Egypt's ruling generals accused by human rights group after morgue workers in Cairo contradict official claims
Egypt's ruling generals have been accused by a human rights organisation of having blood on their hands after medical workers confirmed that live ammunition had been used against anti-junta demonstrators in Tahrir Square.
According to morgue officials, at least 22 Egyptians have been killed by live bullets since street battles began on Saturday, directly contradicting government statements that security forces have never opened fire on protesters.
One hospital doctor told the Guardian he had personally seen 10 patients struck by live ammunition during the protests that have swept Egypt in the past six days, six of whom did not survive.
"Many of the fatalities were as a result of a single shot to the head," said Hesham Ashraf, of Qasr el-Aini hospital, one of central Cairo's largest medical facilities. Autopsies on 12 other bodies confirm live ammunition as the cause of death, including some cases where the bullet was clearly shot from a height, suggesting the possible involvement of army or police snipers.
This week the health minister, Amr Helmy, became the first government figure to acknowledge that deaths had been caused by live ammunition, but insisted that the security forces were not behind the shootings.
"Time and time again the military has insisted that it has not used live ammunition against protesters, as if it is somehow not responsible for the riot police operating under military command and control," said Sarah Leah Witson of Human Rights Watch, which has investigated the killings. "It is irrelevant whether the live ammunition came from the riot police or the military police. What is relevant is who gave the orders to shoot live bullets on protesters, and when they will be prosecuted for it."
One victim, a 16-year-old boy, was allegedly killed on Wednesday morning by a live bullet to the chest after leaving school to join the protests in Tahrir Square. His death came just hours after Field Marshal Mohamed Hussein Tantawi – the target of those rallying for change – appeared on television to address the nation and declared: "We never killed a single Egyptian, man or woman."
The victim's family say the shooting happened on a main road leading to Tahrir that has been the site of Cairo's most intense fighting in recent days. Abdul Rahman Eman Ali, who attended school in the populous Shubra neighbourhood of northern Cairo, reportedly left with a group of friends in the late morning and travelled to Tahrir. His relatives, who spoke to the Guardian outside Zeinhum morgue, claim that as he moved into Mohamed Mahmoud street he was shot from a distance by a single bullet, which penetrated his sternum.
"His friends called his parents to say he had been shot; before that the family had no idea Abdul was even in Tahrir," said the victim's cousin Hisham Mahrous. "They drove to different hospitals to find someone to operate on him, but at every one the staff just said 'he's already dead, you have to take him to the morgue'."
The official autopsy report on the boy's death will not be available for two weeks, but medical experts say it would not be possible for a rubber-coated bullet or tear gas canister – two other types of ammunition that have caused deaths in recent days – to have had the impact on the chest reported in his case.
"It is very easy to distinguish between live rounds and rubber bullets or cartouche because the impact and penetration is very different," said Dr Ashraf. "I have myself observed a 9mm live bullet being extricated from a protester's back. This is a level of violence we have not seen before, not even during the [anti-Mubarak] uprising in January and February."
According to the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights, a Cairo-based human rights organisation that has been investigating the use of live ammunition by security forces, some protesters have been shot dead while trying to come to the aid of others.
Its inquiries suggest that on Sunday two young men were gunned down while trying to help people who had fainted from exposure to teargas following a brief army-led assault on Tahrir. Essam El Sayed Saber, 27, was reportedly hit by a live round in the back of his head. Fellow protester Mohamed Said Iman, 25, is believed to have been hit by a live bullet to the waist.
Outside Zeinhum morgue, the main mortuary for the Egyptian capital, dozens of family members of those killed in Tahrir gathered in search of both bodies and answers. Punctuated by the sporadic arrival of ambulances and hearses, relatives stood crying and arguing with officials about gaining access to doctors, who are for the most part closed off from the public by a set of large metal doors. Empty wooden coffins lay stacked up by the entrance.
"Please tell the governments of the west to stop sending bombs, gas and bullets to our leaders, because our leaders are using them to destroy us," urged one bystander. The sporadic arrival or departure of a corpse was accompanied by screams from the crowd, and several people fainted.
There were fears that the official death toll fell well short of the actual number of fatalities as reports emerged that some doctors were coming under pressure to falsify autopsy reports and give the cause of death as something other than live ammunition.
Legal experts say that the use of live rounds could be in contravention of both Egyptian and international law. "Egypt is a member of the international covenant on civil and political rights, and article six of the covenant prohibits any arbitrary deprivation of life," said Ruth Wedgwood, an international law professor at Johns Hopkins University and a former member of the UN human rights committee.
"The use of deadly force is restricted to imminent threat. If there was an attempt to use firearms to intimidate, make a political point or discourage protesting in general, then that would certainly be pressing the boundaries of legality under international law," she explained, adding that more senior commanders could be held responsible.
"If security forces are issued loaded weapons and there was an order to fire at will at demonstrators then this would implicate state responsibility. If there was a commander who authorised the use of live ammunition with the intention of being intimidating or punitive, that implicates national responsibility, though to make a case you'd have to unravel where the orders came from and what the facts on the ground are, and that's extremely difficult."
-Published in The Guardian
-Cairo - November 2011
-Shortlisted for the 2012 Kurt Schork awards