Update: HRW calls for Sisi to be held accountable for role in protesters’ deaths

In a report documenting state violence following the ouster of President Mohamed Morsi, the New-York based Human Rights Watch concluded that the dispersal of Brotherhood sit-ins “not only constituted serious violations of international human rights law, but likely amounted to crimes against humanity.”

While the major focus of the report was on the dispersal of the Rabea al-Adaweya sit-in on August 14, HRW referred to five separate incidents of mass killing of protesters by security forces following the military-backed ouster of Morsi from power on July 3. HRW estimates that 1,150 protesters were killed throughout these incidents.

HRW called for President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi to be held “individually accountable for the widespread and systematic killings of protesters during July to August 2013”

The report calls Sisi one of the “principal architects” of the July and August state violence in his capacities at the time as defense minister, general commander of the Armed Forces, chair of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), and deputy prime minister for security affairs.

The report considers that Sisi acknowledged his role in these events during his August 18 speech, when he stated “We spent very many long days to discuss all the details to arrive where the dispersal will not result in any losses.”

The report was supposed to be presented in Cairo on Tuesday at a press conference organized by HRW. However, two of the organization’s top officials, Kenneth Roth and Sarah Leah Whitson, were denied entry in Cairo upon their arrival on Monday. While HRW slammed Egypt for preventing its officials from entering the country for the first time, while the Ministry of Interior said that they had asked the organization to delay its visit to September.

The ministry also said that they demanded the organization to issue proper visas ahead of the officials’ visit, since representatives cannot enter the country on tourist visas to hold a press conference. The ministry added that HRW has withdrawn its registration request, which renders its work in Egypt missing a legal document.

Kenneth Roth said during the video conference that this was the first time that HRW officials have been denied entry to Egypt.

He responds to the ministry’s claim that the organization lost its right to operate in Egypt now after it has closed its Cairo office last February saying “we have been visiting Cairo for two decades, most of the time without an office.”

Roth found the government reasoning for their denial of entry “ridiculous.” 

“The government has never objected to Human Rights Watch obtaining a visa at the airport as it has done for decades,” Whitson stated, referring to the Interior Ministry statement revealing the reasons behind their denial of entry. “The notion that we were invited to come back in September,” Whitson explained, “was never communicated to us beforehand.”

Whitson said that the Ministry of Interior’s statement ahead of the anniversary of the dispersal was deliberately misleading and inaccurate. According to Whitson, the number of police officers killed in Rabea was only 8, while the statement claimed that there was a much larger number of  police casualties.

Meanwhile, HRW’s report pointed to the unprecedented nature of systematic and intentional use of excessive violence with protesters.

Referring to the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court, which defines crimes against humanity as those that include persecution of a group on political grounds intentionally causing “great suffering or serious injury”, HRW found that “security forces systematically and deliberately killed largely unarmed protesters on political grounds — those perceived to be affiliated or sympathetic with the Muslim Brotherhood and opposed to the July 3 ouster of Morsi — in a widespread manner, resulting in the deaths of over 1,150 protesters, in July and August of 2013 following Morsi’s ouster.”

In the Rabea al-Adaweya sit-in, dispersed 45 days after it had started, HRW found that between 817 and 1,000 protesters died in what they called, “the world’s largest killing of demonstrators in a single day in recent history.” HRW compared Rabea al-Adaweya’s dispersal to the Chinese government’s killing of 800 protesters in one day during the 1989 Tiananmen massacre as well as the 2005 Andijan massacre, in which Uzbek forces killed hundreds of protesters in a single day. 

Prior warnings to the dispersal by the government were deemed insufficient by HRW, as they failed to indicate when the dispersal would take place. Warnings during the dispersal were not heard by many and did not give protesters enough time to exit the sit-ins. While the government has claimed that warnings were played for an hour and a half before security forces opening fire, witnesses interviewed said that live ammunition was fired minutes after the dispersal began and came from APCs, bulldozers, ground forces, and rooftop snipers already in place.

Instead, protesters were besieged by security for most of the day, and attacks at them were launched from each of the main entrances of the square. Those trying to escape were also targeted by security forces, witnesses told HRW. Most of the deaths took place in the last hours of the 12-hour operation, as security forces encircled the remaining protesters near the field hospital, ordered doctors out, leaving corpses behind, and took control of the hospital. At this point, fires broke out, burning through the field hospital and the mosque. HRW said evidence shows that the fires were deliberately started by security.

Roth stated that the “Rabea massacre is simply too big to go away and the public will not forget it,” adding that the“need for justice will not disappear either.”

Omar Shakir, during the press conference, condemned the dispersal of Rabea square as “sheer brutality unprecedented in Egyptian history” and “one of the worst in all of history.”

HRW also pointed to the arrest of over 800 protesters during the dispersal, some of whom were tortured, while others were reportedly summarily executed.

HRW also interviewed witnesses who saw helicopters flying overhead and firing tear gas, birdshot and live ammunition at protesters. There were also witnesses who claimed that snipers atop government buildings fired at entrances and exits of field hospitals. The report accused security forces of shooting indiscriminately at large crowds rather than aiming at armed protesters.

Despite admitting that there were few instances where protesters used firearms, the report rebukes the “grossly disproportionate and premeditated lethal attacks on overwhelmingly peaceful protesters.”

In the other main protesters encampment, the Nahda Square sit-in in Giza,  security forces followed similar procedures, HRW said, such immediately launching the attacks after issuing warnings, firing at those attempting to exit and shooting randomly at large crowds.

The organization blamed the government for not taking responsibility for any wrongdoing and not holding anyone accountable for the deaths, though accounts from government meetings show that officials knew that the attacks would cause widespread loss of life. The organization also said that nothing in the reasoning cited by the government for the sit-ins dispersals, such as disturbing public order and the endangering the lives of nearby residents, justifies the attacks.

The sit-ins dispersal aside, HRW’s report also documented several security attacks on protesters between July 3, when Morsi was ousted and August 14, when the sit-ins were dispersed. HRW documented 281 killings in these attacks, which include the July 5 and 8 Republican Guards headquarters attack, where Armed Forces dispersed a sit-in of Morsi’s supporters, and the July 27 attack by the police in Nasr Street on Morsi’s supporters.

The organization held the police, especially Central Security Forces and Special Forces, as well as the military, responsible for the protesters’ deaths. It also identified Interior Minister Mohamed Ibrahim, who formulated the dispersal plan, as one of the main officials who should be investigated for his responsibility on the attacks, as well as Medhat al-Menshawy, head of the Central Security Forces, who told Ibrahim the morning of the Rabea al-Adaweya dispersal that “we will attack whatever it cost us.” Mohamed Tohamy, the head of the General Intelligence Services, is also identified for investigation by HRW, as well as eight key Interior Ministry deputies, three senior military leaders and many high ranking civilian leaders.

HRW’s investigation included on-site examinations during and immediately after the attacks, interviews with over 200 witnesses including protesters, doctors, journalists and local residents, as well as a review of footage and statements by public officials. 

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