Don't Cover Up the Killing of Copt Protesters

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

By Joseph DeCaro, Worthy News Correspondent

CAIRO, EGYPT (Worthy News)-- The Egyptian military's intent to investigate its own use of force against unarmed Coptic Christians demonstrating on Oct. 9, 2011, raises concerns of a cover-up, according to Human Rights Watch.

The military arrested at least 28 people, mostly Copts, and brought them all before military prosecutors who ordered their detention for 15 days pending an investigation.

However, Human Rights Watch interviewed 20 demonstrators who all testified that at least two armored personnel carriers drove recklessly through crowds of Christians; autopsies showed that the massive, metal APCs killed at least 10 demonstrators.

"The military cannot investigate itself with any credibility," said Joe Stork, deputy Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. "This had been an essentially peaceful protest until the military used excessive force and military vehicles ran over protesters. The only hope for justice for the victims is an independent civilian-led investigation that the army fully cooperates with and cannot control and that leads to the prosecution of those responsible."

General Adel al-Morsi, head of Egypt's military judicial system, said military prosecutors would investigate the violence as Copts marched to the Maspero government television building to protest the government's failure to punish recent attacks on their churches; the Office of the Public Prosecutor confirmed that civilian prosecutors would play no role in this investigation.

Military prosecutors and judges are subject to a chain-of-command that reaches all the way to Defense Minister Field Marshall Tantawy, the highest executive authority in Egypt.

At a news conference held Oct. 12, Generals Mahmoud Hegazy and Adel Emara told the military's account of the events at Maspero, absolving their soldiers of any wrongdoing; Emara insisted that "the armed forces would never and have never opened fire on the people."

"The soldiers driving armored vehicles were trying to avoid protesters, who were throwing stones and Molotov cocktail bombs at them," said Emara. "I can't deny that some people may have been hit, but it was not systematic."

However, eyewitness testimony backed-up by independent media and video footage contradicted Emara's version of events.

At the insistence of human rights lawyers working with the victim's families, forensic doctors from Egypt's health ministry conducted 24 autopsies on October 10, concluding that eight people died from gunshot wounds, two from blows to the head and 13 from injuries inflicted by military vehicles.

The October protest march started from the Cairo neighborhood of Shubra as thousands of Copts marched to the government television building on the Nile River; it was the second demonstration within a week by Copts to protest the authorities' failure to investigate the burning of a church in the southern governorate of Aswan. The protesters demanded the removal of the governor, who justified the destruction of the church by claiming it was built without a government permit.

Residents along the march route pelted the demonstrators with stones, and some marchers retaliated by throwing them back; eventually the demonstrators made their way to the state television headquarters on Cairo's Nile riverfront drive where they joined another group of protesters who were surrounded by military police and Central Security Forces. At around 6 p.m. witnesses heard gun shots, then APCs careened down the drive onto the sidewalks, crushing some protestors.

Human Rights Watch also called for an investigation into attempts by the military and the information ministry to control media coverage after military officers stoppd a live broadcast from two independent TV news channels -- Al Hurra and 25TV -- whose offices are next to the state television building. During that same time, the state-run Nile News and Radio Misr broadcasted that armed Copts had shot and killed three military officers and called for "honorable citizens to defend the army against attack."

"The generals seem to be insisting that they and only they investigate the Maspero violence, which is to ensure that no serious investigation occurs," said Stork. "The military has already tried to control the media narrative, and it should not be allowed to cover up what happened on October 9."

Human Rights Watch also urged Egyptian authorities to examine the underlying causes of the October demonstration and address any legitimate grievances by Coptic Christians, including the failure to punish perpetrators of attacks on churches and other acts of sectarian violence.

Human Rights Watch has investigated three incidents of sectarian violence since the February ouster of President Hosni Mubarak in which Muslims attacked Christians and their churches. In every case, no Muslims were punished; this failure to prosecute perpetuated the policies of the Mubarak era when authorities also failed to provide for victims of sectarian violence.