New York — President Mohamed Morsy should mark the second anniversary of Egypt's January 25, 2011 uprising by publishing and acting upon the findings of a fact-finding committee on accountability for security force abuses, Human Rights Watch said today. The committee reported to him in December 2012.
The president appointed the committee soon after he took office in June, following the acquittal of several senior security officials accused of responsibility for the killings of protesters during the uprising that toppled former President Hosni Mubarak. Two years later, those responsible for the killing of protesters in 2011 and subsequent incidents of police and military abuses and excessive use of force against protesters are walking free. Without accountability and the political will for serious reform of the security sector, there can be little hope of deterring future abuse, Human Rights Watch said.
"Two years after the uprising, prosecution failings, security agency cover-ups, and a failure of political will have conspired to deny justice to victims of government abuse," said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East and North Africa director at Human Rights Watch. "It's high time to end political compromise over accountability and to set the public record straight. Publishing this report about police and military force abuses is the first step."
Police killed at least 846 protesters during the January 2011 protests, but only two police officers are serving time behind bars for those killings. A one-year trial resulted in life sentences for Mubarak and the former interior minister, Habib al-Adly, for failing to prevent the killing of protesters. But the four assistant interior ministers in daily command of police operations during the uprising were acquitted. The judge ruled that there was no convincing evidence to "prove that the death and injury of the victims were caused by police weapons," instead finding "criminal elements" responsible.
The Court of Cassation, Egypt's highest court, overturned the Mubarak verdict on January 13, 2013, citing procedural failings, and the acquitted former officials now face retrial. Ineffective investigations, security agency obstruction, and laws that give overly broad discretion to the police in using live gunfire meant that 27 of 36 other trials of middle-ranking and low-level police officers accused of killing protesters in the vicinity of police stations during the uprising have resulted in the acquittals. Only four trials have resulted in prison sentences, some suspended or imposed in absentia, with only two police officers serving time.
The fact-finding committee that Morsy appointed by decree last July was charged with gathering information and evidence about the killing and injury of demonstrators between January 25, 2011, and June 30, 2012, and reviewing the "measures taken by executive branches of government and the extent to which they cooperated with the judicial authorities and any shortcomings that may exist."
The committee said on its website that it had identified 19 separate incidents in which the police or military used excessive force or committed other violations against protesters. After it submitted its report in late December, Morsy forwarded it to the public prosecutor. The prosecutor appointed an investigatory team of 20 prosecutors, whose spokesman said on January 21 that the committee had revealed "14 new incidents" that prosecutors were investigating in "absolute secrecy."
"Unless the new committee's report is published in its entirety, fears will grow that prosecutors may use its findings selectively by protecting senior Interior Ministry officials or allowing the military to cover-up its involvement in committing serious abuses," Whitson said.
Publication of the new report would be a step towards addressing the right of victims' families to know the truth about the circumstances in which their relatives died, Human Rights Watch said. That should be possible without compromising the interests of justice - for example by withholding the names of those allegedly responsible while the allegations against them are rigorously investigated."
The committee investigated several incidents involving serious abuses by the military, including the violent dispersal of sit-in protests in Tahrir Square on March 9 and April 8 and 9, 2011, and clashes between protesters and the military outside the cabinet in December 2011, and outside the Defense Ministry at Abbasiya in May 2012.
Human Rights Watch documentation of these incidents shows that soldiers tortured, killed, and sexually assaulted demonstrators. The police violence and excessive force investigated include episodes in January 2011 in Cairo and other cities and outside police stations, as well as the Mohamed Mahmoud Street protest in November 2011, which resulted in 45 deaths of demonstrators but for which only one police officer has been brought to trial.
Despite promising to do so, the military themselves failed to investigate incidents in which military police beat and kicked women on December 16, 2011, for which video footage showed six officers kicking a veiled woman as she lay on the ground. Nor did they investigate military police torture of protesters in March 2011 at Lazoghli in downtown Cairo or in May 2012 at Abbasiyya.
Military prosecutors charged only one man in connection with the sexual assault of seven women protesters in March 2011 in a military prison under the guise of "virginity tests," and he was acquitted by a military court although senior officers acknowledged that these sexual assaults took place. Another case involved the October 2011 killing by soldiers of 27 protesters outside the Maspero building in Cairo. The only troops prosecuted were three conscripts, on involuntary manslaughter charges. They were sentenced to two- to three-year prison terms for driving military vehicles into the protesters, killing 13. There was no investigation into the military's use of live ammunition that night and the killing of the other 14 protesters, nor into any of the military personnel in command that day.
As these cases demonstrate, Egypt's military justice system has neither the inclination nor the degree of independence necessary to properly investigate and hold to account senior level officers responsible for human rights crimes, Human Rights Watch said. With both prosecutors and judges under the same chain of command as those they should be investigating, it is clear that accountability cannot be achieved, as the work of Human Rights Watch has shown in other countries, such as Mexico and Chile, which have used military tribunals to address rights abuses by the military. Impunity, not justice for the victims, is what invariably results.
Article 198 of the constitution states that "the military justice system is an independent judicial authority which has sole competence to adjudicate in all crimes related to the armed forces, its officers and personnel."
"The constitution now effectively guarantees military the 'safe exit' they sought because it grants them de facto immunity from prosecution," Whitson said. "Unless that provision is amended there will be no justice for the military crimes of the past two years."