Prison guards accused of killing dozens of jail inmates in Egypt

'Independent' investigation uncovers evidence of massacre while protests against Mubarak were at their peak

Donald Macintyre
Saturday 19 February 2011 01:00

An investigation has opened into the suspected fatal shooting by prison guards of dozens of jail inmates in what is probably the biggest single atrocity committed by state-employed security forces during the protests that toppled Hosni Mubarak.

An account of killings, wounded inmates left without treatment for days and others forced to scavenge for food at a jail in al-Qatta has emerged based on evidence from inmates and relatives. Some details are impossible to corroborate, including a claim by one prisoner this week that 153 inmates were killed.

North Giza public prosecutor Mahmoud el-Hefnawy has begun to investigate after a formal complaint by the families of 11 prisoners but has yet to visit the prison, 40 miles north-west of Cairo, due to safety concerns. The prison remains heavily guarded by Egyptian Army tanks and armoured vehicles, which have formed three checkpoints on the road to it. About six other tanks are parked beside the jail, which houses 3,500 prisoners.

But it has been possible to piece together a version of events from calls made by inmates on mobile phones smuggled into the jail, and in subsequent interviews with relatives and prisoners made by the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights (EIPR), a Cairo NGO, and The Independent.

The prosecutor's investigation is likely to test Egyptian officials' transparency in the post-Mubarak era. It could also give a sign of how far the new Egypt is ready to reform a security state embedded after 60 years of dictatorship.

Up to 400 protesters are still thought to be detained by the army, some of whom were tortured, according to international human rights agencies. Tens of thousands demonstrators demanded their release at a victory rally in Cairo yesterday.

Chaos gripped Egypt on 28 January when the police disappeared from the streets after violently quelling the Cairo protests. At the jail, inmates saw television reports of violent looting in the cities and prisoners breaking out, or being deliberately freed, from several other jails. The prisoners apparently went into the courtyard, some demanding also to be freed. "There was a revolution inside the prison," said Yahya Mohammed Abdel Gabar, who has a brother in the jail. "The prisoners wanted to go out especially after all the leaders [managers] of the prison had left except for the guards."

There was probably some violence and the guards retreated to the watchtowers. A senior prisons inspector, General Mohammed el-Batran, then arrived at the jail, accompanied by a popular guard, Said Gelal.

Some prisoners say General el-Batran indicated that the prisoners would be freed and, according to a prisoner who spoke to The Independent by phone from the jail, that some of the guards would be put on trial for "torturing" prisoners in the past. We are not publishing the prisoner's name to prevent reprisals against him.

General el-Batran was shot dead by one of the guards, say the prisoners, and Mr Gelal was also injured. A prisoner, Mahmoud Hassan Mohammed, was shot and killed by guards when he went to the aid of Mr Gelal.

The authorities have claimed that General el-Batran was shot by prisoners. But Magda Boutros the EIPR researcher handling the case said: "They say, 'We tried to throw stones and were using water pipes as protection if we were attacked but we had no access to firearms'. And it does seem unlikely the prisoners would have had access to firearms."

The guards in the watchtowers then opened fire with live ammunition, according to accounts summarised by Ms Boutros: "They say the guards started shooting everywhere and people started to fall. The prisoners talk about a bloodbath, sea of blood and so on... the shooting went on and, afraid, the prisoners went back to their cells. They say that dozens died that day.

"They say it was intentional. They were shooting randomly but that the people did not die by mistake. They say the guards didn't come out of the towers but still managed to fire into the cells. They have told us we have to see the rooms because there are bullet holes in the walls."

By the following day, with dead bodies and injured inmates strewn through the courtyards and the cell blocks, the inmates say the electricity and water in their cells was cut off for a week, along with access to food supplies. The bodies would not be recovered or medical care offered to the injured for at least another four days.

The prisoner who spoke directly by mobile phone said the inmates now had a list of 153 names of people killed during the last three weeks.

But it until it obtains that list, the EIPR will commit itself only to saying that "dozens" died. Earlier estimates by prisoners that up to 80 had been killed had been difficult to verify because prisoners only knew what was happening in their own blocks.

The prosecutor has said that he had seen 23 victims in a local morgue on 9 February, but this was after families had started to collect the bodies. An official of the Ministry of Interior prisons department said yesterday that the claim of 153 casualties was "nonsense" but refused to give another figure.

Mahmoud Eid al-Sayed said that his 38-year-old son Adil, who had three children and had served eight years of a sentence for alleged drug offences, called him from the jail on a mobile phone at 4am on Sunday 30 January.

"He said: 'We have had a lot of deaths, 80 bodies.' He said they cut the water and closed off the lights. I told him: 'Be away from this and keep yourself safe'."

Mr Sayed continued: "Then at 10pm on the same day I received a call from one of his colleagues who said to me 'my condolences'. I said, 'how come? He called me only today'. The man said, 'he was shot today in front of the Mosque'. I don't know more than that. I know he had been leading prayers on the Friday."

The prisoners managed to lay out most of the decomposing bodies in the courtyard and covered them with sheets and blankets. Some prisoners have told EIPR that inmates were shot from the watchtowers as they came out looking for water, that they tried to break into the food store and that they killed cats to eat. On 1 February, Mr Sayed went to the jail with two of his other sons to get the body back. "We found state security forces there, with the army behind them," he said. The forces were firing warning shots to keep visitors away and shouting, "Stop!"

Mr Sayed, weeping at one point as he clutched his son's photograph, said: "I said: 'Let's return back. I have one son who has already returned to his creator. I don't want to lose you, too.'"

Visits did not start until 9 February, by which time some inmates had been told to collect bread for the prisoners and the most seriously injured were being treated in a military medical centre. The prison's medical wing and the visitor block had been burned out. While some families were apparently allowed to leave food for their relatives, others became angry when they were prevented from doing so and were dispersed by tear gas and rubber bullets.

The shooting within the jail appears to have halted on 7 February. Four days later, Mr Mubarak stepped down. The prisoner said: "After the speech when [Vice-President] Omar Suleiman announced that Mubarak was standing down, people cheered and started to shout and scream."

Apparently scared that the celebrations could get out of hand, the guards started firing again and one prisoner, Ahmed Magdi Mousa, was shot dead through his eye while others were injured.

The next day prisoners were told to take Mr Mousa's body to his family at the main gate. Five were carrying the body when some guards told them to stop and others to continue. Some guards opened fire again, killing at least one and injuring two others.

A free country now?

Human rights groups recorded a catalogue of abuses by security forces during the protests, and have urged the new military rulers to commit to ending the police torture and abuse that marred President Hosni Mubarak's regime.

Protesters detained during the uprising have told Amnesty International that they were subjected to beatings, whipping and electric shocks. "The Egyptian military authorities have committed publicly to creating a climate of freedom and democracy after so many years of state repression. Now they must match their words with direct and immediate action," said Malcolm Smart, the group's Middle East director.

Amnesty also accused the security forces of using "excessive force" during the rallies. It said that the most common injury suffered by the protesters was from shotgun shrapnel. Baton charges, tear gas and water cannons were also deployed.

The New York-based watchdog Human Rights Watch has called on the military regime to lift emergency law and release all the people detained in the unrest, though it remains unclear exactly how many remain missing.

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