Under the pretext of combating terrorism, Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi’s government has effectively given its police and security agency free rein to suppress all opposition, including peaceful dissent, according to a new report by Human Rights Watch (HRW).
The report shows a pattern of suspicious killings and probable extrajudicial executions by Egyptian Interior Ministry forces routinely masked as shootouts with alleged terrorists.
Between January 2015 and December 2020, according to Interior Ministry statements and pro-government media reports, security forces killed at least 755 alleged “militants” or “terrorists” in alleged shootouts or gun battles. In most of these statements the authorities said those killed were members of the Muslim Brotherhood.
The ministry’s statements were sometimes accompanied by photos showing bodies in remote desert locations lying next to firearms that the Egyptian authorities claimed were used in the attack. However, HRW says that the government rarely provided substantive information about the alleged shootouts.
For its new report, the rights organization analysed nine of the incidents the Egyptian government claimed were shootouts, in which 75 alleged militants were killed. It interviewed relatives of 14 of the named individuals killed and conducted forensic analysis of pictures and video of the killings made available by the authorities.
In all 14 cases, family members of the deceased claimed that their relative was in police custody before the alleged shootout took place. Most told HRW that they had witnessed the arrest, and said they had extreme difficulty obtaining information about the death or the body.
The rights group said that the cases its researchers analysed led them to conclude that the individuals killed “at the moment of their deaths apparently posed no life-threatening danger to security forces or others, and so amounted to deliberate and unlawful killings”.
“All evidence indicates that these were probable extrajudicial executions that represent a broader pattern,” HRW claims in its report.
The head of Egypt’s state information service did not respond when contacted to comment on the allegations.
Since coming to power in a military coup in 2013, the Egyptian president, Abdel Fatah al-Sisi, has overseen what HRW describes as “one of the worst prolonged human rights crises in the country’s recent history”, targeting all forms of political opposition, journalists and even benign dissent from citizens posting critical comments on social media.
The targets of extrajudicial assassination are normally accused of membership of the banned group Muslim Brotherhood or Hasm, an armed group reportedly responsible for a string of attacks across Egypt since 2016.
The extrajudicial killings followed the introduction of a controversial 2015 anti-terrorism law, which removed any need for accountability over security agencies’ use of deadly force.
“This is a reflection of the fact that these agencies feel they are immune from any scrutiny or punishment,” said Amr Magdi of HRW. “Under Sisi, the security agencies have been green-lit to operate as they wish.”
The rights organisation says that the level of documented abuses uncovered shows that Egypt’s international partners “should halt all security and military assistance and weapons transfers to the Egyptian government and condition their resumption on an end to grave human rights abuses and transparent investigations of serious crimes”, as well as imposing sanctions on those responsible.
The Egyptian government is routinely one of the world’s largest arms importers, receiving weapons from around the world, including more than £24m in openly licensed sales from the UK in the past three years.
Egypt continues to receive US$1.3bn (£950m) annually in military aid from the US, despite mounting pressure on Joe Biden to stick to his campaign promises of “no more blank checks” to the country. (Source: The Guardian)