(Cairo) – The newly appointed investigative judge looking into the January violence in Port Said should fully examine police responsibility for unlawful killings during the episode, the Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies, the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights (EIPR), the Alkarama Foundation, and Human Rights Watch said today. Forty-two people, including two police officers, died after a court, on January 26, 2013, recommended sentencing 21 Port Said residents to death for killings after a soccer match a year earlier. The confirmation of this sentence and verdict against the remaining 52 defendants is scheduled for March 9.
Evidence gathered by the four groups indicates that the police began shooting when they came under fire on January 26, but continued shooting after the threat against them receded, killing and wounding a number of protestors and bystanders. The police also used lethal fire on the following two days, when the threat to life was unclear at best. After days of mass protests in Port Said over the killing of the protesters, Justice Minister Ahmed Mekki on February 18 appointed an investigative judge, Abdel Aziz Shaheen, to look into the incident. No charges have been brought against any police officer.
“President Mohamed Morsy should publicly acknowledge that the police’s right to use lethal force is not unlimited, even when they come under attack, and order the police to limit any use of force to what is strictly necessary,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “A lack of police reform, Mubarak-era laws that effectively give the police a free hand to use lethal force, and the lack of accountability mean we are seeing this kind of excessive response again and again.”
Unlawful lethal force by police has been a longstanding problem in Egypt as a result of Mubarak-era laws that allow the police wide discretion to use lethal force and firearms without creating any mechanism to hold them accountable when they abuse those powers.
The initial investigation by Port Said prosecutors was marred by procedural violations, including arbitrary detention and reports of torture, the organizations said. Prosecutors only started investigating the incident on January 29. The three-day delay handicapped the investigation from the start since prosecutors did not visit the scene or oversee autopsies. Most ominously, prosecutors failed to summon a single police officer for interrogation in connection with the police response, interrogating only the 36 residents arrested so far on charges of possession and use of firearms.
Researchers from the four groups visited Port Said for three days beginning on January 27, collecting witness evidence, visiting hospitals, and interviewing medical staff, forensic experts, the injured, and victims’ families. They also visited the sites of the shootings, reviewed video footage, and obtained autopsy reports and death certificates.
The picture that emerged suggests that up to seven unidentified men opened fire on police outside the Port Said prison on January 26. They opened fire shortly after a judge sentenced 21 local people to death at 10 a.m. after convicting them of responsibility for killings at a soccer stadium on February 1, 2012. The gunmen, some of whom used automatic weapons, killed two police officers and wounded 10 others in what the Interior Ministry claimed was an aborted prison break. It has not provided evidence to support this theory, however, and the account by witnesses the organizations interviewed does not support the ministry’s version. Police on the prison roof and grounds shot live ammunition, and by the end of the morning, the death toll stood at 28 – the two police officers and 26 people outside the prison.
Witnesses confirmed that the police continued to fire at people in the vicinity of the prison for up to an hour after the fire directed toward the police stopped, causing a number of deaths and injuries. At least five witnesses told the organizations that they saw police armored vehicles moving through streets far away from the prison, with police inside firing indiscriminately at bystanders, causing deaths and injuries.
A Port Said senior security official told one of the organizations: “None of those who were shooting at the police were killed. We are now arresting them based on the security camera footage.”
“On the current evidence, what may have started as an act of self-defense extended into unlawful use of force, as the police kept on firing long after the threat against them ended,” said Hossam Bahgat, director of the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights. “If so, the use of unlawful lethal force was merely the latest in a long list of cases in which Egypt’s police have exhibited a dangerous proclivity to exceed the laws that it is their duty to uphold.”
Over the next two days, there were further confrontations between police and protesters outside Al Arab and Al Manakh police stations, in which some protesters threw stones and Molotov cocktails at police who responded with heavy and indiscriminate live fire, resulting in the deaths of at least seven people. Police also fired tear gas at a funeral procession on January 27 for some of the victims of the previous day’s events after protesters threw stones at the gates of the police club, though four witnesses said there was no use of force against, or apparent threat, to the police. The tear gas caused mourners to flee, and at least 419 required hospital treatment for respiratory problems due to the teargas.
By the end of the three days, death toll had risen to 42, including the two police officers, and local hospitals had 874 people with injuries, according to the Health Ministry. The youngest of the dead, according to a review of official health directorate records, was 15-year-old Abdel Rahman Salama. Security officials moved the injured and dead police to police hospitals, and all others were treated in public hospitals in Port Said and other governorates.
“All too often, Egypt’s police appear to have resorted to extreme measures such as lethal fire when faced with public disorder, rather than using proportionate policing practices designed to defuse conflict and violence while upholding the law,” said Rachid Mesli, legal director of the Alkarama Foundation.
Dr. Abdelrahman Farah, director of Port Said hospitals at the Health Directorate, confirmed that the vast majority of the dead were killed by live ammunition. Most were shot in the upper half of the body, 11 in the head or the neck, and two in the back of the head. A forensic pathologist who conducted some of the autopsies said that apart from one man who died of a heart attack apparently brought on by over-exposure to teargas, all others had been shot with 7.62 caliber ammunition, which is used by the police but is also widely available on the black market.
The pathologist concluded that most of those killed on January 26 had been shot from a distance and from above, indicating that they may have been shot by police who were positioned on the roof of the prison and who fired at the crowds soon after the attack on the police began.
Neither the Interior Ministry nor the president has admitted any wrongdoing on the part of the police in Port Said. On the contrary, in his January 27 speech the president thanked the police and instructed them to respond with “the utmost firmness and strength” to any insecurity and violence, but made no mention of ensuring an investigation into excesses by the police. Instead, he declared a 30-day state of emergency and nightly curfew from 9 p.m. to 6 a.m., which residents promptly ignored with nightly marches and football matches.
The Egyptian authorities should ensure that the investigative judge conducts an independent and impartial investigation into the events in Port Said and that anyone against whom evidence is found of any crimes, including unlawful killings or use of force, is put on trial, the groups said. The investigation should include the role of any security officials who ordered and/or encouraged the response or failed to exercise proper control over the forces over the three days of violence. The victims of any human rights violations and their families should be adequately compensated.
“The Port Said events are a stark reminder of the desperate need to reform the police, starting with public and independent investigations into the Port Said killings,” said Ziad Abdel Tawab, deputy director of the Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies (CIHRS). “Unless there is sufficient political will to condemn such events and ensure accountability, the vicious cycle of excessive response and indiscriminate use of lethal force by the police to violence will continue.”
The Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies, the Egyptian Initiative for Human Rights, the Alkarama Foundation, and Human Rights Watch make the following recommendations to the Egyptian authorities:
- Ensure that the investigative judge conducts an independent and impartial investigation into the events in Port Said. Ensure that those against whom evidence is found of any crimes, including unlawful killings or use of force, are put on trial. Investigate the responsibility of any security officials who ordered and/or encouraged the response or failed to exercise proper control over the forces during the three days. Ensure that the victims of any human rights violations and their families are adequately compensated;
- Publish the report of the presidential fact-finding committee that investigated incidents of police violence against protesters between January 2011 and June 2012, and submitted its report to the president at the end of December 2012;
- Make reform of the Central Security Forces a priority. The president should review orders that Interior Ministry officials are giving troops at the street level and publicly order the ministry to comply with international standards for the use of force and firearms, in particular the UN Basic Principles on the Use of Force and Firearms;
- Amend article 102 of the 1971 Police Law No. 109 to limit the use of lethal force to cases of self-defense or the defense of others against the imminent threat of death or serious injury, to prevent a particularly serious crime involving grave threat to life, to arrest a person presenting such a danger and resisting their authority, or to prevent his or her escape, and only when less extreme means are insufficient to achieve these objectives. Consult with the UN special rapporteur on freedom of assembly and association about how to ensure the security of protesters and to regulate peaceful protests;
- Repeal the Interior Ministry Decree 156/1964, which permits the use of live ammunition to disperse demonstrations, and replace it with a decree that complies with international standards for maintaining security. The standards prohibit the use of firearms and live ammunition in confronting demonstrations and public disturbances, and require police in all other situations to use lethal force only to the extent strictly necessary to protect their lives or the lives of others;
- Amend the judicial authority law to ensure full independence of the public prosecutor’s office from the government; and
- Accept, with no further delay all pending visit requests by the United Nations thematic special rapporteurs and working groups, including the special rapporteurs on independence of judges and lawyers, on human rights defenders, on torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment, on the promotion and protection of human rights while countering terrorism, and on the rights to freedom of assembly and of association; the Working Group on Arbitrary Detention, and the Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances.
According to four witnesses the groups interviewed, several men opened fire on the prison with automatic weapons almost immediately after the announcement of the death sentences. One woman also described seeing a man ride past the prison on a motorcycle and shoot at it. The gunmen killed two police officers, identified as Ahmad Ashraf al-Balky and Ayman Abdel Azim, and wounded 10, the Interior Ministry reported, during an exchange of fire with police.
But witnesses said the police continued firing toward protesters and bystanders for up to an hour after the firing at the police had ceased, causing further casualties. Some police deployed on the roof of the prison. Others drove out of the prison in at least one armored vehicle from which they fired at protesters. A nurse who was on duty at the time at Port Said’s General Hospital said that the first casualties arrived soon after 10 a.m. but that most of those hit by bullets were already dead and appeared from their wounds to have been shot from above.
A journalist from Port Said who was at the scene from the start said:
Some people threw stones at the prison to which the police responded with tear gas. A few minutes later we heard gunfire. There were two or three people standing amongst the protesters shooting