On the first anniversary of bloody clashes that took place on Mohamed Mahmoud Street, President Mohamed Morsi’s commitment to police reform and accountability undergoes a difficult test, Human Rights Watch said Monday, as the victims’ families await justice.
Last year, clashes that occurred on November 19 through 24 between protesters and security forces left 45 people dead and hundreds injured in an “example of impunity for police violence against protesters, against the background of the recent acquittals of police officers, following poor investigations, for protester deaths in January 2011,” HRW’s statement read.
Whether there will be justice for victims of the Mohamed Mahmoud protest is a key test for Morsi, HRW said.
The rights watchdog urges the president to use the anniversary to put an end to police impunity.
“Since January 2011, the police have been literally getting away with murder, again and again,” Nadim Houry, deputy Middle East director at Human Rights Watch, said, urging Morsi to initiate a comprehensive process of police reform to prevent further abuse.
The 5-day clashes broke out after Central Security Forces forcibly dispersed a sit-in held by the revolution’s martyrs’ families in Tahrir Square.
The clashes were marked by the excessive use of teargas, rubber pellets and bullets that cost a large number of protesters their eyes.
Human Rights Watch confirmed that 22 protesters were shot with live bullets and three others died as a result of asphyxiation from teargas.
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Testimonies collected by HRW confirm that security forces were aiming at protesters’ heads. Doctors at the public hospital closest to the scene of the clashes also told the rights group that the vast majority of injured protesters they treated had been shot in the chest, neck, or face with rubber bullets, and that 60 people had arrived with eye injuries.
HRW therefore demands that any investigation into the clashes look into whether police aimed at protesters’ heads with rubber pellets and bullets – an extreme form of crowd control that is supposed to be shot at the legs since it can easily blind people if aimed at the face.
HRW also urges the investigation into reported incidents of beating and torture of protesters and journalists.
Only one police officer was referred to trial on charges of attempted murder and intention to permanently maim when he appeared in a video circulated online that explicitly shows him firing into the crowd.
On the other hand, police had arrested dozens of protesters whose verdict is scheduled for December 15 by the Cairo Criminal Court. The defendants are accused of burning down real estate tax offices and setting fire to police cars, as well as injuring police officers and damaging the facade of the American University in Cairo’s downtown campus.
On his part, Morsi set up a fact-finding committee last July to look into “measures taken by executive branches of government and the extent to which they cooperated with the judicial authorities and any shortcomings that may exist.” The committee is expected to investigate the Mohamed Mahmoud clashes and submit a report with recommendations for accountability by the end of the year.
He had also issued a decision last month to pardon all but one of the 379 defendants facing trial for violent incidents that took place during the January 25 revolution and under the rule of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces. Whether this will force the judge to pardon the Mohamed Mahmoud defendants on December 15 remains unclear.
“All police officers responsible for killing, blinding, injuring, and torturing protesters at Mohamed Mahmoud need to be prosecuted and punished if Egypt is serious about deterring these abusive practices,” Houry was quoted as saying in the statement. “It’s equally important to carry out a fundamental reform of regulations and practices on security force use of lethal and nonlethal weapons and on how they should police demonstrations in line with human rights standards.”
Houry warns that such violence will remain systematic unless the security sector undergoes fundamental reform. “The police don’t appear to know how to control a crowd without using excessive force, while the absence of prosecutions sends them the message that they were justified at Mohamed Mahmoud,” he said.