Egyptian internal security forces waging a campaign in the Sinai Peninsula against an affiliate of the Islamic State may have extrajudicially executed at least four and perhaps as many as 10 men in January 2017, Human Rights Watch said Friday. The security forces may have arbitrarily detained and forcibly disappeared the men and then staged a counterterrorism raid to cover up the killings.
A Human Rights Watch investigation relying on multiple sources of evidence including documents, interviews with relatives, and an edited video of the purported raid made public by the authorities suggests that police arrested at least some of the men months before the alleged gunfight at a house in North Sinai and that the raid itself was staged.
“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.”
The killings appear to fit a pattern of abuses against civilians by both military and internal security forces who are fighting the Islamic State (also known as ISIS) under the largest deployment of Egyptian troops in Sinai since Egypt’s 1973 war with Israel. Fighting in North Sinai has left hundreds dead since 2013, including civilians, security force members, and alleged ISIS fighters. The ISIS affiliate, which calls itself Sinai Province, has killed scores of civilians, targeting many either for alleged collaboration with the authorities or because they were Christians.
Journalists and human rights groups are rarely able to investigate frequent and credible reports of abuse because the government denies them access to North Sinai.
On January 13, the Interior Ministry claimed in a statement that its counterterrorism forces had tracked a group of suspected ISIS fighters to an abandoned house in al-Arish, a town on the northern Sinai coast, earlier that day and were preparing to raid the house when they came under fire. According to the statement, the troops returned fire and killed all 10 suspects inside. The ministry named six of the dead men and accused them of participating in killings and other attacks on security forces, some of which had been claimed by ISIS, but did not identify the other four men.
That same day, the ministry also released a short video purporting to show the raid itself. The video was posted on YouTube with the title, The death of 10 terrorist elements in an exchange of fire with security forces in North Sinai. The heavily edited clip shows at least eight commandos approaching a building, two of them firing at a man on the ground outside, and six dead men in civilian clothes lying in various rooms inside the building, surrounded by weapons, fresh pools of blood, and walls with bullet holes.
Human Rights Watch spoke with relatives of three of the dead men – Ahmed Rashid, Mansour Gam’a, and Mohamed Ayoub – and a lawyer who is representing the families of Rashid and a fourth man, Abd al-Aty Abd al-Aty. All said that the Interior Ministry’s security forces had arrested the men without warrants in October and November 2016, months before the alleged January raid took place.
The killings caused outrage among citizens of al-Arish and rare protests against the Interior Ministry during some of the men’s funerals. Leaders of local clans met on January 14 to form a “popular committee” and issued a list of demands, including the immediate release of anyone held without charge, the resignation of North Sinai’s representatives in parliament, and holding to account those responsible for the killings. Hossam al-Rifai, a member of parliament for North Sinai, called for the creation of a government fact-finding committee to investigate the incident.
Salah Salam, a member of the government-sponsored National Council for Human Rights, told the Aswat Masriya news service on January 15 that the names of the six slain men had been on a list of 650 people allegedly being held without charge in North Sinai, which local residents had earlier asked him to deliver to a presidential pardon committee. Salam told Human Rights Watch on March 16 that he did not have a copy of the list that he sent to the pardon committee, but that those who compiled it told him that the names of the six men were included, and that the government must investigate
The families of Rashid and Abd al-Aty sent telegrams to the authorities inquiring about the two men shortly after their arrests and gave Human Rights Watch photos of receipts showing the dates they had sent the telegrams in October and November. The telegram receipts seen by Human Rights Watch contain serial numbers that could verify to investigators when they were sent. The two families also filed a joint complaint to the prosecutor general asking him to investigate their relatives’ deaths. The authorities did not respond to any of these complaints or requests for information.
Relatives of Gam’a and Ayoub said they felt too intimidated by security forces to complain or pursue legal redress. Yehia Ayoub, the lawyer representing the families of Rashid and Abd al-Aty, told Human Rights Watch that Interior Ministry officials had contacted some of the men’s relatives to tell them to drop their efforts, and that in late February and early March, police arrested two cousins of Rashid and a cousin and two other relatives of Abd al-Aty to pressure their families to drop the issue. Human Rights Watch is not publishing the names of the family members out of concern for their safety.
Neither the Interior Ministry nor the public prosecution office have opened an investigation into the deaths, the relatives and lawyer told Human Rights Watch. The Interior Ministry’s statement claimed that security forces had conducted the raid after receiving permission from prosecutors.
“In addition to a prompt and thorough investigation, the Egyptian government should open North Sinai to journalists, human rights investigators, and aid groups,” Stork said. “For years now, North Sinai has been a black hole.”