Egypt urged to protect slum-dwellers after rockslide official acquitted

Amnesty International has called for decisive and inclusive action to protect people living in slums in Egypt after a senior Cairo city official was cleared of negligence over the deaths of at least 119 people in a rockslide in September 2008.A vice-governor of Cairo and a local authority employee had their sentences for causing deaths and injuries through negligence quashed by a Cairo appeal court on Tuesday. Six other local officials, including the head of Manshiyet Nasser Neighbourhood Authority at the time of the rockslide and one of his predecessors, had their sentences reduced to one year. The eight had been convicted in May. At least 119 people were killed and 55 were injured in the rockslide in Ezbet Bekhit informal settlement, in Manshiyet Nasser, east Cairo, in spite of attempts by the residents and experts to alert the authorities of the risk. “This ruling provides some answers but not the full truth to the survivors of the rockslide. It is a missed opportunity to ensure the right to an effective remedy is guaranteed for those living at risk in Egypt’s informal settlements and to ensure that officials act promptly to protect the lives of thousands of families living in Egypt’s ‘unsafe areas’,” said Hassiba Hadj Sahraoui, deputy director of Amnesty International’s Middle East and North Africa programme.”Only decisive action by Egyptian authorities in consultation with communities at risk can avert further disaster.” Ahmed Gharib Hamed, a survivor who lost eight relatives in the rockslide told Amnesty International: “The engineers deserved a greater punishment because they knew of the mountain’s danger… As well we wanted the big people who sit in their comfortable office [to be punished]…We hoped from God that all of them will be punished”.On 26 May 2010, the Manshiyet Nasser Court of Misdemeanours sentenced the vice-governor of Cairo to five years in prison. The seven other defendants were each sentenced to three years’ imprisonment. They all remained free on bail pending appeal. An investigation by the public prosecution found that local officials had been warned about the danger of a rockslide by expert reports in 2007 and 2008. These reports had recommended that residents be evacuated for their safety.Survivors of the rockslide and relatives of those who died or were injured can now file compensation cases before civil courts for physical harm. However, those who lost their homes after they were evacuated from the area where the rockslide took place are not able to seek civil compensation.Amnesty International has campaigned for justice for the victims of the Al-Duwayqa rockslide and for the evacuation of thousands of poor residents who are forced to live in inadequate and unsafe housing in unstable hillside locations. Such forced evictions have led to many people being left homeless or receiving only inadequate alternative housing. No consultations over resettlement have been carried out, while evictees don’t get prior notice of eviction or told whether they will be provided with alternative housing. “A full remedy requires Egyptian authorities to alleviate the threats to lives in areas in Greater Cairo that city planning authorities have designated as unsafe. City authorities must also act to protect residents’ rights to health and adequate housing,” said Hassiba Hadj Sahraoui.The Egyptian authorities have identified 35 “unsafe areas” in Egypt that require immediate intervention to safeguard people’s lives, 16 of which are in Cairo, mostly in Manshiyet Nasser and Old Cairo’s informal settlements. Plans to deal with these areas are developed without genuine consultation with the affected communities.By June 2010, 14,800 families were living in imminent danger of death in Manshiyet Nasser alone, according to the estimates of Cairo authorities.  About 9,100 families from the neighbourhood have been relocated to alternative housing since the rockslide of 2008, although in many cases there were concerns that they had been forcibly evicted.