking traffic, and organizing a protest without permission, and under other sections of the penal code – including thuggery, forced theft, illegal public gathering, and attacking public employees. Reuters reported that prosecutors on November 27 had charged Ahmed Maher, a leader of the April 6 youth movement, and Alaa Abd al-Fattah, an activist, with organizing the demonstration in violation of the new assembly law.
A court in Alexandria on November 27 also sentenced 21 young women and girls to prison or detention for taking part in a peaceful demonstration on October 31, their lawyer told Human Rights Watch. The 14 who were between the ages of 18 and 22 were each sentenced to 11 years and 1 month in prison. Seven girls aged 15 - 18 were sentenced to a juvenile detention facility until they turn 18, at which point their cases will be re-evaluated.
Prosecutors hastily brought the case to trial, charging the women under the 1923 Public Assembly law with illegal public gathering, thuggery, use of weapons, and sabotage. Six men received 15-year sentences in absentia for instigating the protests.
A Cairo court on November 13 handed down 17-year sentences and 65,000 LE (US$9440) fines to 12 students from al-Azhar University for charges stemming from involvement in protests and clashes on the campus.
Police used teargas later in the evening of November 26 to disperse protesters who gathered around Qasr al-Nil Bridge and on Talaat Harb Street to chant against the military and the police. Sherief Gaber, a 29-year-old activist who was in Talaat Harb Square, told Human Rights Watch that police vans fired teargas, chased protesters down side streets, and occupied the square, arresting protesters before retreating. “The cycle repeated itself several times over the course of the evening,” Gaber said.
Earlier on November 26, police used similar methods to disperse a gathering in memory of Gaber Salah, an activist also known as Gika who was killed in a 2012 protest in Tahrir Square.
Since the army’s ouster of former President Mohamed Morsy on July 3, police have frequently used force to disperse demonstrations organized by supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood, sometimes using excessive lethal force.
“The violent dispersal and arrests on November 26 serve as a stark reminder of the danger of giving security forces a blank check to regulate public assembly,” Stork said. “The government should immediately release those detained solely for exercising their right to demonstrate and rescind the new protest law.”