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Worst Mass Unlawful Killings in Egypt's Modern History

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Security Forces Used Excessive Lethal Force

(New York) – Egyptian security forces’ rapid and massive use of lethal force to disperse sit-ins on August 14, 2013 led to the most serious incident of mass unlawful killings in modern Egyptian history.

The ongoing Human Rights Watch investigation indicates that the decision to use live ammunition on a large scale from the outset reflected a failure to observe basic international policing standards on use of lethal force and was not justified by the disruptions caused by the demonstrations or the limited possession of arms by some protesters. The failure of the authorities to provide safe exit from the sit-in, including for people wounded by live fire and needing urgent medical attention, was a serious violation of international standards.

Based on first-hand documentation and interviews with health workers by Human Rights Watch, and lists of the dead obtained by the Egyptian Center for Economic and Social Rights, the death toll during the dispersal of the Rab’a sit-in appears to be at least 377, significantly higher than the latest Rab’a death toll of 288 announced by the Health Ministry. 

With the death toll rising day by day, Egypt’s military rulers should urgently reverse recent police instructions to use live ammunition to protect state buildings and use it only when strictly necessary to protect life.    

“This excessive and unjustified use of lethal force is the worst possible response to the very tense situation in Egypt today,” said Joe Stork, acting Middle East and North Africa director at Human Rights Watch. “Egypt’s military rulers should rein in police forces to prevent the country from spiraling into further violence. The military should not be encouraging police to use even more lethal force.”

According to the Ministry of Interior, the nationwide August 14 death toll of 638 includes 43 police officers. The dispersal sparked gunfights in the Cairo neighborhood of Mohandessin and an attack on a police station in Kerdassa, in greater Cairo, which left four policemen dead. Human Rights Watch spoke to witnesses, priests, and residents who confirmed that over the course of August 14, immediately following the dispersals, Islamists in at least nine cities attacked and burned at least 32 churches.

Over the following three days, clashes between security forces and Muslim Brotherhood protesters, and anti-Muslim Brotherhood protesters led to at least 173 additional deaths by August 18, according to the Ministry of Health.

Human Rights Watch is investigating the government’s dispersal of Muslim Brotherhood sit-ins at Rab’a al-Adawiya in Nasr City and at Nahda in Giza, in greater Cairo. Human Rights Watch staff interviewed 41 protesters, doctors, and residents from both areas, visited the Rab’a al-Adawiya Medical Center during the dispersal and later visited hospitals and morgues in Nasr City and Giza. 

The most significant violence took place during the dispersal of the Rab’a sit-in. Human Rights Watch’s preliminary findings indicate that the security forces used excessive force in breaking up the sit-ins and unlawfully killed a number of unarmed protesters. Security forces failed to plan the operation to minimize the risk to life, including by ensuring safe exits and giving public orders not to kill except in a targeted manner when absolutely necessary.

Four residents told Human Rights Watch that at around 6:30 a.m. security services used loudspeakers to call on protesters to leave the sit-in via the Nasr Street exit. Around 10 to 15 minutes later, at around 6:45 a.m., riot police moved in on the Rab’a protest simultaneously from several sides shooting tear gas, rubber pellets and, very soon after, live bullets. It was not possible to establish whether the first use of live ammunition came from the side of security forces or protesters, but Human Rights Watch found no evidence to suggest that firing by protesters justified the quick resort by police to massive lethal force against largely unarmed protesters.

Two journalists who were present from the start and protesters told Human Rights Watch that they could not reach any of the exits after the security forces had started firing tear gas because of heavy gunfire coming from the direction of security forces. Dozens of women and children hid in the mosque.

Witnesses and video of the protests, as well as observations by Human Rights Watch staff, indicate that the vast majority of the protesters were unarmed, but some carried clubs and a few fired guns at the security forces. Witnesses interviewed by Human Rights Watch and video footage posted on YouTube indicate that the police unlawfully killed protesters who were clearly not engaged in any form of violence. 

Video footage posted online that Human Rights Watch believes to be authentic shows a man being shot as he carries a blood-stained lifeless body. One protester, Ahmad Gamal, told Human Rights Watch that at one point he saw three men carrying a blood-stained, injured man and rushing toward a stage set up at the sit-in, when he heard the sound of gunfire and saw the three fall to the ground. He said he then helped carry away two of the bodies.

Other footage clearly shows unarmed men crouching near the remains of the main stage in Rab’a to hide from incessant gunfire. The footage shows two of them being shot and apparently killed, and a third shot in the leg. Some of the killings appeared to be deliberate, targeting people who posed no imminent threat to life at the time they were shot. One resident told Human Rights Watch she saw a policeman summarily execute a man walking in front of the officer. The man’s hands were on his head.

Egypt’s interim president, Adly Mansour, declared a curfew on the afternoon of August 14 and a one-month state of emergency. While some curfews may be legitimate and proportionate measures to reduce severe violence on the streets, the declaration of a state of emergency sends precisely the wrong signal, Human Rights Watch said. Security forces will read it as license for additional reckless and unlawful use of force, particularly given the long history of abuses carried out under states of emergency in Egypt.

“Given the riot police’s track record of routinely misusing lethal force, it’s crucial that Egypt’s military rulers publicly order security forces to use lethal force only when strictly necessary,” Stork said. “That means police should only shoot when faced with armed individuals threatening lives, and only to the extent necessary to address an immediate threat.”

The attacks on the sit-ins sparked serious sectarian violence. Since the ouster of Morsy sectarian tension has been on the rise, with leaders of the Muslim Brotherhood scapegoating Egyptian Christians as responsible for Morsy’s removal. Human Rights Watch has confirmed through interviews with witnesses that mobs chanting Islamist slogans attacked at least 32 churches. This violence left one Christian dead and at least 20 churches torched.

Security forces did little or nothing to protect churches, despite the high likelihood of such attacks. Human Rights Watch documented a rise in sectarian violence since Morsy’s ouster on July 3, with at least six major attacks on Christians in governorates across Egypt, including Luxor, Marsa Matrouh, Minya, North Sinai, Port Said, and Qena.

“Egyptian security officials bear responsibility not only for what they did in breaking up the protests but for their failure to protect churches and Christian communities against predictable reprisal attacks,” Stork said. “An impartial, credible and independent investigation is required to establish a full picture of events in Cairo and elsewhere on August 14 and to start the process of accountability.”