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Students Are Still Dying in Egypt

After the country’s bloodiest summer, the trail of bodies is reinforcing one of the mainstays of the Mubarak era: unexplained deaths, denials by authorities.

by Tom Rollins
Jan 3 2014, 1:58pm


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Days ago, Khaled al-Haddad became the latest Al-Azhar University student to die during clashes with police. Students say he died from a police bullet. At least another eight students have been killed there since July.

However in November, in the days leading up to Mohamed Reda’s death at Cairo University, at least three other young students died in strikingly similar circumstances. A 20-year-old and another Cairo University student, Mahmoud Abdel Hakeem, were both killed with cartouche (or birdshot) in Tahrir Square on November 19th, the Mohamed Mahmoud anniversary. Abdel Ghany Mahmoud was shot dead with cartouche at Al-Azhar University the next day. A week later, Mohamed Reda was dead.

Some of these students were Muslim Brotherhood supporters, others not. But in each case the authorities have denied any involvement in the killings. After Egypt’s bloodiest summer, the trail of bodies are reinforcing one of the mainstays of the Mubarak era: unexplained deaths, authorities denials.

“The police have been manipulating the evidence since before the revolution,” second-year engineer Mahmoud Khairy said. Authorities claim students are being killed by pro-Brotherhood shooters within student protests.

“If students did have guns on campus,” another Cairo University student told me, “don’t you think they’d fire them at the police, not at other students?”

Dr. Hazem Hossam is a forensic pathologist at Cairo’s Zeinhom morgue and wrote Mohamed Reda’s final autopsy report. He told me Mohamed was killed by four-millimeter cartouche pellets—the same ones found in the bodies of some of the wounded and martyrs of Mohamed Mahmoud Street, the site of the revolution’s most infamous police violence, in November 2011.  “We definitely saw the same kind of cartouche in Mohamed Mahmoud,” Dr. Hossam said.

The senior forensics physician at Zeinhom, Dr. Hisham Abdel Hamid Farag, originally told OnTV on December 3 that the rounds that killed Mohamed were the same as those used at Mohamed Mahmoud—four and 8.5-mil cartouche—but suggested a nameless “third party” was responsible. When I met him in his office, the doctor flat-out denied the presence of four-millimeter rounds at Mohamed Mahmoud, contradicting what he originally said on TV.

Either way, another detail directly challenges official claims that the police do not possess the cartouche rounds that killed Mohamed Reda: according to morgue officials, they do and have used them before.

Lawyer Mohsen Bahnasy was part of a fact-finding committee that investigated the Mohamed Mahmoud clashes. “The committee found the interior ministry definitely had cartouche…whether or not the police had four-millimeter caliber or not, that wasn’t for us to decide.” The committee sent its final report to then-president, now-inmate Mohamed Morsi in January last year, but Bahnasy claimed that Morsi did not open a technical committee (which could have determined ammunition used) to push the findings further.

“Until now, we don’t know what kind of caliber the interior ministry uses,” Bahnasy said. “So the only thing we have to go on is the words of the ministry itself and they are one of the suspects.”

The interior ministry leaves few clues about its armory. The most recent official inventory  is a 2007 administrative decree, which states that the dakhleya have “large” and “small” cartouche rounds, human rights campaigners say. No further details are supplied and ministry officials would not comment on the details of this investigation.

“Caliber four-millimeter is being locally manufactured in Egypt and [the ministry] can produce [it],” Bahnasy continued. “If people can get four-millimeter off the black market, so can the interior ministry.” It works both ways. With the right gun license, you could walk into one of Cairo’s handful of gun shops and pick up birdshot pellets.

“[Cartouche] pellets are available widely,” Karim Ennarah, human rights researcher at the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights, agreed. He has documented cases of police brutality since the 2011 revolution and knows the supply network, which includes a police production facility in Alexandria, international imports and a healthy black market. Does that mean anyone could have shot Mohamed Reda?

“In some cases with demonstrations, you can tell there was an exchange of fire from both sides. This was not one of those cases,” Ennarah said, discussing Reda’s death. “There is no documented evidence of weapons being fired from the university campus [on November 28]. I don’t even know how students are meant to have got a weapon on campus.”

No journalists or human rights groups have found eyewitnesses who support the Ministry’s story of what happened that day. Evidence which authorities claim defends their case—including a mirror shattered by four-millimeter cartouche to the rear of the engineering campus courtyard—hasn’t been released. But bullet-holes in lampposts facing out of the university, where the police were positioned on November 28, suggest fire came from outside. Is this definitively police ammo? “It’s impossible to make a determination that this wasn’t the police, but I think that initial statement [blaming students] has very little credibility.”

Dr. Hossam agreed – you can’t rule out the possibility that Mohamed was killed by students using what is sometimes police-issue cartouche.

“Shotguns are present everywhere,” he admits, “but these types of [four-mil] shots are only present in cases when the police have been involved. We seldom see these shots in criminal cases, and we see nearly two cases every day.”

After Mohamed Mahmoud too, the interior ministry made a “third party allegation” that anonymous shooters—not the police—killed protesters.  “There was no evidence of civilian-on-civilian clashes,” Bahnasy claimed. “All clashes were police versus civilians.” Therefore, he said, it would be reasonable to assume that the ammunition that killed the Mohamed Mahmoud martyrs is police-issue after all.

I asked Dr. Hisham this as he sat behind his desk buried under a mountain of papers. Who killed protesters in November 2011 if it wasn’t the police? It may have been “foreign intelligence services” with “vested interests in maintaining instability in Egypt,” he replied, apparently straight-faced. What about the death at Cairo University? “It is highly unlikely that the police killed Mohamed Reda,” he concluded. The doctor also warned me about listening to “Muslim Brotherhood doctors” who would lie about the evidence.

The claim that a “third party” killed Mohamed Reda would be more credible if he was the only student killed recently. Scores have died since July. In Tahrir Square on this year’s Mohamed Mahmoud anniversary, one 20-year-old and another Cairo University student, Mahmoud Abdel Hakeem (or “Moody” to his friends), died from cartouche wounds. Both died after being hit by four and 8.5-mil cartouche, according to a well-informed forensic source who asked to remain anonymous, exactly the same types of ammunition which killed Mohamed Reda and the Mohamed Mahmoud martyrs. Both were shot near police lines on the edge of the square, but authorities claim they have confessions which get the police safely off the hook.

During riots with police at Al-Azhar University in late November, Abdel Ghany Mahmoud was shot with cartouche. Afterwards, a health ministry spokesman told Daily News Egypt’s Rana M. Taha, “police forces do not use birdshot weapons” despite almost three years’ worth of evidence to the contrary. Forensics say he died from one-millimeter birdshot rounds, the only “official police ammunition” according to Dr. Hisham: “This is the ammunition which killed the students in Al-Azhar.” So again the authorities lied.

Youssef Salaeen is a spokesman for Students Against the Coup, a campus-based youth group which has driven protests leading to weekly clashes with police. “The police have been using a lot of cartouche,” he said.

“Cartouche doesn’t kill if it’s [fired] from far away… [but] Abdel Ghany was shot at close-range in his chest” while recovering from tear gas in a university mosque. “That killed him.”

Young Egyptians searching for justice are facing intimidation and scare tactics by the authorities.

Since November, Cairo University students—and Mohamed’s family—have vocally attacked the police for his death. Second-year engineer Ahmed Hammad went to prosecutors with Mohamed’s mom and cousin to file a claim against the interior ministry. The claim openly blamed interior minister Mohamed Ibrahim for the shooting, carried out “with the hands and knowledge of police forces” there that day. Mohamed’s mother claimed there was “indisputable evidence” that police “fired cartouche/bullets at students without any right to do so.”

“At the prosecutor’s office they welcomed us, they’re giving the case a lot of attention,” Ahmed said. “When we filed the case, the prosecutor general [Hisham Barakat] himself welcomed Reda’s mother and took her into his office.” This was special treatment.

Since then students have complained of threats and intimidation from prosecutors, while Ahmed said others were interviewed “very aggressively”—some for five, even six hours. “My friend went, they asked him how far from Reda he was [at the time of the shooting] and he said he didn’t know. The prosecutor yelled at him: ‘You’re an architecture student, of course you should know!’” Prosecutors allegedly made “implicit threats” to press charges for protesting illegally or carrying weapons the day Mohamed died. It is possible the confessions, which authorities say implicate students in the killings, are being engineered this way? One Cairo University student told me an eyewitness was intimidated into saying students had guns the day Reda died, but it wasn’t possible to verify this claim.

“This is Egypt, this is how it works,” Ahmed said. “If you went to the Interior Ministry itself and filed a complaint, they’d welcome you but then direct [the case] the way the state wanted.”

So I went to the prosecutors. After walking through  the vast entrance hall painted black on either side with the uniforms of sleeping police conscripts, I was sitting in the office of the prosecution’s media coordinator. Could we ask some questions about the progress of the case? “According to Egyptian criminal law, investigations are secret,” he replied. “The information we have released so far is sufficient.” Then he smiled and started asking the questions: Where are you from? Who are you working for? Can I see your IDs? Where do you live? He was trying to intimidate us.

For better or worse, Mohamed Reda’s case is now firmly in the hands of the state. It is near impossible to absolutely prove who killed Mohamed Reda, Mahmoud Abdel Hakeem, and Abdel Ghany Mahmoud—or any of the other students shot since November. If we question how the Interior Ministry and prosecution officials handle the suspicious deaths of young protesters, it could help challenge  the military crackdown now permeating Egypt.

Additional reporting by Abdalla Kamal

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