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HRW: Sisi must be investigated for crimes against humanity

New Human Rights Watch report holds Sisi personally responsible for Rabaa massacre and other gross human rights violations
Egyptian soldiers walk among the ruins of Rabaa mosque after the dispersal of protesters on 14 August (AFP)

Egyptian President Abdel Fatah al-Sisi is responsible for the massacre of protesters in Egypt in July and August 2013, Human Rights Watch (HRW) has said in a damning new report released on Tuesday. 

The report is being launched virtually, after two of the group’s senior officials were denied entry into Egypt on Monday - a move that many analysts believe is linked to the controversial report.  

As well as Sisi, the comprehensive report titled 'The Rab’a massacre and mass killings of protesters in Egypt' details the involvement of Egyptian Interior Minister Mohamed Ibrahim and police special forces head Medhat Menshawy, among others.

The report concludes that these key figures, including Sisi who at the time commanded the army, were directly responsible for what international prosecutors and investigators say could well amount to crimes against humanity. Such a link would be crucial if the case was ever brought before an international court.

According to the report, the conduct of the Egyptian security and military apparatuses “indicates that police and army forces systematically and intentionally used excessive lethal force in their policing, resulting in killings of protesters on a scale unprecedented in Egypt.”

The product of a year-long investigation, and published near the anniversary of the so-called Rabaa massacre on 14 August, the report calls for the matter to be investigated by the United Nations, as well as the Egyptian authorities, and urges that those responsible face justice.

In reply to the publication, Egypt's State Information Service issued a statement calling the report "negative" and biased."

Accusing Human Rights Watch of a "lack of objectivity", the authority complained that the report "ignores the acts of terrorism committed by the terrorist Muslim Brotherhood and its supporters."

The State Information Service, a government body, previously denied refusing entry to Human Rights Watch officials on 10 August, saying they did not have the correct visas for the trip.

The report produces a comprehensive “recreation and documentation of how security forces methodically opened fire on crowds of a premeditated and planned manner,” said Omar Shakir, author and principle researcher of the HRW report.

“We have seen officials within the Egyptian government who have very openly spoken about being fully cognisant that thousands of people would be killed and yet decided to still go forward with a very violent crackdown, whatever the cost,” Shakir told the Middle East Eye.

According to the report, Interior Ministry officials revealed in a meeting with human rights organisations nine days before the dispersal of the Rabbaa camp that the ministry anticipated a death toll of up to 3,500. Newspapers have also cited sources saying that the government knew that the ministry’s plan to break up the protest would result in thousands of casualties.

The government has long insisted that the authorities did everything they could to reduce casualties and that they only reacted with force once protesters opened fire on security services, forcing them to act in self-defence. The authorities also insist that the camp was given repeated warnings to evacuate, but that the protesters repeatedly refused and even prevented women and children from leaving the camp - all claims that HRW heavily disputes.

Culture of abuse

In addition to the 14 August dispersal of the protesters in Rabaa Square, the HRW investigation also looks into human rights violations carried out against demonstrators on four other occasions - 5 July, 8 July, 27 July and 16 August. It draws patterns and correlations between Egyptian authorities’ conduct throughout this period and concludes that the state unlawfully supressed demonstrations. 

The report includes interviews with more than 200 witnesses and details the behaviour of government security forces in confronting protesters who were demanding former Egyptian president Mohamed Morsi’s reinstatement.

Human Rights Watch is one of a number of international and Egyptian rights groups that have expressed alarm over an increasingly broad crackdown on dissent by authorities since then-army chief Sisi seized power in July 2013 after a large-scale military-backed protest. 

With several other organisations and groups having also conducted investigations and published reports about the Egyptian authorities’ involvement in human rights violations since July 2013, HRW said that it hopes this report will help build a climate of accountability and prevent such incidents from re-occuring.

The New York-based organisation goes on to provide several recommendations and calls for the establishment of an international commission of enquiry that would investigate the individuals implicated. It likewise urges the Egyptian government, as well as international bodies including the UN Security Council, Human Rights Council, the Arab League and African Union, to recognise and hold accountable all those responsible for the crimes. 

Appeals are also made to  US authorities, which provide military assistance to Egypt, to halt all further arms shipments. 

“The report calls on the suspension of military aid and law enforcement support that is used to commit abuses by security forces. Countries should not be supplying Egypt with weaponry and equipment to do so,” said Shakir.

Wider implications

With several initiatives launched to bring members of the Egyptian authorities to justice on allegations of human rights violations including torture, arbitrary detention and abuse of basic freedoms, this report is likely to bolster previous efforts, commentators say.

“Human Rights Watch reports generally have a great deal of credibility; it is something that lawyers will be able to use in ensuring a process of accountability in Egypt,” said international law specialist Toby Cadman, a barrister at the Nine Bedford Row International Chambers of London who has also advised a number of groups involved in the Egyptian case.

“The report will probably further advance those discussions investigating Sisi and his regime on charges of crimes against humanity.”

While the launching of the report may not result in the International Criminal Court (ICC) changing its position - Egypt is not state party to the ICC which set obstacles to the progression of the case submitted to the international body - it may prompt national jurisdictions to bring charges against members of the government that have been implicated, explained Cadman.

“We already have a request for the police in UK to facilitate arrests of people responsible for torture as an element of crimes against humanity in the UK. This is particularly focused on the Egyptian coup government,” said Tayab Ali, a solicitor, advocate and partner of London-based human rights law firm ITN solicitors. “The report confirms our findings as to who was responsible for those acts and it will strengthen and speed up investigations.”

Along with a team of lawyers, Ali has been leading an investigation on behalf of the Muslim Brotherhood in the UK. The opposition group, to which former president Morsi belongs, has thus far been primarily targeted by the fierce crackdown on dissent in Egypt.

“It [the report] gives credence to those who have been saying the Egyptian regime is a dictatorship and exposes the Sisi regime as one that violates the rights of its citizens on an unprecedented scale,” said Maha Azzam, head of the Egyptian Revolutionary Council launched on 8 August in Istanbul.

According to the council’s Facebook page, the body is constituted of a group of individuals and organisations of diverse political and ideological affiliations, who share the principles of Egypt's 25 January revolution.

“It gives rise to questions such as why do Western democracies continue to [support] the Sisi regime. The public in the West must put pressure on their governments,” she told MEE. 

“In light of what is happening in Gaza, it is also particularly pertinent to have this report out now, because the public in Western democracies have shown their solidarity with the people of Gaza and they should be aware that there is a connectivity between what is happening in Gaza today and what happened in Egypt a year ago.” 

Representatives denied Cairo access

The report has already sparked controversy. Egyptian authorities on Monday denied Kenneth Roth, executive director of the New York-based watchdog, and its Middle East director Sarah Leah Whitson, entry to the country. Immigration officials in Cairo stopped the pair when they flew in from Paris to attend the scheduled report release. 

"They were denied entry because of failure to meet conditions to enter the country," one of the sources told Anadolu Agency, without stating what kind of conditions the two American nationals failed to observe.

Roth, however, was quick to link the incident to the report. 

"We came to Egypt to release a serious report on a serious subject that deserves serious attention from the Egyptian government,” he said in a statement issued by the group.

“Instead of denying the messenger entry to Egypt, the Egyptian authorities should seriously consider our conclusions and recommendations and respond with constructive action.”

Commentators likewise stressed that the Egyptian authority’s reactions signifies their weak observation of the rule of law.

“It shows the current military regime is in total disregard of the rule of law. The fact that they are afraid to allow two senior [HRW] members to discuss issues is indicative of this autocratic regime,” added Cadman.

Despite HRW providing clear details about the massacre and other crackdowns to the authorities, the Egyptian authorities have not as of yet "to recognise any wrongdoing on the part of the police in the dispersal of the Rabaa or al-Nahda sit-in on 14 August or the attacks on protestors before and after the dispersals.”

The ICC process is alive and we are continuing to make representations for the ICC that it can and properly should investigate the crimes that have occurred in Egypt. This is particularly in light of the clear position of the Egyptian government that it does not intend under any circumstances to investigate these crimes,” said Ali.

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