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HRW: Suspicious Killings and Extrajudicial Executions by Egyptian Security Forces

This report covers a pattern of suspicious killings and probable extrajudicial executions by Egyptian Interior Ministry forces of people who at the moment of their deaths apparently posed no life-threatening danger to security forces or others, and so amounted to deliberate and unlawful killings. In all of the cases documented here, the individuals appear to have been in custody prior to being killed and some were forcibly disappeared by National Security Agency forces.

Following the military ouster of President Mohamed Morsy in July 2013, and particularly after the August 2013 violent dispersal of the pro-Morsy Rab’a sit-in when security forces killed at least 817 protesters in one day, Egypt witnessed a sharp rise in violent attacks by an array of armed Islamist groups, against security forces, government facilities, and civilians. Government and Interior Ministry statements almost always blamed these attacks on the Muslim Brotherhood, one of Egypt’s oldest and largest Islamist organization to which Morsy belonged and which was outlawed in 2013 following the military takeover.

Under the pretext of combating terrorism, President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi’s government has effectively given the Interior Ministry’s police and National Security Agency free rein to suppress all opposition, including peaceful dissent, with near-absolute impunity for grave abuses. The result has been one of the worst prolonged human rights crises in the country’s recent history. Much of the reporting by human rights groups and investigative journalists has focused on the extralegal killings of peaceful protesters, mass arbitrary arrests, forced disappearances, and ill-treatment and torture in custody. This report looks at the suspicious killings and the probable extrajudicial executions of detained persons, most of whom had been in secret detention.

Between January 2015 and December 2020, according to 123 Interior Ministry statements and pro-government media reports citing unnamed security officials, security forces killed at least 755 alleged “militants” or “terrorists” in 143 alleged shootouts or gun battles in 19 governorates across the country. In most of these statements the authorities said those killed were members of the Muslim Brotherhood. Thirty-one of these incidents, involving the killings of 297 alleged militants, were in Egypt’s North Sinai. Human Rights Watch has previously documented extrajudicial killings in North Sinai and this report focuses only on mainland Egypt. These incidents proliferated after President al-Sisi in June 2015 called for “swift justice” following major violent attacks.

This report documents the suspicious and probable extrajudicial execution of 14 individuals in 9 alleged shootout incidents in mainland Egypt in which, according to Interior Ministry statements, security forces killed a total of 75 men of whom only 21 were named. Human Rights Watch examined the Interior Ministry’s statements regarding these 9 incidents, including analysis of the few photographs and videos available, and interviews with acquaintances or family members of 14 of those killed. All evidence indicates that these were probable extrajudicial executions.

The Interior Ministry statements rarely contained any meaningful information about the circumstances of these incidents, and only occasionally provided photographs or even names of those killed. “Security forces dealt with the source of fire” or “security forces dealt with them,” was the justification cited for the overwhelming majority of these killings. The statements typically claimed that security forces, based on intelligence gathered by the National Security Agency, were approaching a “terrorist hideout” when the alleged militants opened fire, requiring security forces to return fire. The result in almost every case was the deaths of all the alleged suspects. Human Rights Watch’s analysis of the 123 official and quasi-official statements found that only one suspect was reported to have been captured alive in the 143 alleged shootouts while security forces casualties (47 wounded and 5 killed) were reported in only 10 of those alleged gun battles.

Operating with near-total impunity and lack of scrutiny of any sort, the Interior Ministry appeared not to care much whether its statements were convincing. They were often suspiciously pro-forma and sometimes incoherent. In one incident documented in this report, a pro-government newspaper had reported the arrest of a man and his subsequent interrogation over a week before the Interior Ministry subsequently claimed its forces killed him in a shootout. In another incident, the Interior Ministry announced the arrest of nine unnamed suspects of what they called the “special operations unit” of the Muslim Brotherhood in the morning, and in the evening said nine unnamed “terrorists” of the same unit were killed in a shootout.

For a multitude of reasons, including the government’s severe restrictions on independent reporting, relentless efforts to silence human rights groups, and the lack of independence and inefficiency of Egypt’s prosecution authorities in investigating the alleged shootouts, it is not possible to reach definite conclusions about many of these killings. However, Human Rights Watch found that the incidents documented in this report establish a clear pattern of apparently unlawful extrajudicial executions, in many cases of detainees who had previously been forcibly disappeared or who at the time of the killing posed no imminent danger to security forces or others.

In all nine alleged shootouts examined in this report, the statements did not indicate that any member of the security forces was killed or wounded. Members of eight of the 14 families said they saw what they believed were signs of abuse on the bodies of their killed relatives. In all 14 cases, family members said their killed relatives had been arrested and were in the custody of security agencies before the incidents in which they were reportedly killed. Eight of the 14 families said they or other people, including friends or acquaintances, had witnessed the arrest. Thirteen of the 14 families said their relative had been forcibly disappeared and that they had officially inquired about their whereabouts before their killing. Twelve families said they sent telegrams or letters to authorities, frequently the Interior Ministry or prosecution. Human Rights Watch reviewed copies of the telegrams in six of the cases.

Only one family said that the police informed them about the killing of their relative the next day; all the other 13 families said they received no official notice or information at any point. All the families but one said they had to actively seek information about the deaths and the location of the bodies of their relatives. The family of one man was only able to collect his body after two months, and families of two of those killed have not been able to collect their bodies since December 2018. At least 11 families said National Security officers intimidated and harassed them when they tried to locate the bodies of their relatives. Seven families said security forces escorted them from the morgue to the burial site to force them to bury their relatives without any funeral service, fearing that the family would photograph the body or that the funeral would turn into a spontaneous protest.

No family received a forensic or autopsy report or any further documents or information from the authorities about the circumstances of the killings or alleged shootouts, even though nine of the bodies appeared to have been dissected for autopsy. Authorities called none of the families to have a representative present during autopsy. Five families said they had still not received the death certificates as of time of writing.

Human Rights Watch found no record that authorities have opened any serious or meaningful investigations into any of the incidents documented in this report. All families said they had not been summoned for questioning as possible witnesses or otherwise requested to provide information that would indicate that any serious investigation was opened.

Only one family said their killed relative probably had been involved in armed activity. All the other families said their relatives had not been engaged in violence or political activity. Two families said their two relatives were killed during a journey to flee persecution in Egypt via its southern border with Sudan.

From official statements and the families’ accounts, it appears that the victims in these killings were men whom the security agencies believed belonged to, assisted, or financed violent, armed groups that emerged in the aftermath of the 2013 military coup such as Hasm and Liwa’ al-Thawra, regardless of evidence, and which the authorities said were armed branches of the Muslim Brotherhood. Analysis of the photographs and videos in three cases demonstrates the absence of evidence supporting the Interior Ministry’s narrative and that bodies had been moved before being photographed. Three other photographs analyzed, including one concerning a case documented in this report, the hands of three deceased men that appear to have been restrained or cuffed immediately before their death. Another photo shows that a gun appeared to have been placed next to one of the men to stage a shootout. Arbitrary arrests and enforced disappearances violate international law and Egypt’s constitution, which requires that all detainees be brought before a prosecutor within 24 hours. Egyptian laws do not explicitly define enforced disappearance, and insufficiently define and punish torture.

The right to life is an inherent non-derogable human right, regardless of the circumstances, even in times of armed conflict or states of emergency. Summary, extrajudicial, or arbitrary executions are clearly prohibited under international law, including the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights, to which Egypt is a state party.

Except for brief periods between 2012 and 2017, Egyptian security forces have been operating for four decades, since 1981, under a nationwide state of emergency as Egypt’s draconian emergency law grants them unchecked powers. Since 2013, new laws further normalized abuses and lack of accountability in violation of the most basic international norms and standards. The 2015 counterterrorism law, for instance, includes an overly broad, abusive, definition of terrorism. It also gives security personnel full discretion to use force without judicial oversight, and immunizes them from criminal investigation even in cases where this use results in loss of life.

In the incidents documented in this report, Egyptian authorities failed to present any evidence or records indicating that use of lethal force was required. All available evidence suggests the contrary. Even when an exchange of fire may be justified, there are clear restrictions and obligations that Egyptian security forces appear to have violated.

Under international law, such as the 1990 UN Basic Principles on the Use of Force and Firearms by Law Enforcement Officials, the use of potentially lethal force such as firearms is an “extreme measure” that should be only considered when “strictly necessary in order to protect life or prevent serious injury from an imminent threat.” It cannot, for example, be lawfully used to prevent the escape of a suspect or convict if that person did not pose an imminent threat. When unavoidable, officers should only use firearms with a view to “minimize damage and injury, and respect and preserve human life.” Officers should also ensure that medical aid is provided to wounded individuals as soon as possible. In none of the incidents documented in this report did the Interior Ministry say it had ordered ambulance services.

Given the potentially grave consequences of the use of lethal force, the UN Basic Principles require that law enforcement officials report in detail, and in a timely fashion, details of incidents in which officers used firearms and killed or wounded others. Such reporting includes ensuring that “relatives or close friends of the injured or affected person are notified at the earliest possible moment.”

According to the Basic Principles and other instruments of international law, in all cases involving use of firearms by officials persons affected and, in case of death, families of the deceased “shall have access to an independent process, including a judicial process.” Regarding the incidents investigated in this report, the authorities permitted families little or no access to police or forensic reports, relevant documents or information, or independent judicial or administrative redress mechanisms. Photographs that the Interior Ministry occasionally published of the alleged shootout scenes appeared to show that bodies of the deceased had been moved and that the basic elements of preserving the crime scene were not met.

The 2016 updated UN Manual on the Effective Prevention and Investigation of Extra-legal, Arbitrary and Summary Executions, widely known as the Minnesota Protocol, offers step-by-step guidelines and principles that governments should apply in investigating any potentially unlawful deaths.

According to the protocol’s guidelines, the duty to investigate is “triggered” not only in a clear case of unlawful death, but also where there are “reasonable allegations of a potentially unlawful death.” The duty to investigate is applicable even if authorities do not receive a formal complaint. For persons in detention centers, as at least nine of the individuals whose killings are documented in this report appear to have been, the Protocol states: “Owing to the control exercised by the State over those it holds in custody, there is a general presumption of state responsibility in such cases… .”

Of relevance to the cases of killings documented in this report is the obligation of the authorities to identify, summon, and interview all possible witnesses. This should include door-to-door visits and inquiries in the area surrounding the killings and any other physical location of importance to the investigation.

Steps the Egyptian authorities have taken concerning the killings documented in this report do not even begin to comply with the most basic elements of the protocol’s guidelines, even in the most superficial sense. The Interior Ministry almost always claimed that any investigations into alleged shootouts were handled by the Supreme State Security Prosecution (SSSP), the branch of the general prosecution that typically rubber-stamps security forces’ allegations and almost never investigates accounts of torture or enforced disappearance.

The Prosecutor General should remove the SSSP from overseeing investigations into possible security forces abuses. President al-Sisi should direct the Justice Ministry to create an independent committee with sufficient resources and authority to promptly carry out thorough and impartial investigations into all killings by Interior Ministry forces including possible extrajudicial executions.

This report should be read in the context of previous reporting by Human Rights Watch and other groups, providing evidence of the continuing grave abuses committed by authorities in Egypt, particularly by the Interior Ministry and its National Security Agency, including systematic, widespread arbitrary detentions, enforced disappearances, and torture.

Human Rights Watch calls on the UN Human Rights Council to establish an independent international mechanism to monitor and report on the human rights situation in Egypt, and to investigate grave human rights violations and security forces’ abuses including but not limited to extrajudicial executions, torture, and enforced disappearances.

Given the level of abuses by Egypt’s Interior Ministry and military forces, documented in this and previous reports, including in North Sinai, Egypt’s international partners should halt all security and military assistance and weapons transfers to the Egyptian government and condition their resumption on an end to grave human rights abuses and transparent investigations of serious crimes. They should also impose targeted sanctions on officials and entities responsible for such ongoing abuses, and where possible, investigate them under universal jurisdiction principles.

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