Egypt: Rare protests met with unlawful force and mass arrests
Egyptian security forces have used teargas, batons, birdshot and on at least one occasion live ammunition, and arrested hundreds of protestors and bystanders to disperse rare scattered demonstrations over several days, Amnesty International said today.
Sources told Amnesty International that security forces killed two men, while hundreds were subjected to arbitrary arrests and enforced disappearances. At least 496 individuals are currently in detention as a result of the crackdown, according to a coalition of human rights lawyers, pending investigations on flawed "terrorism" and protest related charges.
The fact that these protesters took to the streets while knowing the very high risk to their lives and safety they were taking shows how desperate they were to demand their economic and social rights.
The organization interviewed eyewitnesses, lawyers and reviewed video evidence of the protests, which erupted across several poor rural and urban communities across the country primarily against housing demolitions in Egypt in mid-September.
“The fact that these protesters took to the streets while knowing the very high risk to their lives and safety they were taking shows how desperate they were to demand their economic and social rights. Videos showing policemen firing birdshot at fleeing people indicate a total disregard for international policing standards. We are also gravely concerned about the deployment of officers with rifles, which are generally unsuitable for policing protests and presents an undue risk to human life. The authorities must urgently investigate the death of the two men,” said Philip Luther, Amnesty International's Middle East and North Africa Research and Advocacy Director.
“Hundreds of people are now in detention, including many who were not even involved in the protests. The authorities have yet again resorted to their usual tactics of violence and mass arrests to send a clear message that no form of protest will betolerated. We call on the authorities to immediately and unconditionally release all those detained solely for exercising their rights to freedom of expression and peaceful assembly.”
Over the last two weeks in September, small and scattered protests took place in several villages, towns and poor urban communities in Egypt, where protesters took to the streets against the government's policy of demolishing unregistered houses and a law on reconciliation for unregistered houses. Some protestors also voiced chants against president Abdelfattah al-Sisi and protested the killing of one man in Luxor. The cabinet's spokesman stated on 26 September that there had been protests in a village in Giza in relation to economic concerns. In addition, former army contractor Mohamed Ali had once again called for protests against president Abdelfatah al-Sisi on 20 September. Last year protestors had taken to the streets en masse on the same day but the authorities crushed the protests using force and arrested thousands.
Use of unnecessary force
Amnesty International spoke to some individuals who had been briefly detained, families of current detainees, and lawyers who represented hundreds of defendants, as well as reviewing documentation by local human rights organizations and analyzing video evidence.
The evidence shows that security forces fired birdshot (commonly referred to as khartoush), tear gas and, in at least one instance, live rounds at protesters, leading to injuries.
The authorities have yet again resorted to their usual tactics of violence and mass arrests to send a clear message that no form of protest will betolerated.
According to information received by Amnesty International, one man, Samy Beshir, was killed in al-Ayat, to the south of Cairo, on 25 September, after being shot by security forces. A medical source confirmed to German media that the man had died from injuries by birdshot, however security forces denied using birdshot to disperse this protest. Another man, Owais al-Rawi was killed on 30 September, after being shot at his home during a police raid according to sources.
Videos of seven protests that took place in Giza, Dumiyat, Minya, Qena and Luxor show that protests were mostly peaceful, though in some instances, protesters damaged and burned police cars or threw stones at security forces. Egyptian media reported that two policemen were wounded in al-Basateen, Cairo.
In a video filmed on 23 September in Kafr Qandil village to the south of Cairo, gunshots can be heard and two policemen are seen carrying guns. One carries a Kalashnikov, which only fires live rounds, and the other a shotgun which can fire non-lethal rounds. No protesters were seen with firearms. The use of firearms by law enforcement is only lawful where doing so is strictly necessary to prevent imminent death or serious injury. They are not suitable for public order policing, such as the policing of protests. Furthermore, weapons that fire numerous bullets at quick successions such as a Kalashnikov are completely inappropriate for policing assemblies.
In another video verified dated to 25 September in Dumiyat, to the north of Cairo, policemen are seen attacking unarmed protestors with batons and shooting shotguns at them as they are running away. Birdshot is only fired from shotguns, and not other police firearms.
In four verified videos, policemen are seen attacking protestors and firing birdshot from the top of armored vehicles at running protesters and tear gas on 30 September in Luxor, in the south of Egypt as protestors held a public funeral for Owais al-Rawi.
Several of those detained during and after protests had wounds from birdshot including in their backs.
Standard police shotguns can fire a variety of ammunition. Some varieties, like kinetic impact projectiles, are acceptable for use in very specific circumstances. But birdshot should never be used. Like the pellets in air rifles, birdshot is also used in hunting. However, instead of a single projectile, a cartridge of birdshot contains dozens of bb sized (3mm diameter) balls, that cause distinctive, and potentially deadly, injuries in a spray pattern. Birdshot wounds near vital organs in the face and torso are particularly dangerous.
Egyptian security forces have a history of firing birdshot at peaceful protesters including at close range, resulting in fatalities and serious injuries like ruptures of the eye globe. Due to their multiple projectiles there is also a high risk that birdshot will injure bystanders close by to the person being aimed at by the police.
According to international law enforcement standards, police may use force only when strictly necessary and proportionate, and only to the extent strictly required for the performance of their duty. Police must apply non-violent means before resorting to the use of force. If the use of force is unavoidable, they must use it with restraint and in proportion to the seriousness of the law enforcement objective.
Arbitrary arrests and detention
Between 10 and 29 September, Egyptian police arrested between 571 and 735 individuals in 17 governorates, according to information collected by the Egyptian Commission for Rights and Freedoms, Defense and the Egyptian Front for Human Rights. Lawyers told Amnesty International that those arrested are aged between 11 and 65 years old. Three women are among those arrested.
We call on the authorities to immediately and unconditionally release all those detained solely for exercising their rights to freedom of expression and peaceful assembly.
In the lead up to one-year anniversary of anti-government protests on 20 September, police forces in Cairo stopped individuals walking in the streets, particularly in downtown Cairo, and ordered them to hand over their phones for police to search. Some of those stopped during these random searches were released after being detained and questioned by security forces over the content of their phones or personal lives.
One man who was stopped by policemen in downtown Cairo told Amnesty International that when he refused to unlock his phone, they held him in a police car, insulted him, and threatened him with detention and prosecution, before letting him go. Others, including bystanders, were arrested from or near protests, and some people were arrested from their homes over comments they made on their social media accounts calling for protests or criticizing the government's policies in relation to the demolition of houses.
According to lawyers and families, those arrested were taken to various police stations, Central Security Forces camps, and some were taken to locations controlled by the National Security Agency, a specialized police force. For periods between one and ten days, security forces denied having them in custody and did not allow them to communicate with the outside world.
Lawyers of defendants told Amnesty International that some defendants reported to prosecutors being subjected to electric shocks, beaten, threatened with prolonged detention and insulted by security forces. This constitutes torture or other ill-treatment. Detainees were then taken to the Cairo headquarters of the Supreme State Security Prosecution (SSSP), a special branch of the Public Prosecution responsible for prosecuting cases of terrorism and national security.
At least 115 remain detained in undisclosed locations, according to information gathered by the Egyptian Commission for Rights and Freedoms. Lawyers told Amnesty International that the security forces claimed to prosecutors that all arrests took place on 20 September, regardless of whether defendants were actually arrested before or after that date.
According to lawyers, prosecutors questioned defendants about their participation in the protests, their social media posts, their political beliefs and their positions in relation to the housing demolitions and the buildings reconciliation law. Prosecutors did not allow lawyers or defendants to examine the National Security Agency (NSA) investigations files against them and did not present any other evidence against most of them, solely relying on the NSA investigations files.
Lawyers said that prosecutors told defendants they were being investigated on various charges, including "membership in a terrorist group", "misusing social media", "spreading false news", "funding a terrorist group", "participating in illegal assemblies" and "inciting illegal protests". Prosecutors ordered that all those interrogated be detained for 15 days.
On 27 September, the Public Prosecution ordered the release of 68 detained children in relation to the recent "riots". According to information collected by Amnesty International, only children under the age of 15 were released while older children continue to be detained.
The Public Prosecution announced continuing investigations in the case, but did not provide further information on the number of people detained or charges they are being investigated for.