Conflicting testimonies of police personnel involved in the death of 37 prisoners trapped in a police van in August 2013 indicate that allegations that a police officer was kidnapped by inmates may have been fabricated by officers in charge to justify their deaths.
The testimonies, which originally appeared in the case file of an ongoing investigation into the deaths, were republished in a new report by the Association for Freedom of Thought and Expression (AFTE) on Thursday.
The incident dates back to August 18, 2013 — four days after the violent dispersal of Rabea al-Adaweya protest camp in Cairo that saw the ouster of former Islamist President Mohamed Morsi and the death of hundreds of protesters — when 45 prisoners, mostly supporters of the now-outlawed Muslim Brotherhood, were transported from Masr al-Gedida Police Station to Abu Zaabal Prison, north east of Cairo. Only eight survived prisoners survived.
The official police account at the time claimed that defendants kidnapped one of the officers guarding the van, prompting officers to fire tear gas inside the vehicle. Survivors, however, maintain that detainees were trapped in the van for hours in the extreme August heat, and that most of them had died before the tear gas was even fired.
The four officers involved in the case were prosecuted for manslaughter. In March 2014, one officer was sentenced to ten years in prison, while the other three received one-year suspended sentences. Following an appeal in which all of the sentences were vacated in June 2014, a misdemeanor court reduced the prison sentence against the main defendant from 10 to five years in August 2015 and reinstated the one-year suspended sentences for the other three defendants. A court is now looking into a final appeal in the case.
The AFTE report reveals conflicting narratives and discrepancies in testimonies regarding what took place inside the crowded police van that day.
Police personnel who testified in the case provided inconsistent accounts as to how many times officers in charge let out prisoners for ventilation and water. While the defendants all claimed that they opened the van several times for prisoners to breathe and drink water, some low-ranking policemen testified that prisoners were only let out of the vehicle once during the six-hour journey to Abu Zaabal Prison.
Policemen also testified that Omar Farouk, the officer in charge and the main defendant in the case, insisted that the van not be opened when it arrived at Abu Zaabal Prison for fear that prisoners would escape. AFTE, however, questioned this line of thought, arguing that it would be difficult for dozens of prisoners, exhausted and dehydrated after being trapped in the heat for hours, to escape from the heavily-guarded prison complex.
While an official report concluded that the vehicle in question can only contain a maximum of 25 individuals, both defendants and survivors agreed that the van was overcrowded and that the heat was unbearable for prisoners. The testimonies described the final moments in the lives of the victims, most of whom were shouting for air and water before their death.
Low-ranking policeman Abdel Aziz Rabie’s testimony indicated that officers fabricated the kidnapping story to justify the deaths.
“These people died because of the officers who were with us,” Rabie said. “They suffocated inside the van. They were a huge number and the van was closed. Every two prisoners were handcuffed to each other. They were held inside the van in the desert from 7:30 am till 2pm, without ventilation or water.”
When officers discovered that most of the prisoners had died, officer Farouk told Rabie, “We will all share the responsibility. We are innocent, we did not mean it,” according to the policeman’s testimony.
Rabie also stated that he and another policeman were beaten by an officer accompanying Farouk, and were asked to report their injuries and claim that it was the prisoners who had attacked them.
According to the case file, Rabie cried in front of prosecutors as they listened to his testimony. When asked why, Rabie said he fears for his safety as well as his family’s.
In 2014, an alleged phone call between the head of President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi’s office, Abbas Kamel, and a member of the Supreme Council of Armed Forces (SCAF), Mamdouh Shahin, indicated that the latter had intended to interfere in the case. In the leak, published by the Muslim Brotherhood-affiliated channel Al-Sharq, Shahin is heard promising Kamel that he will speak to the judge overseeing the trial.
AFTE said that the incident came at a time of extreme Islamist-secular polarization in Egypt.
“We seek to represent the voice of the victims, which may help us to remind [people] of the viciousness of what happened. This may lead to changing the perspective of some, so that there are better chances of bring justice to the the victims,” AFTE noted.