(Beirut) – Egypt’s Interior Ministry police and National Security Agency officers have in recent years apparently killed dozens of alleged “terrorists” across the country in unlawful extrajudicial executions they contend are “shootouts,” Human Rights Watch said in a report released today.
The 101-page report, “‘Security Forces Dealt with Them’: Suspicious Killings and Extrajudicial Executions by Egyptian Security Forces,” found that the alleged armed militants killed in the so-called shootouts did not pose an imminent danger to security forces or others when they were killed and in many cases had already been in custody. Egypt’s international partners should halt weapons transfers to Egypt and impose sanctions against the security agencies and officials most responsible for ongoing abuses.
“Egyptian security forces have for years carried out extrajudicial executions, claiming that the men had been killed in shootouts,” said Joe Stork, deputy Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “It’s overdue for countries providing weapons and security assistance to Egypt to halt such assistance and distance themselves from Egypt’s appalling abuses.”
Human Rights Watch found that the Interior Ministry announced the deaths of at least 755 people in 143 alleged shootouts between January 2015 and December 2020, with only one suspect arrested. The ministry statements identified only 141 of those killed and used copy-paste language, providing very little detail.
Almost all the statements claimed that the alleged militants opened fire first, compelling security forces to return fire. The authorities alleged that all those killed were sought for “terrorism” and that most belonged to the Muslim Brotherhood. The group has faced the harshest repression in the nationwide crackdown on dissent since the July 2013 military coup led by now-President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi.
Human Rights Watch closely examined the cases of 14 individuals who were among 75 men killed in nine of those incidents in mainland Egypt (Human Rights Watch previously documented several extrajudicial executions in North Sinai). No suspects were arrested in the nine incidents and there were no casualties among security forces. Human Rights Watch interviewed 13 relatives and acquaintances of the men as well as several Egyptian human rights lawyers and activists and a journalist who documented extrajudicial killings.
Families and acquaintances of the 14 men said the victims had been arrested, most likely by the National Security Agency, and were in custody before they were reported killed. Eight of the families said they or friends or acquaintances witnessed their arrest. Thirteen said their relatives had been forcibly disappeared and that they had officially inquired about their whereabouts before their killing. Members of eight families said they saw what they believed were signs of abuse on the bodies of their killed relatives, including burns, cuts, broken bones, or dislocated teeth.
Wherever possible, Human Rights Watch reviewed copies of official documents such as death certificates and telegrams the families had sent to the authorities.
Families typically learned about their relative’s death from the news media. All but one said they had to actively seek information about the death and the location of the body. One man’s family was only able to collect his body after two months, and families of two others killed in December 2018 have still not been able to collect their bodies.
All the families said national security officers intimidated and harassed them when they tried to locate the body and seven said security forces forced them to bury their relatives without any funeral or service.
Only one family said their killed relative had probably been involved in armed activity. The others said their relatives had not been engaged in violence and in some cases had not been involved in any political activity.
Human Rights Watch reviewed and engaged independent forensic analysis of non-official photographs and videos showing the bodies of five of those killed and dozens of photographs the Interior Ministry released in two of the alleged shootouts. In three cases, the analysis is inconsistent with the shootout narrative. Photographs show that the hands of the three bodies appear to have been restrained or cuffed behind their backs immediately before death.
In one incident, a pro-government newspaper had reported the arrest of a 19-year-old student and his subsequent interrogation over a week before the Interior Ministry claimed its forces killed him in a “shootout.”
Human Rights Watch sent two letters to the authorities, in April and May 2021 with detailed questions on the alleged shootouts, but received no response.
Almost all the Interior Ministry statements about the shootouts mentioned that “the Supreme State Security Prosecution [SSSP] is investigating the incident,” without further explanation, referring to an abusive public prosecution branch that largely backs up often unsubstantiated security authority allegations.
Human Rights Watch found no record that authorities have opened any serious or meaningful investigations into any of the incidents, and no family members had been summoned to provide their accounts. Prosecutor General Hamada al-Sawy should remove the SSSP from overseeing investigations related to security forces conduct and abuses, Human Rights Watch said.
It is not possible to reach definite conclusions about the hundreds of killings in the scores of other alleged shootouts, given that the Interior Ministry rarely provides even the most rudimentary information such as the names of those killed. But the conclusions drawn from the documented incidents demonstrate a clear pattern of unlawful killings and cast serious doubt on almost all reported “shootouts,” Human Rights Watch said.
Such killings proliferated after President al-Sisi said in June 2015 that normal courts and laws were not enough to tackle violent groups, and called for “swift justice.” His statement followed the killing of then-Prosecutor General Hisham Barakat by armed militants, which the government linked to the Muslim Brotherhood.
The right to life is an inherent human right that cannot be compromised, even in times of armed conflict or state of emergency. Summary, extrajudicial, or arbitrary executions are clearly prohibited under international law, including the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights, to which Egypt is a state party.
The United Nations Manual on the Effective Prevention and Investigation of Extra-legal, Arbitrary and Summary Executions says that the duty to investigate is “triggered” not only in a clear case of an unlawful death, but also where there are “reasonable allegations of a potentially unlawful death,” even without a formal complaint. Family members should also have the right to full information about the circumstances and causes of the deaths and to participate in the investigation.
Given the level and extent of abuses by Egypt’s Interior Ministry and military forces documented in this and previous reports, including in North Sinai, the United States, Canada, the United Kingdom, France, Germany, the European Union, and Egypt’s other international partners should impose targeted sanctions, including asset freezes, against Egyptian officials and entities most responsible for ongoing grave human rights violations as well as those responsible for the continued impunity for these abuses.
Those countries should also halt all security and military assistance and weapons transfers to the Egyptian government and condition their resumption on ending grave human rights abuses, and accountability for those found responsible. They should also, where possible, investigate Egyptian officials responsible for serious abuses under universal jurisdiction principles.
The United Nations Human Rights Council should establish an independent international mechanism to monitor and report on the human rights situation in Egypt and investigate grave human rights violations, including enforced disappearances, torture, and extrajudicial executions.
“Egyptian security agencies routinely carry out and conceal serious abuse with impunity,” Stork said. “Setting up an independent UN mechanism to monitor and report on Egypt’s human rights situation is of an utmost importance to raise the cost for the authorities’ flagrant abuses.”