The massacre of at least 1,150 demonstrators by Egyptian security forces in a series of protests between July and August 2013 was systematic, methodical, and premeditated, Human Rights Watch (HRW) charged in a 188-page report released today.
The killings — many of which were carried out during the dispersal of a sit-in in support of ousted president Mohamed Morsi in Cairo's Rabaa al-Adawiya Square on August 14 — "most likely" amounted to crimes against humanity, the human rights watchdog said.
Egyptian officials declined to collaborate with HRW, but rejected the report after its release. They also made clear they didn't like the accusations on Sunday when authorities at Cairo's airport stopped HRW's executive director Kenneth Roth and Middle East and North Africa director Sarah Leah Whitson, denying them entry to the country without explanation.
An unnamed airport official told the Associated Press that the instruction to stop the two came from an unspecified security agency. Roth and Whitson spent 12 hours at the airport, the AP reported. Omar Shakir, a HRW researcher in Cairo who worked on this report and a US citizen, also left Egypt following the episode.
"Instead of denying the messenger entry to Egypt, the Egyptian authorities should seriously consider our conclusions and recommendations and respond with constructive action," Roth said in a statement following the incident. "It appears the Egyptian government has no appetite to face up to the reality of these abuses, let alone hold those responsible to account."
Roth and Whitson were traveling to Egypt for the report's release — which went on as planned.
In a statement today, the Egyptian government said it took "note" of the HRW report, which it rejected as "highly negative" and "biased." It added that the rights group does not enjoy any legal status allowing it to operate in the country.
"The Egyptian government regrets the report's deliberate omission of any reference to the hundreds of police, military, and civilian victims who fell as a result of the then and still ongoing violent terrorist incidents conducted by those described in the report as 'peaceful protestors,'" the two-page statement said.
The HRW report does actually include reference to security officers killed during the events it documents. "The report also clearly fails to mention the fact that the dispersal came in the failure of all political and popular efforts aimed at persuading the protesters to disperse peacefully," the official statement continues. "The Egyptian government reaffirms its full respect for the promotion and protection of human rights."
Yet if the choice to deport the HRW staff brought further attention to the report, for Egyptian authorities it was still preferable to letting them discuss its findings right in the country's capital.
"Either the government does not realize what kicking out the world's most reputable rights watchdog representative says about its policies or they think that they can contain it," an Egyptian journalist who asked not to be named told VICE News. "But whatever the toll this will take on its already-tainted image abroad, it will be less damaging than having HRW say, from Cairo itself, that Egypt's government has committed a massacre that amounts to a crime against humanity."
'You essentially had Egyptians supporting the mass killing of their fellow countrymen in a way that was really unprecedented in modern Egyptian history. That's a very difficult thing for a country to confront.'
The rights group shut down its Cairo office earlier this year, after its requests for registration had gone unanswered since 2007.
The episode was a first for the Egyptian government, HRW said, noting that its staff has never been denied entry before, including under former president Hosni Mubarak.
To those observing the Egyptian authorities' crackdown on civil society with growing concern — including on foreign NGOs and journalists — the development was deeply disturbing, though not necessarily surprising.
Speaking with VICE News, Shadi Hamid, a fellow at the Brookings Institution and author of Temptations of Power: Islamists and Illiberal Democracy in a New Middle East, called the report a "devastating indictment" of the Egyptian government's behavior.
"No one in the Egyptian government wants to touch Rabaa in any serious way, it's the terrible thing that is not spoken of," Hamid said. "Anything that reminds Egyptians of what happened last year is avoided, no one wants to look inward and address what happened that day because it would be very damning of the Egyptian government and military but also of the Egyptian people, many of whom cheered on the massacre while it was happening.
"Even beyond the government, it was a very dark day for Egyptian people, and you essentially had Egyptians supporting the mass killing of their fellow countrymen in a way that was really unprecedented in modern Egyptian history. That's a very difficult thing for a country to confront."
The HRW document, researched over the course of a year and documenting accounts by more than 200 witnesses, paints a deeply unflattering picture of Egyptian authorities after the coup that ousted Morsi, the country's first democratically elected president.
'It was Raining Bullets.'
In a single day, August 14, Egyptian security forces shot and killed at least 817 people assembled outside a mosque in Rabaa al-Adawiya, in the Nasr City suburb of Cairo — but that's a conservative estimate, the report found, and the actual death toll was "more likely at least 1,000."
Witnesses recounted security forces beating, torturing, and executing several people. They accused officers of deliberately shooting into the crowd, of firing on makeshift medical facilities, and of positioning snipers to target anyone entering or leaving Rabaa hospital. Towards the end of the day, the first floor of the hospital and nearby facilities were set ablaze, the report said.
'The highest levels of government officials in Egypt planned this dispersal… including now president, Abdel Fattah el-Sisi.'
"They immediately fired tear gas and live fire," a witness told the group. "It was so intense, I can't even describe it; it was not like the other times before, one or two at a time. It was raining bullets."
"I smelled the gas and immediately saw people being hit and falling down around me," he added. "I have no idea how many people were hit. We didn't hear any warnings, nothing. It was like hell."
The graphic video below, released with the report, highlights some of its findings and testimonies.
Eight police officers were also killed during the dispersal, and in the following days, Egyptian authorities claimed that some protesters had used firearms during the demonstration, and announced that they had found 15 guns in Rab'a, after the dispersal.
HRW confirmed a few instances of protesters using firearms, but called the authorities' response "grossly disproportionate," and said instead that the government's targeting of "overwhelmingly peaceful" protesters was "premeditated."
"What we know and what is actually a matter of public record is that the highest levels of government officials in Egypt planned this dispersal," Whitson said in the video. "There was a very high level meeting called of the most senior government officials, army officials, security officials, including the interior minister, including then-defense minister, now president, Abdel Fattah el-Sisi."
As the report points out, Egypt's Interior Minister Mohamed Ibrahim seemed to admit to the charges of premeditation in the days following the massacre, saying in a televised interview that the ministry had "expected" losses of "10 percent" of the "more than 20,000 people" at Rabaa. Later, however, the minister said the actual death toll was "less than what we expected" and "close to 1,000."
HRW used satellite images to estimate that about 85,000 demonstrators were at the sit-in at some point.
"There's been a lot of debate about specifics and what the actual evidence is, and this report fills the gap, offering the definitive account of what happened," Hamid said.
"A lot of Egyptians in particular have resisted facing what happened that day, and I think many who were anti-Brotherhood and sympathetic to the military dismissed the claims of the massacre saying there's not enough evidence, or the evidence is that there were armed members at the sit-in. Here we can actually resolve some of the debate."
This video shows body bags lined up beside the Rabaa al-Adawiya moque, in Nasr City, Cairo, on August 15, after the pro-Morsi protest camp there was cleared with massive force and loss of life.
Security forces moved to clear a sit-in by Morsi supporters in Rabaa Square early on August 14, using bulldozers and tear gas. This video, uploaded the same day, shows fires in an encampment and and corresponds with footage on Egyptian television.
But it's unlikely that Egyptians will see much of the report in their local media.
"As far as Egyptian media goes, which is overwhelmingly pro-army, the report will either be ignored or spun as a part of the grand foreign conspiracy against Egypt which is used as the excuse for any international criticism of Sisi," the Egyptian journalist said. "The government appears to be willing to prevent any reopening of the Rabaa case and that includes journalistic investigation."
The journalist, who was at Raba the day before the massacre, said protesters showed her sniper installations set up at a military facility overlooking the square.
"They said it wasn't there the night before," she said, adding that some of that evidence made it into the HRW report. "Some of their evidence shows that the army allowed this facility to be used as a hub for police snipers."
'The Obama administration in particular has kind of gone back to pre-Arab spring business as usual, they're relying increasingly on autocratic regimes.'
The report also documented killings by police at five other demonstrations, most of which left dozens of other people dead.
"This wasn't merely a case of excessive force or poor training," Roth said in a statement at the release of the report. "It was a violent crackdown planned at the highest levels of the Egyptian government. Many of the same officials are still in power in Egypt, and have a lot to answer for."
Many of the military leaders Human Rights Watch indicts as directly responsible for the violence are now key figures in the government, including Sisi himself, whom HRW says "should be held individually accountable."
"The government's ongoing efforts to crush dissent, sweep its abuses under the rug and rewrite history cannot erase what happened in Rab'a last year," Roth added. "Given Egypt's resounding failure to investigate these crimes, the time has come for the international community to step in."
HRW called for criminal charges to be brought against these individuals, including in international courts. It also called on foreign governments to stop military and other aid to Egyptian authorities.
But it may be a little late for that, critics said.
"Once it was clear that there was a military coup the US was under an obligation to suspend military aid according to our own law," said Hamid. "Now it's a year later and it's difficult to imagine how or why the US or Europe would consider a serious suspension of military aid when they didn't do so last year when there was much more international concern."
"I think the international community has largely come to terms with the Sisi regime," he added, citing as an example the willingness of international financial institutions to work with Egypt's current government. "A lot of countries have moved on, and the Obama administration in particular has kind of gone back to pre-Arab spring business as usual, they're relying increasingly on autocratic regimes, there's less talk of supporting democracy and human rights in the Middle East."
Follow Alice Speri on Twitter: @alicesperi