April 5, 2019 / 10:21 AM / 8 months ago

Special Report: Egypt kills hundreds of suspected militants in disputed gun battles

CAIRO (Reuters) - Mohamed Abu Amer, a landscape gardener, was working in downtown Cairo when national security agents took him away on Feb. 6, 2018, his family said.

The gravestone of Mohamed Abu Amer is seen near his family home in Al-Khanka, Egypt, August 6, 2018. REUTERS/Staff

For almost six months Amer’s family waited for news of the 37-year-old father of two. Their messages to the Public Prosecutor and the Interior Ministry, which oversees the police and the national security agency, went unanswered.

Then on July 31, the ministry announced on its Facebook page that Amer was among five terrorists killed in a shootout earlier that day when police approached their hideout 40 km north of Cairo. Amer was wanted for the murder of a national security agent, the statement said.

It’s a version of events his family doesn’t buy. Amer was no terrorist and he died in the custody of the state, not in a gun battle, his relatives insist. “I know that what they are saying is untrue,” said a relative. “He was with them for six months.”

Amer was one of 465 men killed in what the Interior Ministry said were shootouts with its forces over a period of three and a half years, a Reuters analysis of Interior Ministry statements has found. The announcements reviewed by Reuters appeared on the ministry’s social media or were published by the state news agency.

The killings began in the summer of 2015. In June that year, Islamist militants had assassinated Egypt’s chief prosecutor, Hisham Barakat, an ally of President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi. Sisi responded with a sweeping anti-terrorism law that shielded the police and military from prosecution for the proportionate use of force. Human rights groups say it was the start of a brutal crackdown. A researcher at an Egyptian organization that documents human rights abuses said police embarked on a spate of “extra judicial killings knowing that no one will hold them accountable.”

In 108 incidents involving 471 men, only six suspects survived, according to Interior Ministry statements from July 1, 2015 to the end of 2018. That represents a kill ratio of 98.7 percent. Five members of the security forces were killed, the statements said. Thirty seven were injured.

The Interior Ministry issued crime scene photographs with some of the statements. They showed bloodied bodies with assault rifles or shotguns on the ground beside them. Almost all of the statements said arms and ammunition were recovered at the scene. Some said Islamic State flyers were found.

But in interviews with Reuters, the relatives of 11 of the dead men contradicted the official accounts. Their sons, brothers or husbands had been plucked by police or national security agents from the streets or their homes and disappeared, they said, in some cases for several months. Then came news of their deaths in an Interior Ministry Facebook post or statement.

The families said none of the young men carried arms. But some were supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood, a movement that was outlawed in 2013 after Sisi led the military in toppling Egypt’s first Muslim Brotherhood president, Mohamed Mursi.

Reuters showed three forensic experts mortuary images of two of the 11 dead men. These specialists cast doubt on the Interior Ministry’s account of the two men’s deaths.

Three witnesses to one deadly encounter – the shooting of two members of the Muslim Brotherhood, Mohamed Kamal and Yasser Shehata, in a Cairo apartment block in 2016 – disputed the Interior Ministry’s report of a gun battle with its forces. There was no exchange of fire or gun fight, these witnesses said.

The U.S. State Department’s latest annual report on human rights in Egypt, released in March, said abuses included arbitrary or unlawful killings by the government or its agents, forced disappearances and torture. The United States, nevertheless, has unfrozen $195 million in military aid to Egypt which it had previously withheld in part because of concerns over Egypt’s human rights record. U.S. officials reason that security cooperation with Egypt is important to U.S. national security.

Kate Vigneswaran, senior legal adviser at the International Commission of Jurists’ Middle East and North Africa program, said the killings described by Reuters could “constitute extrajudicial executions, a serious crime under international law.” Evidence that victims were shot at close range would “indicate that the use of lethal force was not a response to a legitimate threat, but rather premeditated and deliberate conduct by the security forces to execute individuals outside the protection of the law.”

Kevin Jon Heller, associate professor of public international law at Amsterdam University, said if the victims were civilians, “this would be the classic crime against humanity of murder: killing civilians as part of a widespread or systematic attack.”

The Egyptian government didn’t respond to questions for this article. Reuters provided officials with a detailed account of its analysis of the Interior Ministry statements and other findings of this article. They had no comment.

A ROAD TRIP

Cousins Souhail Ahmed and Zakaria Mahmoud had no connection with the Muslim Brotherhood or any political organization, their family said. In July 2017 the men, both in their twenties, set off from their homes in the Nile city of Damietta for a holiday in the Red Sea resort of Sharm El Sheikh.

The 600 km road trip would take them southwards from Damietta, close to the Mediterranean, along the Suez Canal and then the Gulf of Suez. For Ahmed, a student, it was a rare adventure. Hurt in a car crash a few years earlier, he still walked with a limp and stayed at home much of the time, a relative said.

Ahmed called home a few hours into the trip and told his mother that they had stopped to get sugarcane juice as they headed for a checkpoint in Ismailia province, on the Suez Canal. It was the last time the family heard from them.

Five days later, the Interior Ministry announced in a Facebook post that the cousins were among four Islamist militants killed in a shootout when security forces approached their hideout in an Ismailia village on July 15. Relatives found the bodies of the men at a mortuary in the town of Ismailia the next day.

The families of the two young men say the government’s version of events makes no sense.

“They are not Brotherhood supporters at all,” said the relative. They “were not supporters of anyone.” Ahmed “was like all young men, he dreamed to marry at a young age and have a family.” Mahmoud was a carpenter.

Reuters showed photographs and video of the bodies to three forensic experts – Professor Derrick Pounder, a pathologist who has consulted for Amnesty International and the United Nations, and two other international experts who declined to be identified. All three cast doubt on the Interior Ministry’s account that the deaths were the result of a shootout.

Mahmoud had three gunshot wounds to the head. One bullet entered beside his right nostril and exited just below his lower lip. “That would place the shooter overlooking, above and to the right of the victim if the victim was standing, which would seem unlikely in an exchange of gunfire,” Pounder said. “A more likely scenario is that the victim was kneeling with the shooter standing close on the right side.”

The two other gunshot wounds were to Mahmoud’s forehead, almost symmetrically placed just below the hairline to the left and right, which suggested final “coup de grace shots,” according to Pounder.

Authorities said in the statement the cousins were part of a “group of fugitive terrorists” and died in a single incident. “As soon as security forces approached them, they were surprised by gunshots in their direction which they dealt with, resulting in the killing of four terrorist elements,” the Interior Ministry said.

Yet the cousins’ bodies exhibited different stages of decomposition. Mahmoud’s death appeared to have been very recent, the experts said, but Ahmed had died 36 to 48 hours before the images were taken. There were no obvious ante mortem injuries or gunshot wounds to Ahmed’s body and no obvious cause of death, Pounder said.

“THERE WAS NO SHOOTOUT”

From July 1, 2015 to Dec. 31, 2018, the Interior Ministry issued statements reporting the deaths of 465 men, almost all of them suspected militants, in gun battles with its forces. That compared with just five such deaths in the first half of 2015, before the murder of Barakat, the chief prosecutor.

The Interior Ministry statements were strikingly similar. In every instance, the ministry said its forces approached or raided the hideout of the terrorists or criminals having secured an arrest warrant or taken “all legal measures.” The terrorists or criminals opened fire, and security forces responded.

Most of the dead men were in their 20s; the youngest was 16, the oldest was 61. The Interior Ministry classified 320 of the slain men as terrorists and 28 as criminals or drug dealers.

It said 117 were members of the outlawed Muslim Brotherhood. Founded in Egypt in 1928, the Muslim Brotherhood spread its political activism and charity work across the Middle East in the decades that followed. But in recent years countries including Egypt and Saudi Arabia have cracked down on its activities, declaring it a terrorist group. The Brotherhood, which insists it is a peaceful movement, has largely gone underground.

Around a quarter of the deaths reported by the Interior Ministry, 104, were in the North Sinai region that borders Israel and Gaza, and where Egypt is battling an insurgency by Islamist militants.

The Interior Ministry statements didn’t name 302 of the dead men, nor did they give precise locations for many of the shootings. Many were in remote desert or mountain areas. Reuters managed to speak to three witnesses to one incident in a Cairo apartment in 2016.

The Interior Ministry announced on Oct. 3, 2016, that its forces had killed a Muslim Brotherhood leader and his aide in a raid on the apartment. The ministry said Mohamed Kamal, 61, a member of the group’s leadership council, and Yasser Shehata, 47, shot at police and died when officers returned fire.

Reuters asked three neighbors about the events of that evening. None of them had seen or heard a gun fight. A woman living nearby said the only shots came several hours after police had entered the apartment. A person who was in the apartment block was adamant: “There was no shootout.”

A lawyer speaking on behalf of the two men’s families told Reuters an official autopsy showed the two men were shot in the head. Reuters was not able to independently verify the autopsy conclusion.

Some Interior Ministry statements were accompanied by crime scene photographs. These included the aftermath of a shooting in November 2018. The Interior Ministry said security forces killed 19 men in a shootout in the desert, west of Minya, Upper Egypt. The ministry said the dead were members of a cell responsible for a deadly attack on Christians two days earlier.

Forensic expert Pounder reviewed 20 of the photographs. He said 11 of the bodies appeared to have been moved after death. He pointed to blood and drag marks in the sand. Depressions in the sand suggested two of the men were shot while in a kneeling position, he added. Photos of other bodies were inconclusive.

An Egyptian judicial source said some police felt the courts were too slow, which led some officers to take justice into their own hands. “They call it ‘prompt justice,’” he said. Police often moved weapons and other objects at the crime scene to cover up executions, the source said. “The police are the ones who gather the information, and there is no way they will cooperate in collecting evidence that would incriminate their colleagues.”

Reuters analysis of the Interior Ministry statements showed that deadly shootouts often followed an attack by Islamist militants. For example, in December 2018, a day after the deadly bombing of a Vietnamese tourist bus in Giza, the ministry announced that its forces had killed 40 people in three separate incidents.

Gamal Eid, a human rights lawyer and founder of the Arab Network for Human Rights Information, said Egypt was trapped in a lethal cycle of extrajudicial killings and revenge attacks. “The more extrajudicial killings take place, the more there will be desire for revenge,” he said.

A member of the state-funded National Council of Human Rights, George Ishak, said: “There is a state of panic because of terrorism, but it shouldn’t be like this. This fear has to stop.”

A VERDICT OVERTURNED

In 2013, Khaled Emam, a 37-year-old weightlifting trainer, was sentenced in absentia to one year in jail for taking part in anti-government protests, his family said. To avoid arrest, he moved with his wife and two sons into an apartment in Cairo’s southeastern Mokattam district, away from the family home.

Emam was snatched from the street in June, 2017, his family said, when he was fetching medicine for one of his sons. Witnesses told his family that masked men leaped from a minibus and grabbed him.

The family filed a complaint with the local police and wrote to the authorities asking for information. They got no response.

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Then, on Oct. 2, 2017, the Interior Ministry issued a statement that its forces had killed three men in a shootout in a graveyard. It named two of them – both friends of Emam. Two security sources confirmed to Reuters that Emam was also killed.

At Cairo’s Zeinhom mortuary, a relative found his body. It was bruised and showed signs of torture, the relative said. “There were injuries around his joints, his arms were detached from his shoulders. Half of his lower jaw was missing along with several of his upper teeth.”

One week after Emam’s death, an appeals court overturned the guilty verdict and his one-year jail term, the relative said. The family hasn’t filed a complaint about Emam’s death for fear of reprisal. “I know that I will not get justice,” the relative said.

Reporting by Reuters staff; additional reporting by Stephanie van den Berg in The Hague, Edmund Blair in London and Lesley Wroughton in Washington; editing by Janet McBride and Richard Woods

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