Testimonies gathered by Amnesty International indicate that Egyptian security forces used excessive force to crack down on student demonstrations at Alexandria University this week, injuring at least 35 students and leaving three other students in a critical condition. Two security officers were injured during the clashes according to official figures.
Students interviewed by Amnesty International described how protests that started peacefully on university grounds later descended into violence. Security forces stationed outside the university’s main gate fired tear gas and shotgun pellets at a crowd of students, some of whom hurled ‘hmarich’ (fireworks), Molotov cocktails and stones. It is not clear how the clashes began but as they intensified, security forces broke down the main gate storming the university premises, chasing students and continuing to fire at them.
“The Egyptian security forces have a bleak record of using arbitrary and abusive force against protesters including students. The lack of accountability for such violations, including unlawful killings, gives them the green light to carry on brutalizing protesters,” said Hassiba Hadj Sahraoui, Amnesty International’s Deputy Director for the Middle East and North Africa.
The demonstrations at Alexandria University began in the early afternoon on 14 October when around 500 students gathered to protest against security measures introduced by the university’s new security agency ‘Falcon’. The agency has been contracted by the Ministry of Higher Education to maintain security in 15 universities across Egypt. The new security measures imposed include searches at the university gates, stricter policies on male and female students mixing and the power to stop and search students on the university campus at any time. The students were also protesting against the unfair trials and prolonged detention of fellow students arrested during previous demonstrations.
One student told Amnesty International how security forces stationed outside the main gate had shot at students protesting on campus nearby. “They started firing tear gas followed by shotgun pellets. The pellets were raining down on us and I could see students around me getting injured. We were suffocated by the tear gas and ran away moving further inside the university campus,” he said.
Another student recounted how security forces who had broken down the main gate chased students who sought refuge in the Mechanical Engineering department building.
“They were even following us with their armoured vehicles inside the university campus,” he said. “They started to shoot pellets and I saw my friend Abdel Rahman Abdel Aziz shot in his mouth and eye, I carried him inside the Mechanical Engineering building with the help of other colleagues to seek protection, but the security forces followed us and continued to shoot tear gas and pellets inside the building.”
Another student who was inside the building told Amnesty International: “We were inside on the ground floor of the Mechanical Engineering department building. Security forces were shooting pellets and tear gas inside the building, they broke the glass of the windows of the ground floor and continued firing tear gas. They also fired pellets through gaps in the iron bars of the door to the building.”
Evidence collected by Amnesty International indicates that the security forces shot tear gas inside the building and used firearms and pellets, randomly against students when it was not necessary. One of the students injured during the incident, Omar Abdelwahab, is in a critical condition after sustaining pellet shots in his neck and both eyes.
“The government must act urgently to rein in the security forces,” said Hassiba Hadj Sahraoui.
Any use of force in the policing of demonstrations, even when they have turned violent or are regarded by the authorities as illegal, must comply with international law. The use of force by security forces is prohibited by international law except as strictly necessary and to the extent required for them to perform their duty. Firearms may only be used as a last resort in self-defence or to protect others against the imminent threat of death or serious injury. Tear gas should not be fired at protesters inside buildings.
Widespread student protests against the repressive practices of the current government have rocked Egypt since the academic year began on 11 October and have been met by a fierce response from the authorities. At least 200 students across the country have been arrested during demonstrations and 90 have been injured according to Marsad Tolab Horreya (Student Freedom Observatory), an Egyptian student group that has been documenting violations during university protests.
At least 150 students were arrested during the protests at Alexandria University. Twenty-two remain in detention on vague or groundless charges including participating in protests without authorization.
All those arrested merely for peacefully exercising their right to freedom of expression and peaceful assembly, must be released immediately and unconditionally with all charges against them dropped.
“Across the world, universities have provided a fertile ground for debates and dissent. This should be praised as a sign of a vibrant youth activism rather than crushed,” said Hassiba Hadj Sahraoui.
Where there is sufficient evidence of violent criminal activity against any protester, they must be tried only on recognizably criminal charges in proceedings that conform to international standards on fair trials.
Sixteen of the detained students have been accused of attempting to murder two students who were injured during the protests. The 16 students are also facing charges such as injuring two police officers, protesting without authorization, destroying public property and belonging to a banned group. These are felony crimes under Egyptian law and may be punished by up to 15 years in prison.
The six other students detained are accused of belonging to a banned group, protesting without authorization, possessing weapons and destroying public property. These are considered misdemeanours punishable by up to three years in prison. The prosecutor ordered the detention of the two groups on 16 October for 15 days.