Egypt may have faked a counter-insurgency raid and broadcast the footage to cover up the extrajudicial killings of between four and 10 men, Human Rights Watch said in a new report published on Friday.
In January, the ministry of interior released a heavily edited piece of footage entitled: “The death of 10 terrorist elements during a gunfight with security forces in North Sinai”.
The video, which had no audio, claimed to show commandos approaching a house – a clip filmed inside shows the bloodstained bodies of several men lying on the floor, and walls riddled with bullet holes.
Earlier in the day the interior ministry had put out a statement saying that security forces had tracked suspected IS fighters to an abandoned house in al-Arish, the capital of the North Sinai governorate.
There, the statement said, the forces came under fire as they prepared to raid the property – in the exchange of fire, all 10 suspects inside were killed, the statement said.
However, two military experts contacted by Human Rights Watch reviewed the video and concluded that it was likely to have been staged.
One part of the footage showed the commandos under floodlights as they approached the house, leading the experts to conclude that the video had not been filmed during a real raid.
Stefan Schmitt, head of the international forensic programme Physicians for Human Rights, also said that the position of the blood and bodies suggested that at least one of the bodies had been moved before filming began.
Family members of three of the dead men – Ahmed Rashid, Mansour Gamaa and Mohamed Ayoub – and the lawyer of a fourth told Human Rights Watch that the men had been arrested without warrants in October and November 2016, several months before the reported raid.
Two of the men’s families sent telegrams to the authorities at the time enquiring about their relatives’ whereabouts, but never received a response.
Human Rights Watch collected extensive testimonies from the men’s families, who allege that their relatives’ bodies bore marks of torture when they viewed them at a morgue in January.
Other former detainees told the families that they had seen the men at the local branch of the National Security Agency, run by the interior ministry, before their deaths.
Human Rights Watch says the raid, and allegations of torture and extrajudicial killings, pointed to “total impunity” in the restive and impoverished Sinai Peninsula, where security forces are battling to put down an insurgency.
“These apparent extrajudicial killings reveal total impunity for Egypt’s security forces in the Sinai Peninsula under President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi’s counterterrorism policies,” said Joe Stork, deputy Middle East and North Africa director at Human Rights Watch.
“Prosecutors need to conduct a full and transparent investigation to get to the bottom of what appear to be grave abuses.”
Journalists and human rights researchers face severe restrictions on reporting from North Sinai, which is under strict curfew and is considered a military zone.