Human Rights Watch has warned of the risk of further killings as Egypt’s security forces threaten to forcibly disperse sit-ins, after an investigation led the rights group to conclude that many of the protesters killed in Rabea al-Adaweya on July 27 were shot in the head or chest.
“Opening deadly fire for hours on end is no way to respond to civilians who are mainly throwing stones and teargas canisters,” Nadim Houry, deputy Middle East and North Africa director at Human Rights Watch, said in a statement released early Sunday.
“If this is the new leadership’s idea of a ‘lawful’ response, it sets a very grim tone for days to come.
Dozens of people from the Rabea al-Adaweya sit-in were killed in the early hours of Saturday after clashes ensued when police stopped an attempt to block a nearby bridge.
The death toll varies according to different sources. According to Rabea al-Adaweya’s official count, 127 were killed, of which 61 are lying clinically dead in hospitals. The Health Ministry said that 72 were killed.
Protesters have been camped at Rabea for a month and are demanding the reinstatement of former President Mohamed Morsi, who was deposed on July 3 by an army ultimatum after mass opposition protests called on him to resign.
According to the HRW report, “Many of the at least 74 pro-Morsi protesters killed in clashes with Egypt’s riot police and plain clothed men who stood alongside were shot in the head or chest. They were killed on July 27 over a period of several hours during clashes on a road near the Muslim Brotherhood’s sit-in at Rabaa al-Adawiya in eastern Cairo.”
HRW says the police’s use of violence comes days after “official statements threatening severe responses to deal with the Muslim Brotherhood protests.”
The report points to Defense Minister Abdel Fattah al-Sisi’s call on July 24 for Egyptians to protest on Friday July 26 to authorize him to confront potential violence and “terrorism.” It also cites a statement made by Interior Minister Mohamed Ibrahim early on July 27 that ministry would clear pro-Morsi protests at Giza’s Nahda Square and at Rabea “in a legal way.”
Similarly, Interim President AdlyMansour said in a television interview that the government “cannot accept security disorder, cutting roads and bridges, attacking public buildings. The state has to impose order by all force and decisiveness.”
Houry said in the HRW statement that “The use of deadly fire on such a scale so soon after the interim president announced the need to impose order by force suggests a shocking willingness by the police and by certain politicians to ratchet up violence against pro-Morsi protesters.”
“It is almost impossible to imagine that so many killings would take place without an intention to kill, or at least a criminal disregard for people’s lives,” he added.
HRW based its report on seven witnesses to the violence and a review of extensive video footage of the events.
“Medical staff interviewed by Human Rights Watch judged some of the deaths to be targeted killings because the position of the shots would likely result in death,” the statement said.
At a press conference Saturday where the Interior Ministry presented its account of the clashes, Ibrahim said protesters attacked security forces with live ammunition and pellets when tear gas was used to disperse protesters heading toward October 6 Bridge.
He denied the use of live ammunition and said that police had only used tear gas to disperse protesters, adding that Brotherhood members are responsible for igniting the clashes to gain sympathy.
In its report, HRW says that according to the seven witnesses and the footage, the clashes between pro-Morsi supporters and police accompanied by men dressed in civilian clothes began at approximately 11 pm, as protesters approached the ramp of the October 6 Bridge leading to Nasr Road. The use of tear gas was dense and live ammunition was fired into the crowd, according to eyewitnesses, while field doctors said most shots were fired toward heads and chests.
“Egypt’s military and civilian interim rulers should immediately order an end to the use of live gunfire except where strictly necessary to protect life,” HRW said.
HRW added that it has documented the shooting of protesters with live ammunition and birdshot by security forces over the past several years, and in the events during and since the January 2011 uprising, including the Mohamed Mahmoud protests and in January 2013 in Port Said.
“Under international human rights standards applicable to Egypt at all times, law enforcement officials need to take all reasonable steps to protect lives, especially when aware of specific threats. But they may only use intentional lethal force when it is strictly necessary to protect life,” HRW said.
“Both the past excessive use of lethal force and police failure to minimize casualties during protests indicate the pressing need for security sector reform and accountability for abuses perpetrated by the police and military.”