(Beirut) – Egyptian authorities have failed for a decade to hold anyone accountable for the largest mass killing in Egypt’s modern history, Human Rights Watch said today. The Rab’a massacre, a likely crime against humanity, took place in Cairo on August 14, 2013, and kick-started a mass repression campaign targeting government critics, precipitating one of Egypt’s worst human rights crises in many decades.
Despite overwhelming evidence compiled by Human Rights Watch and calls by the United Nations and international human rights organizations for an investigation, the authorities have failed to investigate or prosecute anyone for the killings of hundreds of protesters that day. Security forces violently dispersed the sit-in at Rab’a al-Adawiya, the main gathering of protesters demanding the reinstatement of then-President Mohamed Morsy. Hundreds of protesters who participated in the sit-in remain imprisoned, convicted in grossly unfair mass trials, and some have been sentenced to death. Many others fled into exile.
“The Rab’a massacre precipitated a devastating campaign of arrests, sham trials, torture, and exile that has all but removed any space for critical dialogue and pushed many reformists out of the country,” said Adam Coogle, deputy Middle East and North Africa director at Human Rights Watch. “Addressing what happened in Rab’a does not only concern Rab’a victims and their families but is also crucial for the prospect of human rights and democracy in Egypt.”
The army overthrew and arrested President Morsy on July 3, 2013. He died in detention in 2019 in abusive conditions. After the coup, Morsy supporters staged large protests throughout Egypt and gathered in two main squares in Cairo, Rab’a, and al-Nahda. Human Rights Watch documented that security forces unlawfully fired on masses of largely peaceful protesters on August 14, to disperse Rab’a, killing at least 817 people and more likely over 1,000. These mass killings most likely constituted crimes against humanity and require an international investigation, Human Rights Watch said.
National courts of other countries should also investigate and prosecute those implicated in the massacre under the principle of universal jurisdiction. “Universal jurisdiction” refers to the authority of national judicial systems to investigate and prosecute certain of the most serious crimes under international law no matter where they were committed, and regardless of the nationality of the suspects or their victims.
In December 2013, then-interim President Adly Mansour established a fact-finding committee to collect “information and evidence” on the events that accompanied the June 30 protests, including the Rab’a dispersal. The committee, which included law professors and former government executives, lacked any judicial powers. The committee released an executive summary on November 26, 2014, in which it largely blamed protest leaders for the casualties in Rab’a by allowing arms inside the sit-in. The committee also found fault with the unarmed protesters because it said they remained at the sit-in knowing that some protesters were armed. But the committee noted that security forces failed to target only people who were armed. The full report is yet to be made public.
On March 6, 2014, Egypt’s National Council for Human Rights (NCHR) released a report on the Rab’a dispersal saying that some protesters were armed and resisted security forces, which it said compelled them to use lethal force. However, the report also said that there was a “disproportionate response” and “excessive use of force by security forces,” and that security forces failed to maintain a safe exit for protesters willing to leave or to provide medical aid for the wounded.
Both the fact-finding committee and the NCHR said that victims who did not participate in violence should be compensated. The NCHR also called for an independent judicial investigation.
On July 26, 2018, President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi approved Law No.161 of 2018 on the “treatment of the armed forces’ senior commanders,” which empowers the president to grant military commanders ministerial status and “diplomatic immunity” when traveling outside the country, most likely aimed at shielding them from accountability.
In addition to the failure to investigate security forces’ involvement in the mass killing in Rab’a, Egyptian authorities failed to adhere to article 241of the Egyptian Constitution, which required them to pass a transitional justice law that “ensures revealing the truth, accountability, proposing frameworks for national reconciliation, and compensating victims, in accordance with international standards.” The constitution required the authorities to issue the law during the first parliamentary session of 2016.
Since August 2013, Egypt’s security forces have repeatedly committed human rights abuses with impunity, with routine arbitrary arrests, enforced disappearances, and torture of real or suspected political activists as well as ordinary citizens, under the guise of fighting terrorism. To escape the government’s abuse, many dissidents were forced into exile, with the government using tactics such as refusal to provide or renew their identity documents to pressure them to return to near-certain prosecution in Egypt.
The government continued to escalate its use of the death penalty, in many cases following unfair proceedings and mass trials. Under President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi’s government, Egypt ranked among the top three countries globally in number of executions and death sentences in 2020, according to Amnesty International. In recent years, Egypt’s National Security Agency has killed dozens of alleged “terrorists” across the country in what are most likely extrajudicial executions that authorities later characterized as “shootouts.”
The government’s repression has led to the deterioration of the rights of various groups, including journalists, who have been prosecuted solely for their work, and lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) people, who are targeted for their sexual orientation or gender identity. The authorities have also used vague “morality” charges to arrest social media influencers and sexual violence witnesses.
Despite the well-documented abuses by Egypt’s security forces, including in North Sinai, concrete steps by the international community to establish a UN human rights monitoring mechanism on Egypt are long overdue. The United States, Canada, the United Kingdom, the European Union and its member states, despite calls by the European Parliament, and Egypt’s other international partners, have also failed to impose any targeted sanctions against Egyptian officials and entities credibly implicated in serious human rights violations, including for the Rab’a massacre.
Following the Rab’a massacre, in August 2013, the European Union decided to suspend exports of weapons and goods that could be used for internal repression. However, more than a dozen countries including Bulgaria, Cyprus, Belgium, the Czech Republic, France, Hungary, Italy, Romania, and Spain breached this suspension and continued shipping military equipment to Egypt. In July 2013, the African Union suspended Egypt after the military coup but restored its membership in 2014 despite its lack of progress on rights.
“Without justice, Rab’a remains an open wound,” Coogle said. “Those responsible for the mass killings of protesters shouldn’t count on being able to shield themselves from accountability forever.”