(New York) – Egypt’s military prosecutor should immediately release an award-winning blogger charged in connection with the demonstration by Christian Copts on October 9, 2011, which turned deadly, Human Rights Watch said today. Alaa Abdel Fattah was detained and later charged with incitement and theft of a military weapon, even though the prosecutor had presented no evidence to support the charges. His detention came as military prosecutors started questioning activists and priests about their alleged involvement in publicly encouraging Copts to demonstrate on that day.
During the protest in the Maspero area, military vehicles ran over demonstrators and the military used excessive force to disperse protesters, resulting in the deaths of 27 civilians and one military officer. A November 2 report by the National Council for Human Rights, Egypt’s government-appointed human rights commission, said members of the military were responsible for killing demonstrators. Investigations related to this demonstration remain solely in the hands of military prosecutors, who have called in activists and priests for questioning but have refused to reveal any information about whether they are investigating any military officers for their roles in killing Coptic protesters.
“Instead of identifying which members of the military were driving the military vehicles that crushed 13 Coptic protesters, the military prosecutor is going after the activists who organized the march,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East and North Africa director at Human Rights Watch. “Abdel Fattah’s detention is a blatant effort to target one of the most vocal critics of the military. The prosecutor’s acts further entrench military impunity by failing to build public confidence that there will be a transparent investigation of those responsible for the deaths.”
On October 30 Abdel Fattah and Bahaa Saber, another political activist, appeared before the military prosecutor in response to an official summons. Prosecutors questioned them about their political affiliations and involvement in the protests at Maspero, but the two men refused to answer, saying they did not recognize the military’s authority to try civilians before military courts.
Abdel Fattah’s father, Ahmed Saif al-Islam, who is also serving as one of his defense lawyers, told Human Rights Watch that he and the team of defense lawyers contended during the interrogation that the military court was not competent to question civilians with regard to the Maspero violence because the military itself was party to the violence and the head of the military police was responsible for the deaths of protesters.
In response, the military prosecutor ordered Abdel Fattah’s detention for 15 days. The prosecutor released Saber pending further investigation.
On November 3 the head of the military justice system released a statement saying the military prosecutor had charged Abdel Fattah with “theft of a military weapon, the destruction of military property, incitement to the assault of military officers, illegally demonstrating and use of force against members of the armed forces.” At no point in the proceedings has the prosecutor presented any evidence against Abdel Fattah. Given the absence of evidence, Human Rights Watch believes it is highly likely that the charges were trumped up and are politically motivated, related to Abdel Fattah’s activism. On November 3 his lawyers filed an appeal against his detention, which the prosecutor rejected and on November 14, the prosecutor renewed Abdel Fattah’s detention for a further 15 days.
Abdel Fattah is an award-winning blogger and activist who has been one of the most vocal critics of abuses by the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), the interim governing authority in Egypt. Abdel Fattah has written regular columns in the independent daily Al Shorouk and appeared on private satellite TV stations such as ON TV. The Mubarak government imprisoned him in 2006 for 45 days for participating in protests calling for judicial independence. The Egyptian daily Al Shorouk and The Guardian published a letter written by Abdel Fattah on November 1 in which he wrote, “I never expected to repeat the experience of five years ago: after a revolution that deposed the tyrant, I go back to his jails?”
“The military government has no business prosecuting Abdel Fattah, or any other civilian, in a military court, much less in a case involving the military’s own unlawful violence against protesters,” Whitson said. “These charges presented without evidence against one of the country’s best known activists are further reflection of the military’s desire to silence its critics.”
Investigation of Protest Organizers on Charges of Incitement
Military prosecutors have summoned at least seven people – five activists and two priests – to question them about allegations that they incited the demonstration and attacked the military, based on an October 17 police report by the Interior Ministry’s criminal investigations department. The report claimed to identify 12 individuals and seven political activist groups, including the April 6 Youth Movement, the Maspero Youth Movement, and Copts Without Chains, as responsible for inciting the events at Maspero.
Based on this report, military prosecutors opened an investigation, case number 855 of 2011, at the East Cairo Military Criminal Court, and started summoning people for questioning. Defense lawyers who saw the report during the interrogation of their clients told Human Rights Watch that it contained a list of generalized charges against all 12 people named without providing any evidence or even narrating specific facts to link any of the accused to the charges. The charges include illegally demonstrating in front of the TV building to harm public order, inciting to violence against the armed forces, inciting and participating in the destruction of military property and vehicles, and membership in an organization that seeks to harm public order.
“The military is relying on Mubarak’s old playbook, charging activists with absurdly vague offenses such as ‘illegally demonstrating,’” Whitson said. “These laws have no place in an Egypt that respects the rights of its citizens to organize, assemble, and protest.”
Those listed in the Interior Ministry’s report as prime suspects in the incitement investigation are:
- Mina Daniel, activist, shot dead on October 9 during the Maspero protest
- Ramy Kamel, member of the Maspero Youth Union, interrogated on October 27
- Hany Geziri, has not received a summons yet
- Joseph Nasrallah, lives in the United States
- Father Filopeter Gamil Aziz, interrogated on October 26
- Father Mitias Nasr, interrogated on October 20
- Sherif Ramzy Aziz, member of Copts without Chains, interrogated on October 26
- Ibram Louis, member of the April 6 Youth Movement and of Copts without Chains, interrogated on Oct 27
- Sarwat Kamal
- Sabry Zachary
- Bahaa Saber, activist, interrogated on October 30
- Alaa Abdel Fattah, blogger and activist, interrogated on October 30
Daniel was shot dead with a live bullet during the violence at Maspero. The autopsy stated that a bullet had entered the top of his back and exited through his stomach in the front, indicating that it must have been fired from a height. His sister Mary Daniel spoke at a news conference on November 3 organized by the campaign group No To Military Trials, saying, “I was stunned, didn’t know whether to laugh or cry when I heard [that he was a suspect], after they killed him they now want to ruin his reputation. They may have silenced Mina but there will be a hundred Minas who come after him.”
Said Fawzy, defense lawyer for Ramzy, a member of Copts without Chains, and Louis, a member of Copts without Chains and the April 6 Youth Movement, told Human Rights Watch that the military had questioned them on the basis of their memberships in those activist groups. Hany Ramsis, defense lawyer for Kamel, an active member of the Maspero Youth Union, told Human Rights Watch that the military prosecutor had asked Kamel about his involvement in the group and the October 9 demonstration.
The April 6 Youth Movement leader, Mohamed Adel, who is serving in the army as a conscript, was summoned to the military prosecutor on October 27 on allegations of having incited the Maspero protest. His lawyer Gamal Eid told Human Rights Watch that the charges against him were dropped when his presiding officer confirmed that Adel had not left the military base that day.
Two priests, Father Mitias Nasr and Father Filopeter Gamil Aziz, were among those the prosecutor summoned for questioning about incitement allegations, on October 20 and 26 respectively. Mitias told Human Rights Watch that he had thought the prosecutor was summoning him to take his testimony about a complaint Mitias had submitted against Gen. Ibrahim El Maty, deputy head of the military police, accusing military police officers of attacking peaceful protesters on October 6. The military prosecutor interrogated Aziz, priest of the Virgin and Maryohanna Church in Giza, on allegations of incitement and abusing religion to cause sectarian violence and the destruction of military property and assaulting members of the military.
No Transparency About Whether Military Officers Being Investigated
The civilian Office of the Public Prosecutor has referred all complaints filed by the families of victims killed or injured at Maspero to the military prosecutor, who is exercising sole jurisdiction over the Maspero investigation. Military prosecutors are investigating 31 people, mostly Copts, arrested on the evening of October 9 and charged with assaulting military officers.
Prosecutors are refusing to tell the lawyers whether anyone is being investigated for the killing of protesters through live gunfire and crushing by military vehicles. A human rights lawyer, Taher Abul Nasr, confirmed to Human Rights Watch that lawyers representing victims have been unable to view any of the prosecutor’s reports to determine whether prosecutors are interviewing any military officers driving the armored personnel carriers (APC) or otherwise deployed that evening.
Said Fayez, the lawyer for the Daniel family, told Human Rights Watch that despite the fact that he is representing one of the victims, he has not been able to obtain any information about whether military prosecutors are interrogating any military officers for their role in the violence and therefore whether there is any genuine investigation of military responsibility. Fayez said that the Office of the Public Prosecutor sent all the complaints submitted by the families of victims to the military prosecutors under one case number.
Vivian Magdy, who was with her fiancé, Michael Mus’ad, when he was crushed by an APC on the evening of October 9, said at a news conference organized by the No To Military Trials Groupon November 2 that she went to the military prosecutor to give her testimony but the prosecutor only asked her about whether she saw “thugs” attacking the military.
“The military justice system is not going to bring justice for Michael’s killing,” she said. “Only civilians can do this. The time for silence is over, this massacre cannot happen again, it can’t happen again.”
Egypt’s military has tried at least 12,000 people before military courts this year. Despite the military’s vague promises to limit the use of military courts, there are at least four ongoing investigations before the military prosecutor, including the cases of the 28 Copts arrested on the night of Maspero and charged with assaulting military officers. Human Rights Watch has previously set out thereasons that only a civilian judicial body can conduct an independent and impartial investigation into the events at Maspero, since the military is directly implicated in the violence at the demonstration.
Military Responsibility for the Maspero Massacre
From its first reactions in response to the violence at Maspero, the military has blamed external forces for the deaths. In an October 12 news conference, Gen. Adel Emara blamed “foreign elements” and “incitement and threats by political personalities and religious men to gather in front of the TV building at Maspero” for the violence. He went on to say that, “There has not been a case of rolling over people with vehicles,” and instead that the people controlling the armored military vehicles at the demonstration were “trying to avoid running into protesters, not rolling over them.”
Human Rights Watchinterviewed 20 participants in the demonstration who consistently said that between 6 and 7 p.m. on October 9, at least two APCs were driven recklessly through crowds of demonstrators, in some cases appearing to pursue the demonstrators intentionally. The evidence overwhelmingly suggested that the protest of thousands of Copts had been peaceful until the point that the APCs were driven through the crowds, and that the military’s subsequent response to violence by some of the demonstrators was disproportionate. The large, heavy vehicles crushed and killed at least 10 demonstrators, as autopsies later showed.
On November 2 the National Council for Human Rights (NCHR), Egypt’s national human rights commission, released the report of its fact-finding committee on Maspero. It concluded that three APCs “moved one after another, at great speed along the Corniche toward the October Bridge … the movement of the first two APCs in the midst of demonstrators was fast and circular, they changed their direction from the October bridge to the opposite direction toward Maspero. As a result of the extreme speed at which the first and second APCs were driving, they ran over a number of demonstrators, killing at least 12.” The NCHR said that the military had violated the right to life but was less categorical on whether the military had used live ammunition, saying that some statements confirmed they had but others had said they had only used sound bullets and that the military had denied the use of live gunfire.
The report also stated that the group had little faith in a government fact-finding committee. On October 10 the cabinet established a six-member government fact-finding committee headed by Assistant Justice Minister Amr Marwan to “investigate the causes of the Maspero events, the instigators and all those responsible… in addition to investigating the truth of what happened in the village of Marinab, including reviewing the results of the investigations conducted by the public prosecution.”
The committee has thus far visited Marinab on October 12 to investigate the destruction of the church there, one of the reasons for the October 9 demonstration, but has yet to make public its findings and it does not formally have the power to question any members of the military or to access any of the investigations conducted by military prosecutors. An earlier Justice Ministry-led fact-finding committee set up to investigate the excessive use of force by the military in breaking up a demonstration in Tahrir square on April 9 has yet to make public any of its findings.
In the draft principles on military justice adopted by the United Nations Human Rights Commission, principle no. 9 states: “In all circumstances, the jurisdiction of military courts should be set aside in favor of the jurisdiction of the ordinary courts to conduct inquiries into serious human rights violations such as extrajudicial executions, enforced disappearances and torture, and to prosecute and try persons accused of such crimes.” In the European Court of Human Rights Case Al-Skeini and others v UK, the court found that:
For an investigation into alleged unlawful killing by State agents to be effective, it is necessary for the persons responsible for and carrying out the investigation to be independent from those implicated in the events... a prompt response by the authorities in investigating a use of lethal force may generally be regarded as essential in maintaining public confidence in their adherence to the rule of law and in preventing any appearance of collusion in or tolerance of unlawful acts. For the same reasons, there must be a sufficient element of public scrutiny of the investigation or its results to secure accountability in practice as well as in theory.