A Half Victory in the Fight against Police Violence

In recent weeks, Egypt has witnessed a series of charges brought against security personnel. Recently, Prosecutor Hisham Barakat announced the decision to charge a police officer with the killing of peaceful protester and Socialist Popular Alliance Party (SPAP) member—Shaimaa al-Sabbagh. A day later, a police general and conscript were also charged with concealing evidence in the case. In a similar development, Barakat also referred to trial a low ranking policeman for the fatal shooting of an injured man in hospital after he was arrested for allegedly planting a homemade bomb. While on the surface it may appear that a long called for demand—accountability for police violence—is becoming a priority, a reality of scapegoating and insufficient punishment is likely to continue.

On January 24, Sabbagh, 30, was among around twenty to thirty SPAP members seeking to mark the fourth anniversary of the January 25 Revolution. In a short walk, from Talaat Harb Square to the nearby Tahrir Square, they planned to lay flowers in Tahrir in remembrance of the hundreds of young Egyptians who were killed during the 18-day revolution. An anti-riot squad placed in Talaat Harb moved to disperse the small gathering, first firing tear gas, followed by bird shot. According to the statement issued by Barakat last week, the shots were fired at a short range by a masked police officer, killing Sabbagh, the mother of a five-year-old son. The interior ministry had initially denied that she was killed by police, reiterating standard claims that ‘outside elements’ infiltrated the protest and shot Sabbagh. Former Interior Minister Mohamed Ibrahim insisted that riot police did not use bird shot, and were only armed with tear gas. These claims were contradicted by the videos and pictures showing a masked police officer firing towards Sabbagh and her colleagues.

When reports leaked last month that Barakat was about to charge an officer with Sabbagh’s murder, his office imposed an embargo on the publication of any information related to the case. Informed sources said that the former Interior Minister was strongly opposed to charging a police officer with killing Sabbagh, claiming that this would negatively affect the morale of hundreds of others officers and soldiers who were sacrificing their lives in the ongoing war against terrorist organizations. Attacks targeting security personnel surged after the army’s removal of former President, and Muslim Brotherhood leader, Mohamed Morsi in 2013.

Malek Adli, one of Sabbagh’s lawyers, said while the charges made by Barakat were welcome, they were clearly aimed at avoiding a harsh sentence against the police officer, whose name was not released. Prosecutors charged the officer with “beating that led to death,” which carries a maximum sentence of seven years imprisonment. “We insist that the officer should have been charged with premeditated murder,” said Adli. “When you shoot a peaceful protester at such a short range, it cannot be unintentional,” he added. Over the past few years, Adli notes, “Several activists were killed by police bird shot, fired at close range. This clearly means police have to stop using this weapon when confronting protesters, and to stop arguing that bird shot doesn’t kill.”

Forensic Medicine Authority (FMA) Spokesman, Hisham Abdel-Hamid, said on Sunday that his experts played a major role in helping the prosecutor determine Sabbagh’s killer by reviewing the videos, and estimating the range of the shots and the location of the shooter. However, Abdel-Hamid faced a wave of criticism when he argued in an interview on a private television channel that bird shot does not normally kill. Sabbagh died, he claimed, because she was too thin, and, as a result, the bird shot easily struck her organs. Three days later, Abdel-Hamid was dismissed from his post over the remarks, and forensics officials received a directive from the FMA head not to give unauthorized statements to the media on the “technical details” of their work.  

It is not clear whether newly appointed Interior Minister Magdi Abdel-Ghaffar played a role in the sudden announcement related to Sabbagh’s case. But in the aftermath of the January 25, 2011 Revolution, and his appointment as director of National Security, Abdel-Ghaffar promised to reform the heavy handed security policies that gave the Interior Ministry a bad reputation under Mubarak’s thirty years in power.

Lawyers and political activists have, however, complained that the charges for Sabbagh’s killing fell short of their expectations. They also expressed shock that Barakat, in a separate decision, referred seventeen members of her party to trial for violating the protest law. Their trial is due to begin on April 4, and the defendants are facing a possible sentence of up to five years in prison.

In the second case of police violence recently referred to trial, charges against the policeman accused of killing an alleged Brotherhood member have been marred by implications he was paid to kill the suspect. While the policeman says he lost his temper after the wounded suspect insulted the police, he is accused of receiving money from the Muslim Brotherhood to kill the man. The money, the Prosecutor General said, was paid to prevent the suspect from revealing his accomplices.

Blaming the outlawed Brotherhood for violence was once again seen when Barakat charged sixteen suspects for the deaths of twenty-two young Zamalek football team fans on February 8. The sixteen defendants are charged with receiving money from suspected Muslim Brotherhood members to incite violence ahead of the game and to attack the police. No policemen were charged in the death of the twenty-two victims despite the fact that many videos showed thousands of football fans squeezed in a tight corridor, closed off by metal cage covered in barbed wires to be searched by police before entering the stadium. In the videos, when fans started screaming that they were suffocating, after the metal cage collapsed, a police officer was seen firing several rounds of tear gas towards them. Tarek Awadi, a lawyer for the Zamalek football fans, known as the White Knights, charged that, “Police recklessness was the main reason behind the death of the young men. When you fire six or seven canisters of tear gas towards a crowd stuck in a corridor between two walls, what do you expect except a stampede?”

If anything, a lack of accountability for the deaths of thousands of Egyptians during the January 25 Revolution, and in the years following it, continues to be a rallying cry for activists.  According to Medhat al-Zahed, the acting SPAP President, police have threatened that they would not carry out their duties in fighting terrorism if they were put on trial and charged with these deaths. “Nearly 200 police officers were put on trial for killing protesters during the events of the January 25 Revolution, and all of them were acquitted, including former Interior Minister Habib al-Adly and his top aides,” said Zahed. “Police officers went on an undeclared strike, and they warned they would not return to work if they were sent to prison for killing protesters,” he added. According to lawyers, another key reason for the acquittals in all cases of police violence is the fact that the interior ministry itself had to provide the evidence to convict its own men. “This never happened, of course,” said Zahed. “On the contrary, evidence was either destroyed or hidden, and was never presented to court.”

Khaled Dawoud is currently Assistant Editor-in-Chief of Al-Ahram Weekly, an English language weekly published by Egypt’s oldest news establishment, Al-Ahram. He is also the official spokesman of social-liberal Al-Dostour Party established by Nobel Peace Prize Winner Dr. Mohamed ElBaradei. 

Image: Photo: Reuters/Yom al-Sabaa