Human Rights Watch conducted a year-long investigation into the conduct of security forces who responded to demonstrations opposed to the military’s July 3, 2013, ouster of Mohamed Morsy. Human Rights Watch found that police and army forces systematically and intentionally used excessive lethal force in their policing, resulting in killings of protesters on a scale unprecedented in Egypt. On August 12, 2014, Human Rights Watch released its report, which presented evidence of a pattern of killings that probably amounted to crimes against humanity.
Egyptian authorities denied entry to two senior Human Rights Watch staff members who intended to release the report in Cairo and brief Egyptian independent groups, journalists, and authorities on its findings. Since the release, Egyptian authorities have issued a number of statements levying a series of accusations against Human Rights Watch, and there have been other inaccurate reports about Human Rights Watch and its work and presence in Egypt.
The following addresses these inaccuracies.
1) How was an investigation of such scope carried out?
We carried out our investigation from July 2013 to August 2014 and interviewed more than 200 witnesses, including protesters, doctors, local residents, and independent journalists. We visited each of the protest sites during or immediately after the attacks and reviewed physical evidence, hours of video footage, and statements by public officials.
Human Rights Watch wrote to relevant Egyptian ministries soliciting the government’s perspective on these events but received no responses. With specific regard to the events in Rab’a Square, Human Rights Watch interviewed 122 witnesses and was also in Rab’a Square for much of the day on August 14 — including inside Rab’a hospital in the early afternoon. Researchers interviewed dozens of witnesses as they fled security forces that were dispersing protesters, as well as witnesses and staff in hospitals and morgues in the surrounding area in subsequent days.
2) Why did Human Rights Watch record a different number of fatalities than official sources?
To establish the number of casualties for each incident of mass killings of protesters outside of the Rab’a dispersal, Human Rights Watch relied on official figures, generally from the Forensic Medical Authority (FMA), a part of Egypt’s Health Ministry. Because the FMA only includes in its count bodies received and processed at official morgues, it may undercount the actual number of fatalities. These figures, therefore, should be considered lower-bound estimates.
For the Rab’a dispersal, Human Rights Watch arrived at its own casualty figure, which exceeds the FMA tally, by cross-checking the official register with figures compiled by the quasi-official National Council for Human Rights (NCHR) and documentation by Human Rights Watch researchers and Egyptian human rights lawyers. Human Rights Watch further reviewed lists of additional dead compiled by survivors and other independent organizations.
3) What witnesses did Human Rights Watch interview?
Human Rights Watch relied on a wide range of sources. These included many pro-Morsy demonstrators, as they are key witnesses and the main victims of the mass killings, but also dozens of independent journalists, doctors, local residents, and others. For instance, Human Rights Watch cited Interior Ministry figures for the number of weapons found in the Rab’a and al-Nahda sit-in sites.
All casualty figures came from the official Forensic Medical Authority, a part of the Health Ministry, except for the Rab’a figures, which HRW supplemented with documentation conducted in hospitals and morgues around Cairo on August 14 and during the days in the immediate aftermath of the dispersal. Much of the evidence regarding the government’s planning for the August 14 dispersals came from public statements by government officials, including the current interior minister and former prime minister.
4) Did Human Rights Watch document violence or incitement by protesters both before and after the sit-ins were dispersed?
Human Rights Watch documented incidents of violence by pro-Morsy protesters, including several incidents of firing on security forces, incitement during the sit-ins, detention and abuse of opponents, and disruption to the lives of local residents. The report includes witness statements alleging that sit-in “security committees” at Nahda Square beat and detained local residents and Muslim Brotherhood opponents, possibly resulting in the death of at least one person – a 48-year-old man from the neighborhood. Human Rights Watch also reported on the widespread attacks on churches and police stations that began after the sit-ins were dispersed and may have been inspired in part by speeches given at the sit-ins.
The report documents sectarian speech by Morsy supporters including Assem Abdel Meguid, a senior leader in the Construction and Development Party, who said from the Rab’a stage on July 24 that “Copts and communists” supported the military’s killing of “Muslims,” and Safwat Hegazy, an Islamist preacher, who said on June 18 that anyone who “splashes water over Morsy, we splash him with blood.”
None of the criticisms relating to protester violations challenge the substantive findings by Human Rights Watch that security forces methodically and illegally opened fire on mostly peaceful crowds, killing hundreds.
5) Did Human Rights Watch try to contact the government before releasing the report?
Human Rights Watch wrote to the Interior, Defense, and Foreign Ministries, the Office of the Public Prosecutor, the Egyptian Embassy in Washington, D.C., and the Mission in New York on June 12, 2014, soliciting the Egyptian government’s perspectives on the issues covered in the report. Foreign Ministry officials responded by indicating that they were in touch with other ministries regarding the Human Rights Watch requests. Human Rights Watch sent follow-up letters on July 8, laying out preliminary findings and requesting answers to specific questions and information. The letters were sent by mail, e-mail, and fax, and receipt was confirmed. Copies of the full report were sent in advance to the ministries mentioned above. None of the ministries officially responded.
6) Why did Human Rights Watch staff try to visit Cairo in August?
Human Rights Watch had already shared the report with senior Egyptian officials and looked forward to meeting with them and with a wider cross-section of Egyptians to discuss the findings and recommendations. Meetings had been scheduled and confirmed with the National Council on Human Rights and the official June 30 Fact-Finding Commission. Human Rights Watch is disappointed that Egyptian authorities denied entry to staff members. Barring this messenger reflects a broader pattern of failing to face up to the serious abuses taking place in Egypt.
7) Does Human Rights Watch work in Egypt?
Human Rights Watch researchers and advocates have been traveling to Egypt for the past 25 years and regularly meeting with senior government officials. The organization never previously faced restrictions on its independent monitoring activities in Egypt.
Human Rights Watch does not maintain any permanent administrative presence or operations or have an office or staff in Egypt. Human Rights Watch applied to register as a non-governmental organization in Egypt in 2007 and, in keeping with registration requirements under Egyptian law, opened an office. For more than six years, the Egyptian authorities neither denied nor granted the Human Rights Watch application. The shrinking space for independent organizations in Egypt led Human Rights Watch to close its office in February and withdraw its registration application until such time as it seems possible to register a formal administrative presence.
8) Why did Human Rights Watch issue a clarification regarding an account from a Newsweek journalist who witnessed some of the events?
Human Rights Watch interviewed Maged Atef, the journalist, twice regarding his first-hand experience at the dispersal of the Rab’a sit-in. Atef said that he had seen protesters shoot a police officer but provided differing times for when the shooting may have occurred, and Human Rights Watch noted in the report that researchers were not able to corroborate the timing of the shooting.
At Atef’s request, Human Rights Watch issued a clarification to reassure Atef that the organization was not questioning his credibility, but rather could not confirm the timing of the shooting. There was no correction of his account, and he has stated that he is “satisfied with this statement and confirm my respect for them and for anyone who seeks the truth and abides by accuracy in his wording.” Please refer to the media advisory on this subject here in Arabic and here in English.
9) Did Human Rights Watch document human rights abuses under the government of Mohamed Morsy?
Human Rights Watch extensively documented a range of abuses under the Morsy government. Here is a sample:
- Why Egypt's New Law Regulating NGOs is Still Criminal
- Egypt: Unjust Verdict in Rights Workers’ Trial
- UN Human Rights Council: Extreme Concern due to Increased Restrictions Affecting NGO Activities
- Egypt: New Draft Law an Assault on Independent Groups
- Egypt: Address Recurring Sectarian Violence
- Egypt’s NGO Funding Crackdown
- Egypt: Officials Turn Blind Eye to Port Said Police Abuses
- Letter to Egyptian Justice Minister on Demonstrations Law
- Egypt: Amend Draft Demonstrations Law
- Egypt: Crisis Highlights Urgent Need for Reforms
- Egypt: Emergency Powers Excessive
- Egypt: Investigate Brotherhood’s Abuse of Protesters
- Egypt: Morsy Law Invites Military Trials of Civilians
- Egypt: New Constitution Mixed on Support of Rights
- Egypt: Morsy Decree Undermines Rule of Law
- Egypt: Fix Draft Constitution to Protect Key Rights
10) Does Human Rights Watch recognize risks of terrorism In Egypt?
Human Rights Watch recognizes that Egypt is dealing with a difficult and deteriorated security situation that includes attacks by armed groups on both civilians and security forces, as well as government buildings, checkpoints, and vehicles. Egyptian authorities say these attacks have killed hundreds of members of the security forces. Human Rights Watch has documented that some of these attacks have targeted tourists or indiscriminately harmed ordinary citizens.
Egyptian authorities have the responsibility to protect everyone’s right to life in Egypt, and to prosecute those responsible for crimes, but should do so within the framework of international human rights law.
In particular, the UN Basic Principles on the Use of Force and Firearms require law enforcement officials to strictly limit the use of any force to situations in which it is absolutely necessary and proportional to the legitimate aim pursued. Firearms may only be used as a last resort – when strictly necessary to protect themselves or others against the imminent threat of death or serious injury. The intentional lethal use of firearms is only permissible if unavoidable in order to protect life.
11) Does Human Rights Watch assist victims in filing court cases in Egypt?
Human Rights Watch does not provide legal services, though it may suggest other organizations that can help when those who have suffered human rights violations approach Human Rights Watch staff. In Egypt, Human Rights Watch has not advised or consulted with victims, either of the sit-in dispersals or their aftermath, regarding potential legal proceedings.