Two years on, accountability evades those implicated in killing protesters

Out of 135 defendants facing charges relating to the killings of protesters during the 25 January uprising, only two police officers are serving time in prison, each handed a five-year sentence, according to numbers recorded by the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights.

Ongoing trials since 2011 have failed to convict 115 of the defendants, while five have been sentenced in absentia to 10-year sentences and 13 were given suspended one-year sentences.

Rulings have been issued in 29 of the 35 cases filed against police officers accused of killing protesters during the 2011 uprising, the latest of which acquitted 14 suspects in Beni Suef on 13 January. Courts are still considering the six remaining cases.

The Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights, a Cairo-based NGO, places the blame on both the Public Prosecution and the judiciary.

In a report issued Tuesday, the organization said the failure to hold those involved in killing protesters accountable indicates “the involvement of the Public Prosecution and the criminal judiciary in immunizing policemen from punishment.”

The 'impunity phenomenon'

In most of the cases, the courts based their decisions on conflicting testimonies or lack of evidence, which Gamal Eid, lawyer and executive director of the Arab Network for Human Rights Information, attributes to government bodies' reluctance to cooperate and provide prosecutors with the necessary evidence.

According to Eid, the failure to bring those accused of killing protesters to justice has both a political and legal dimension.

The political aspect, Eid explains, is directly related to the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, under whose reign most of these verdicts were issued.

“The Supreme Council of the Armed Forces lacked the political will to bring justice to the victims and thus was not serious in following the investigations and ordering government bodies to cooperate with the general prosecution,” he said. 

EIPR’s report, titled “The Revolution two years on, injustices continue,” also condemns the Ministry of Interior for continuing to ignore police crimes. It criticizes the unwillingness to change or improve the police apparatus, be it in its administrative structure, its decision-making, or in removing personnel responsible for killing or torture.

“The Interior Ministry, backed by [the] Cabinet at times, continues to defend criminal police personnel by denying the facts, justifying abuses or turning a blind eye as policemen facing criminal charges pressure their victims to change their statements to undermine the case,” the report read.

According to Magda Boutros, criminal justice director at EIPR, intimidation of victims’ families to change their accounts facilitated the acquittal of police officers implicated in the killings.

The report says the Interior Ministry facilitated that intimidation by not dismissing the accused officers until after investigations had concluded.

When it comes to the legal aspect, Eid places the onus on former Prosecutor General Abdel Meguid Mahmoud, whose dismissal had long been called for by rights activists and organizations. Investigations into protester deaths during Mahmoud's tenure were inaccurate and feeble and he is the “reason behind the impunity phenomenon,” Eid says.

“Ever since Mubarak was in power, I have long called for amending the judicial authority law. The justice system works on a part-time basis in Egypt,” Eid alleged.

The current law arguably allows interference in judicial affairs from the executive branch of government. In its report, EIPR calls on the government to pass legislative amendments that guarantee the independence of public prosecutors.

In one of the most prominent cases, all 24 defendants accused of killing protesters in the February 2011 Battle of the Camel walked free. The Cairo Criminal Court justified its decision by saying the witness testimonies were based on hearsay and grudges against the defendants over parliamentary elections, according to news reports.

The court said in October it did not trust the testimonies, except that of Major General Hassan al-Roweiny, the former commander of the Central Military Zone, who said there were no dead bodies or weapons found on location the day of the battle.

The trial had included members of the disbanded National Democratic Party, businessmen and former lawmakers, including former Shura Council Speaker Safwat al-Sherif and former People’s Assembly Speaker Fathi Sorour.

And although former President Hosni Mubarak and former Interior Minister Habib al-Adly were given life sentences in the case dubbed “the trial of the century” last June, that ruling was based on their failure to prevent protester deaths in their official capacities, rather than accusing them of giving the orders to shoot.  

Mubarak and Adly were both sentenced to life, which in Egypt is 25 years in prison, while Adly’s six aides were acquitted during the same trial of killing 225 demonstrators and injuring 1,368.

Avoiding blame

EIPR’s report criticizes the Public Prosecution and the Cairo Criminal Court for their performances, which it says “demonstrated their desire to clear the security establishment of all blame.”

“The court sufficed with convicting the political symbols, former president Mubarak and his interior minister, for their failure to prevent the killing of demonstrators by ‘unknown elements’,” the report read.

Eid agrees that the prosecution failed to present strong evidence against Mubarak.

“I used to say, if I were Mubarak’s lawyer, I would’ve been able to get him acquitted.”

Rights groups have called on President Mohamed Morsy to prove his commitment to police reform and accountability by bringing justice to the martyrs and putting an end to police impunity.

However, Boutros said that police crimes continue to go unpunished since the reign of Mubarak.

Last November, Morsy issued a series of controversial measures, one of which was the reopening of investigations into the deaths and injuries of protesters during the 2011 uprising, under the pretext of the Revolution Protection Law.

However, EIPR says the “talk of retrials is merely a cover to distract from the fact that the law establishes a special prosecutorial office with permanent exceptional authorities whose members are chosen by the public prosecutor, himself chosen unilaterally by the president.”

Experts also say it will be hard to find new evidence, upon which any retrial of the accused hinges.

Morsy allegedly received a report earlier this month by the fact-finding committee he appointed to investigate the killing of protesters.

In its recommendations, EIPR urged Morsy to publish the findings of the report and establish a follow-up committee to investigate the findings of the commission and implement its recommendations.

The Court of Cassation this month also accepted Mubarak’s appeal and the former president will be retried along with his interior minister.

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