Video footage that is claimed to be leaked from a military operation and shows individuals wearing Egyptian Armed Forces uniforms executing unarmed men in North Sinai at close range was authenticated by Human Rights Watch (HRW) and Amnesty International last Friday.
Warning: This report contains photos and images that some may find graphic
“Egyptian military forces in the northern Sinai Peninsula executed at least two and as many as eight unarmed detainees and covered up the killings to make it appear that the victims were armed ‘terrorists’ shot to death in a raid,” HRW stated in its report.
Amnesty International’s experts moved to affirm that the video was authentic after interviewing Sinai-based sources and experts and analyzing the leaked video and comparing it with photos and a YouTube video published by the Egyptian military spokesperson in December that claimed to show “terrorists” killed in a security raid.
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Amnesty International and HRW called upon Egyptian authorities to investigate what the organizations refer to as “extrajudicial killings” committed under the military’s watch and to punish those responsible.
The video was broadcast by the Muslim Brotherhood-affiliated and Turkey-based Mekameleen channel. It begins with a bearded man speaking a local Sinai dialect, wearing military clothes and whom HRW’s local sources identified as a military collaborator interrogating a man dressed in civilian clothes. Individuals in Egyptian military uniforms then lead blindfolded men into a field, forcing them to kneel before executing them by firing several rounds at close range. A person wearing a military intelligence badge can he heard instructing those carrying out the executions not to aim at the man’s head only. Following the execution, the men in military attire can be seen planting weapons next to the bodies of those killed.
Mada Masr has not been able to independently verify the authenticity of the video, and Egyptian officials have not issued an official comment regarding the video or the organizations’ reports.
The Armed Forces’ official YouTube account posted a video on November 5, 2016 allegedly documenting several security raids conducted as part of the military’s Operation Martyr’s Rights, a campaign launched in North Sinai in September 2015 following the assassination of Prosecutor General Hesham Barakat, responsibility for which was claimed by the Province of Sinai. The video featured images of the bodies of two men that the military claimed were “terrorists” killed in a firefight. The images in the photo resemble the two men who are shown being executed in the leaked video. There is no evidence of a firefight in the most recent footage.
Several local media outlets have questioned the authenticity of the video since its broadcast, saying that it has been fabricated by the outlawed Muslim Brotherhood group to tarnish the reputation of Egypt’s military.
The privately-owned Al-Fajr website published an article listing seven signs that the video has been fabricated, including that the men in military dress are wearing “summer uniforms” in the winter, can be seen with beards, which members of the Armed Forces are prohibited from growing, and speak in what the website describes as a Gulf accent.
In a phone interview with television show host Mohamed Moussa on the privately owned Al-Asema broadcast channel, Armed Forces General Mohamed Mansour asserted that the video had been produced in Qatar. The privately owned Al-Shorouk newspaper cited a “knowledgeable source” as saying, “There’s a rule now. Whenever the military and the police achieve success in beating down terrorists on the ground, we find a fabricated video that tries to disgrace Egypt in whatever way it can. Who know what lies the next video will entail.”
Amnesty International and HRW both cite local sources who place the area in which the video was shot in a desert area between the south of Sheikh Zuwayed and Rafah, areas of concentrated fighting between militants and Egyptian forces. Citing a Mekameleen channel representative, HRW asserted that the incident took place some time between October and November 2016 in the village of Touma, south of Sheikh Zuwayed. The area has been the site of several military operations targeting Province of Sinai militants operating in the area.
Both organizations point to a report published by the local Sinai 24 Facebook page, which asserted that the two men shown being executed in the video are brothers who belong to the Romaylat Tribe: 16-year-old Daoud Sabry al-Awabda and 19-year-old Abdel Hady Sabry al-Awabda. According to Sinai 24, the Awabda brothers disappeared after the military arrested them in Rafah on July 18, 2016.
Local sources HRW and Amnesty International consulted further assert that the person interrogating the men before they are executed is speaking a Sinai dialect, identifying him as a Bedouin cooperating with the military. One of HRW’s sources identified the man as his neighbor in Sheikh Zuwayed, while three independent sources corroborated his identity.
In a report published last August, Mada Masr profiled the groups of armed civilians who operate in collaboration with the Armed Forces in Sinai. In contrast with similar groups in Iraq, those in Sinai are not subject to the authority of the heads of their families and tribes. The groups first appeared in Sheikh Zuwayed in 2015 and have been dubbed by locals as Battalion 103, a name which refers to Battalion 101, the military’s main force in the area, and Province of Sinai militants, who have been dubbed Battalion 102. The groups call themselves “death squads,” because of the danger they face at the hands of militants. Collaboration with the military takes different forms, including the provision of intelligence and participation in combat under military supervision and with military-provided weapons.
Tribal leaders told Mada Masr at the time of publication of the report that they were afraid that the emergent phenomena of civilians carrying arms might lead to intra-tribal strife that could get out of hand.
The HRW report quotes local sources as saying that armed civilians working with with military have used their power to threaten and arrest residents as a way to settle personal disputes.
According to HRW, the video is evidence of a repeated pattern of unlawful killings in North Sinai that the organization’s sources have reported. Two detainees formerly held by the Egyptian Armed Forces told HRW that prison guards would arrive at dawn, summon detainees and take them away to undisclosed locations. The detainees did not return, according to the organization’s sources, who said that they believed they had been executed.
After one of the detainees was released, he discovered that one of the men he had seen taken away by guards had been killed the same day. The man’s family later found his body in a deserted area.
HRW published a report in March 2016 focusing on what it described as the potential extrajudicial killing of at least four people. The report said that authorities have likely falsely claimed that there was a security raid to cover up the killings.
The Interior Ministry released a statement in January, asserting that 10 people had been killed in an exchange of fire with terrorists in Arish. However, locals stated that the people were detained and forcibly disappeared by security forces.
The HRW report references two other videos posted by the military-aligned Sky News Egypt broadcasting channel. In one of the videos, a voice can be heard asking, “Should I change the position of the weapon.”
Amnesty International and HRW note that a United States Humvee appears in the leaked video. According to Amnesty International, the US has delivered 1,000 armored cars to Egypt since 2003, including 100 Humvees similar to the one that appears in the video, citing information provided by the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute.
“States including the USA have been transferring arms used by the military in North Sinai without ensuring any oversight or monitoring of the extent to which they may being used to commit or to facilitate the commission of serious human rights violations. All such transfers must be halted,” said Najia Bounaim, Amnesty International’s campaign director for North Africa, in the report.
“The ease with which the members of the Egyptian military forces participated in the killing of defenceless men in cold blood shows that they fear no oversight or accountability for their actions. These killings amount to extrajudicial executions, crimes which Egypt has an obligation under international law to investigate, prosecute and punish. They fit into a disturbing pattern of apparent such killings in North Sinai,” she continued.
For HRW Deputy Middle East Director Joe Stork, the “outrageous killings” are evidence that Egypt’s counterterrorism campaign in Sinai is “out of control.” “Egypt’s allies cannot claim ignorance about these deadly abuses,” he said.
If the conflict is later determined to have risen to the level of an “armed conflict” under international law, the conduct of the Egyptian Armed Forces and militants would be regulated by international humanitarian law, HRW points out. Per these regulations, the willful killing of a civilian or a prison of war would constitute a breach of the Geneva Conventions.
Stéphane Dujarric, the spokesman for United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres addressed the video in response to a question at a press briefing on Friday.
“You know, I’ve seen the video on the news reports,” he said. “We have no way to verify the veracity of the report. As a matter of principle and something we stated often and often again is the fight against terrorism should not be at the expense of human rights. But, as I said, on the particular video, I have no way of knowing whether its… of its veracity.”
The Washington DC-based Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policies (TIMEP) published a commentary on the video, highlighting statistics in the ongoing armed conflict in North Sinai. According to TIMEP, around 6,268 people have been killed and labeled as terrorists since mid-2013, most of whom were killed in the context of Operation Martyr’s Rights.
TIMEP added that there have been around 1,635 terrorist attacks in Sinai during the same period, 726 of which were claimed by the Province of Sinai. Three-hundred and seventy-eight members of the Egyptian security forces were killed in these operations.
According to the TIMEP, the US and other national governments estimate the number of Province of Sinai militants to be between 500 and 1,000, a figure which does not correspond with the death totals the military has announced.