Egypt: Rampant impunity for security forces illustrates dark legacy of Rabaa massacre

Four years since security forces violently dispersed two sit-ins at Rabaa al Adawiya and al-Nahda squares in Greater Cairo, leaving at least 900 people dead and thousands more injured, Egypt is experiencing an unprecedented human rights crisis, said Amnesty International.

Not a single person has been held to account for the events on 14 August 2013, widely known as the Rabaa massacre. Instead, hundreds who attended the protests, including journalists and photographers who were covering the events, have been arrested and are facing an unfair mass trial. This vacuum of justice has allowed security forces to commit serious human rights violations, including using excessive lethal force and carrying out enforced disappearances, entirely unchecked.

“President Abdel Fattah al-Sissi’s regime has been determined to wipe out all memory of the massacre of the summer of 2013. The dark legacy of this failure to bring anyone to justice is that Egypt’s security forces today feel that they will not be held accountable for committing human rights violations,” said Najia Bounaim, North Africa Campaigns Director at Amnesty International.

“The Rabaa dispersal marks a defining turning point for human rights in Egypt."

Najia Bounaim, North Africa Campaigns Director at Amnesty International

“The Rabaa dispersal marks a defining turning point for human rights in Egypt. In the years since then, security forces have stepped up violations and varied their methods, carrying out enforced disappearances and extrajudicial executions on a scale never seen before.”

Since 2015, at least 1,700 people are estimated to have been “disappeared” by state agents for periods ranging from a few days to up to seven months. Most victims are abducted from the streets or their homes and held incommunicado for months, cut off from their families and lawyers. Egyptian security forces have also carried out dozens of extrajudicial executions.

The Egyptian government’s efforts to erase all memory of the 2013 massacres appear to have had some impact. In August 2013, following the excessive use of lethal force by security forces at Rabaa, the EU Foreign Affairs Council agreed to suspend export licenses to Egypt of any equipment which could be used for internal repression. Despite this, many EU member states have continued to supply the country with arms and policing equipment. The latest EU country report published last month also makes no mention of the Rabaa massacre or the impunity security services still enjoy.

Grossly unfair trials

Since the Rabaa massacre, the Egyptian authorities have led a bitter crackdown against political dissidents, rounding up thousands and sentencing hundreds to life in prison

or death, after grossly unfair trials. In many cases defendants were convicted in mass trials based on scant or dubious evidence. Most faced charges including participating in unauthorised protests, belonging to the banned Muslim Brotherhood group, damaging state and private property, possessing firearms and attacking security forces.

The prosecution authorities, who have an obligation to bring those responsible for the 2013 tragedy to justice, have proven unwilling to investigate and prosecute those responsible for these crimes. Instead of offering justice and remedy for victims, they have helped shield perpetrators from prosecution.

“The level of disparity between the rampant impunity enjoyed by security forces who took part in the Rabaa dispersal on one hand, and the mass persecution of Muslim Brotherhood supporters who had participated in protest as well as journalists reporting that day, is shocking,” said Najia Bounaim.

According to official statistics, six security officers were killed during the Rabaa dispersal and three during the al-Fateh protest two days later, also in Cairo. At least 1,231 people are being prosecuted in two mass trials collectively charged with their killing.

At least 737 people were charged for participating in the 2013 sit-in in what is known as “Rabaa dispersal case”. Among them is the journalist Mahmoud Abu Zeid, known as “Shawkan” who was arrested for taking photographs during the sit-in at Rabaa.

Many of those detained are held in appalling conditions including prolonged solitary confinement amounting to torture. They have frequently been beaten and denied access to lawyers, medical care or family visits.

In another emblematic case, known as the “Fateh mosque case”, at least 494 people are on mass trial for participating in a protest on 16 August 2013, while no investigation was conducted into the use of excessive lethal force by security forces that day that killed 120 protesters.

Those on trial include the Irish Egyptian national Ibrahim Halawa. The group are facing charges including participating in an unauthorised protest, belonging to a banned group, as well as murder and attacking the security forces. The prosecution failed to investigate claims by defendants that they were tortured by police to “confess” to crimes they did not commit.

The “Rabaa operations room case” involving four journalists from the RASSD news network - Youssef Talaat, Abdallah Al-Fakharany, Samhi Mostafa and Mohamed El-Adly – is another case that exemplifies the blatant injustice characterizing such trials.

The journalists were sentenced to five years in prison on 8 May 2017 after being convicted of charges including creating and overseeing media committees at the Rabaa sit-in to spread “false information and news”. During the trial, their lawyers were unable to attend several crucial court sessions leaving them unable to prepare a proper defence. The court’s judgement also relied primarily on investigations by Egypt’s National Security Agency that were not substantiated by material evidence.