The Road Forward in Egypt Begins By Ending Police Impunity

Egyptian protesters shout slogans against President Mohamed Morsi during a demonstration outside the high court in central Cairo on January 30, 2013.

Egyptian protesters shout slogans against President Mohamed Morsi during a demonstration outside the high court in central Cairo on January 30, 2013. (Photo KHALED DESOUKI/AFP/Getty Images)

Before Egypt tears itself apart, it must get out under the shadow of the Mubarak years.  The way forward begins with breaking the culture of impunity that protects security forces and police from accountability for their abuses.

Amnesty International has long feared that the failure of the Morsi government to hold security forces and military accountable for their past human rights abuses ensured that those abuses would be repeated when the government called on those institutions to respond to the popular protests.

Sure enough, reporting from Egypt, Amnesty International researcher Diana Eltahawy documented evidence that points to the use of excessive force by Egyptian security officials. 

“It’s quite clear from the testimony I’ve gathered that security forces have been guilty of excessive force including the use of firearms when lives have not been directly in danger,” Eltahawy says. See her video report here:

Three days of clashes between protesters and security forces have left at least 45 people dead and more than 1,000 people injured. Amnesty International is reporting numerous incidents of excessive force by security forces using live ammunition against protesters.  In one incident, protesters told Amnesty International that members of the security forces chased them into the Suez General Hospital firing randomly.  Forensic examination of the bodies of other Suez protestors determined they were shot by live ammunition, in some instances at close range and from behind.

Why is this happening? While Amnesty International is calling on Egyptian forces to use less intrusive methods and to refrain from using lethal force unless it is unavoidable to protect life, President Morsi seems content on staying the course, relying on security forces and curfews and adding that he was prepared to take further security measures if necessary.

But the one step President Morsi is resisting is the one that would have the most profound effect: Truth and accountability for human rights abuses by the military, security forces and police.  The long, documented record of attacks on protesters, human rights defenders and on ordinary Egyptians in quotidian harassment has been ignored, neglected and denied.

The failure to end impunity for police is one underlying reason for the continuing protests. In two October reports, Amnesty International documented patterns of abuse by both Egyptian police and the military. Both found that abuses by the military and police were triggers for Egyptian protests and a culture of impunity that to that date had failed to hold abusive officers accountable.

Specific demands called for reforms of the police, an end to arbitrary and incommunicado detention and the use of torture and for foreign government to stop arm sales to Egyptian forces implicated in human rights abuses.

These steps remain unheeded. The consequences can be seen in the events of the past week.

“The culture of impunity that has built up in Egypt over decades remains,” Eltahawy says.  “We are calling for full, independent and thorough investigations to bring those who committed crimes to justice.”

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