Al-Ahram Weekly Online   3 - 9 March 2011
Issue No. 1037
Egypt
 
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Burying the truth

A month after the beginning of the 25 January Revolution former interior minister Habib El-Adli is finally facing charges of ordering the police to fire on demonstrators, killing at least 361. But rights groups tell Amira Howeidy the death toll could be much higher

"I only want peace for myself and my mother and it won't happen until I get hold of the doctor who forged my brother's death certificate. And I don't care what happens to me after that, even if I go to jail."

Reda Sayed, 25, paused, his voice choked with tears before he allowed himself to cry over the death of his 22-year-old brother Mahmoud, shot with live ammunition between his shoulders and neck on the evening of 27 January. Mahmoud was taking part in a demonstration in downtown Cairo's Talaat Harb Square when he was shot. By the time his brother got him to Qasr Al-Aini public hospital it was too late. The next day Reda went to the hospital to receive his brother's death certificate from a doctor, in order to bury him.

"I didn't think of reading the death certificate until days later," Reda told Al-Ahram Weekly. "When I did I was shocked. It gave the cause of death as acute cardiovascular and respiratory failure."

The certificate has the required official stamp but lacks a doctor's signature.

For weeks Reda has been battling between his grief at the loss of his brother and a passionate desire for revenge on the doctor who lied about the cause of Mahmoud's death. "How did he have the heart to do this?" he asks. "Has he no fear of God?"

He has spent weeks in search of the doctor whose face is etched in his memory. The hospital has been uncooperative.

Reda is convinced there are hundreds of cases like his: families of victims of police brutality during the 25 January Revolution who received death certificates that concealed the real cause of death which would have implicated the police, forced to accept the certificates -- if, indeed, in their immediate grief they noticed the discrepancies -- in order to bury loved ones.

He's probably right.

Human rights and legal groups documenting the names and available data on the "martyrs", or shohadaa, killed during the revolution -- and those who were injured, arrested or remain missing, have yet to complete their arduous task. Yet even on the basis of incomplete evidence the picture that emerges of events during the revolution is ugly.

It is more than a month since tens of thousands took to the streets to bring down the regime on 25 January. Three days later, on Friday 28 January, when even bigger demonstrations broke out across Egypt, the security apparatus escalated its response and began using live ammunition, killing hundreds of protesters. On 10 February an official committee was formed to investigate the brutal attempts to suppress the "peaceful youth Intifada [uprising] of 25 January". The committee's mandate, however, avoided questions relating to accountability regarding the decision to use live bullets. It also overlooked the sudden withdrawal of security forces across Egypt at 5pm on 28 January, when prisons were opened allowing thousands to escape, leaving the public prey to looting, violence and ever more terrifying rumours.

Despite the widespread public perception that the then minister of interior, Habib El-Adli, masterminded the mayhem, he wasn't arrested until 19 February. Even then he was detained on money laundering charges. Only on Monday did the prosecutor- general finally accuse him of issuing the order to shoot on protesters which led to an official death toll of 361 and the wounding of 4,000. It remains unclear why it took the prosecution authorities so long to file the charges.

The Defence Front for Egypt's Protesters, a group of 34 rights groups formed last year, has issued a list of 527 people killed during the revolution. According to the Front's online data base the majority of deaths were caused by live ammunition. There are, however, cases of protesters being killed after they were deliberately run over by armoured vehicles, shot at close range by rubber bullets, or asphyxiated by tear gas.

According to Ramy Raouf, a member of the Front, the final death toll will be higher. Rights groups are still receiving information from the families of victims and the Front has expanded its activities to cover the whole of Egypt.

Independent estimates have put the death toll at 800, a figure Raouf suggests could be realistic.

The figures announced by the Front reflect "only" documented cases, Raouf told Al-Ahram Weekly. But documentation was hampered when mobile phone services were deactivated on the 28 and 29 January in an attempt to curb the revolution by crippling communication. The Internet also went down for a week and when mobile services were resumed the lines of dozens of activists had been permanently disconnected. As chaos ensued in the first five days of the revolution, a 3pm curfew was imposed. These factors hampered the work of rights groups, as did the closure of the Ministry of Health governorate offices charged with issuing death certificates. Corpses piled up in morgues, not all of them refrigerated. The scenes were ugly -- bodies so decomposed and bloated that, says Raouf, "many have yet to be identified".

The Geneva-based Al-Karama (Dignity) NGO, whose Cairo office launched its own fact-finding mission during the revolution, has documented the cases of 308 protesters it says were killed by live ammunition. The figure does not include deaths by rubber bullets or other forms of aggression.

Ahmed Mefreh, Al-Karama's Egypt representative, says documentation was hampered by "official orders" to the Ministry of Health governorate offices not to issue death certificates during the revolution that could implicate the security apparatus. This was especially the case outside Cairo, in governorates like Damanhour and Beheira in the Delta and Beni Sweif in Upper Egypt.

"We overcame the problem by recording the testimonies of the victim's families," Mefreh told the Weekly.

Al Karama's list was forwarded to the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights upon her request. Technically, the UNHCHR should address the UN Security Council, says Mefreh, but "legal mechanisms in the UN are usually governed by politics so we don't know what the process will be exactly".

He described what happened as a "crime against humanity". Shooting live ammunition at peaceful protests resulted in a death toll that is "frightening and shocking".

"We're documenting for history's sake," says Mefreh, "but the day must come when those responsible for these deaths are tried."

Both Al-Karama and the Front's lists include evidence, based on the testimonies of doctors and the victims' families, of a clear policy of shoot to kill. Many victims were shot in the head and chest. There is also evidence of sniper attacks targeting protesters from longer distances.

What is missing from the documentation are forensic reports which are only issued when ordered by prosecutors. Because the official investigation is progressing so slowly, says Sayed Fathi of the Nabil Al-Hilali Legal Foundation, there is only one case so far in which a forensic doctor has issued a report substantiating accusations that police fired live ammunition.

Now that the vast majority of bodies have been buried the only way for the official investigation to complete its work is to have as many victims as possible exhumed for forensic pathology, forcing the victims' families to face yet another painful experience.

On Sunday human rights groups and legal experts began their own investigation into police crimes during the revolution. Their aim is to collate the various documentation efforts and build a legal case against the perpetrators of the atrocities. They also want to see the media -- which until now has seemed happy to broadcast songs dedicated to the "revolution's martyrs" and far less comfortable with investigating how they met their fate -- focus more clearly on issues of accountability.

For Reda, who lost his brother on 27 January, justice is as far away as ever. Without a forensic report saying his brother was killed by the police, which entails exhuming the body, something he refuses to countenance, he is left only with a death certificate "containing lies".

"My brother Ahmed died as a martyr. I accept that I'll never be able to find out who killed him. But I'm seeking vengeance from the doctor who forged my brother's death," he said.

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