Military soldiers beat and tortured protesters they arrested at a demonstration near the Defense Ministry on May 4, 2012, Human Rights Watch said today, after interviews with numerous victims and lawyers. The military also failed to protect the protesters from attacks by armed groups in the early morning hours of May 2, at the same demonstration, which began on April 27 in Cairo’s Abbasiyya neighborhood.
On May 4, after the protest turned violent, military officers arrested at least 350 protesters, including 10 children and 16 women. They were brought before military prosecutors, who ordered their detention pending trials before military courts. At least 256 remain in detention. Human Rights Watch interviewed many of those who had been released, who gave consistent accounts of torture and beatings during arrest and in detention.
“The brutal beating of both men and women protesters shows that military officers have no sense of limits on what they can do,” said Joe Stork, deputy Middle East and North Africa director at Human Rights Watch. “The official law enforcement authorities may arrest people where there is evidence of wrongdoing, but it never has the right to beat and torture them.”
The demonstrators gathered in Abbasiyya on April 27 to protest the Supreme Presidential Election Commission’s exclusion of Hazem Abu Ismail as a presidential candidate.
Although there had been some prior scuffles with people in civilian clothes who threw stones at demonstrators at the sit-in, there was no major violence until May 2, according to witnesses and participants, when several dozen armed men without uniforms began shooting rifles and pellet guns at protesters, killing nine protesters and bystanders. Numerous witnesses described how violence and gunfire continued for at least six hours while armed military stationed nearby took no action to prevent it.
The security forces present on the scene and witnessing the violence should have taken all reasonable steps to end it and to protect those there, including arresting those taking part in the violence, especially the armed gang, Human Rights Watch said. The failure of military personnel nearby to intervene to protect lives demonstrated – at a minimum – serious negligence in the performance of their law enforcement duties.
In response to the violence against protesters on May 2, thousands gathered on Friday, May 4 in Abbasiyya, near the Defense Ministry. At a televised news conference on May 3, the day before the planned protest, Gen. Mokhtar al-Molla, a member of the ruling Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), said: “We have positioned the military to prevent people from approaching the Ministry of Defense. We are protecting them from themselves because if anyone comes near the Ministry of Defense we have a right of legitimate self-defense.”
The military’s role in protecting buildings must be governed by Egypt’s human rights obligations which protect against arbitrary arrest, beatings, and torture of detainees, and the arbitrary use of force – especially lethal force – in law enforcement, Human Rights Watch said.
There has been no accountability for the earlier cases of torture at the hands of the military that Human Rights Watch and Egyptian human rights groups such as the Nadim Center for the Rehabilitation of Victims of Torture have documented over the past year of military rule.
Human Rights Watch interviewed 16 men and women who stated they were tortured by beating, electroshocks, and whipping by military officers on March 9, 2011, on the grounds of the Egyptian Museum, adjacent to Tahrir Square, and on March 6, 2011, in Lazoghli square. The military has not investigated or punished these incidents or similar incidents on December 16, 2011, despite promises to do so.
International human rights law bans trials of civilians before military courts. Nevertheless, the Egyptian military has insisted on continuing to try civilians before military tribunals, on the basis of the 1966 Code of Military Justice. On May 6 the Egyptian parliament approved amendments to the Code of Military Justice that limit only the right of the president to refer civilians to military tribunals and fail to address the broad discretion given to the military in articles 5 and 7 to try civilians.
Over the past year Human Rights Watch has documented at least three other cases in which the military stood by as gangs in civilian clothes, in some cases apparently under military command, and attacked and sometimes arrested protesters. They include incidents at a Tahrir Square protest in March 2011, a protest at Abbasiyya in July, and the Maspero protest in October.
“Egyptians won’t feel secure until there is a law enforcement system they can trust to police demonstrations effectively and protect them from attacks by thugs,” Stork said. “And they won’t feel secure as long as the military beats and tortures people it arrests and then brings them before military courts.”