Thursday, July 12, 2012

Retelling Abbasiya- The Most Brutal Military Crackdown Since the Cabinet Attacks

This story was supposed to be published a week or so after the Abbaseya events. Presidential elections that ensued drowned interest in this story and many of the details are lost in disparate news pieces. However, those arrested in the Abbasiya events are still in prison facing military trials, their stories locked up with them. This is an attempt to tell their story. The injustices they continue to face is reason enough to keep telling it. It also does not appear that their situation will change anytime soon, with President Mohamed Morsi echoing the military's rhetoric of labeling them 'thugs' and their release causing chaos. The committee formed does not indicate we're any closer to justice.

Protester during Abbasiya events on Friday
Photo by Mosa'ab El Shami 

What started out as a march of predominantly Salafi protesters at the end of April, ended in the random arrest and torture of numerous Egyptians of all ages protesting military rule

The violent events that took place in Abbasiya district in Cairo were largely misreported in Egyptian media and were subject to controversy. This is an attempt to reconstruct the story prompted by the numerous details that were missed and the overshadowing events of presidential elections.

On the night of Friday, 27 April, a group of Salafi protesters, predominantly Hazem Salah Abu-Ismail supporters started marching to the Ministry of Defence (MOD). They were protesting the disqualification of Abu-Ismail as a presidential candidate. They were also protesting Article 28 of the March 2011 Constitutional Declaration which gives immunity to decisions made by the Supreme Presidential Electoral Commission (SPEC). The resulting sit-in was joined the next day by members of several pro-revolution groups.

The leadup
On the night of Saturday, 28 April, the sit-in was attacked by assailants in civilian clothes using Molotov cocktails and cement bricks. Gunfire was also reported by witnesses. Around 138 protesters were injured and at least one was killed. In response, the number of protesters grew to around 2000, in order to protect the sit-in. Clashes ended Sunday morning. By Monday 30 April, six suspects were to face military trials.

Another major attack ensued on Wednesday, 2 May. The attack was yet again conducted by plain-clothed assailants in civilian clothes and armed with a diverse array of weaponry including shotguns, automatic weapons and tear gas. Residents of Abbasiya district marched to the area's police station to call on the authorities to intervene and end the clashes but authorities refused to respond. At least 11 died and dozens were injured, according to the Ministry of Interior, with numbers reported higher among eyewitnesses.

Friday brutality
On Friday, 4 May, thousands marched on Abbasiya to protest military rule and the continued use of force through hired thugs and plain clothed police personnel. Earlier warnings by the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) not to protest near Ministry of Defence were ignored. Protesters were attacked, this time by the military aided by assailants in civilian clothes in the most brutal attack by the military on civilians since the cabinet events in December.

According to Tom Dale, reporting for Egypt Independent, the army initially snatched three demonstrators, and that is when the clashes broke out. Egypt's military police started firing water cannons on protesters at 3:30pm Friday, after which the army started chasing protesters away and the brutality began.

Ahmed Abdel Monem, a project manager in a large systems integrator firm, describes some of the brutality: “There were people in civilian clothes armed with weapons who asked us to put our hands over our heads and then proceeded hitting us all, including elderly men and women.”

Witnesses indicate that the army’s attack was planned and implemented with the intent and brutality of a war battle. The protesters were chased from in front of the MOD along Al Khalifa Al Ma’moun street all the way back till they split up. Some fled towards Salah Salem Street, others to Lotfy El Sayed Street in the direction of Ramsis and the Demerdash metro station and others through the Abbasiya neighbourhood.

Map showing how protesters dispersed after military charge
Raphael Thelen, a German reporter, recalls his experience. “This was the scariest day of my life,” said Thelen. “There were 10 minutes where I didn’t know if I would make it out of there alive or not.”

Those who ran from the charge of the soldiers on Al Khalifa Al Ma’moun street and headed to the Abbasiya neighbourhood thinking it would be safer despite warnings by other protesters. This was not the case.

Thelen explains: “Protesters were dispersed by military police in the street leading up to the MOD with tear gas and I heard gunshots being fired. We went to the road that leads to Ramsis Street but there were army tanks that blocked us. We were caught in the middle. We tried to escape to the Abbasiya neighbourhood but the people there were ready for us holding up knives and guns and some of those ahead of us were pelted with empty glass bottles from the first storey.”

Thelen managed to escape the violence inside the Abbasiya neighbourhood when some women in the area gave him and his company shelter. He was later led  by a one of the residents of the neighbourhood through alleyways and stopped a taxi. As they escaped the scene through on Lotfi El Sayed, Thelen saw the protesters who chose trying to escape by going to the metro station.

“As we pulled away in the Taxi, we saw the military police on the overhead pass that pelting the protesters with rocks,” said Thelen.

Helena Hägglund, a Swedish reporter, was one of those forced to the metro platform. “The APCs came against the normal flow of traffic, from the direction of downtown moving toward MOD. We were far from where the fighting started, on the street next to the metro. They fired at protesters and forced them down a narrow staircase leading up to the metro. Someone pressed my head down to the stairs as they were firing, and the guy behind me got shot by rubber bullet. As we were pushed in that small pathway, my hand was stuck behind my back as crowds were crushing one another, one man rubbed his penis up my hand and because my hand was stuck I couldn’t pull it away. Even in such situations, these things happen."

When we got into the station the rocks came flying. The military were pelting us with rocks from the outside. After a while the military pelted the platform from the other side too. People got angry cause trains didn't stop; screaming. Then someone told us to run because there was a train stopping. I later learned that it was a man who stopped that train. We got on and escaped,” says Hägglund.

Simon Hanna, a journalist working for Reuters and Ahram Online, confirms that the military police chased protesters to the metro station of Demerdash, pelting the platform and the train with rocks. He was on board one of the trains that was pelted with rocks by military personnel.

Demerdash Metro station attacked by military police
Some 296 protesters were injured and a total of 326 protesters and bystanders were arrested, including 15 women, lawyers and journalists. No deaths were officially reported, but eyewitnesses testimony casts doubt on the official statement..

Farah Heshmat, 32, was at the scene with residents of Abbasiya and saw what appeared to be someone being murdered.

Farah says: “I saw some young people coming from the Demerdash overpass. One of them was wearing army pants and boots but with a t-shirt on top. They were dragging a man who was bald and were hitting him aggressively. When they were five meters from me one of them struck the man with a senga (a machete) to the front of his neck, and another from the back. There was so much blood and he dropped motionless. People celebrated, and then said the army and the people are one hand. I was so horrified but had to smile and pretend to celebrate so that they didn’t suspect I wasn't one of them. I still see this man when I close my eyes. All I saw of him was his bloody beard.”

Farah is engaged to Mahmoud Amin, who was amongst the first to be injured in the January 25 Revolution in 2011 losing one of his eyes. He was among those arrested in the Abbasiya events and has not been released, despite being in need of medical attention.

According to Alaa Farouk, a lawyer with the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights (EIPR), “We do not have a complete list of those arrested. The military police did not disclose the full list, despite being asked to do so by rights lawyers. The injured were taken from military hospitals to military prosecution directly without informing lawyers.”

The partial list disclosed to lawyers indicated random arrests including seven who had mental disabilities, and one with an amputated leg. Also many Ain Shams University students were arrested who had legitimate reason for being in the vicinity of the clashes.

Testimony collected by activists indicates that women were abused verbally and physically, humiliated and threatened. One of the women arrested was a minor and was released the same day. The rest of the women were released the next day.

Continued mistreatment
The next day, 5 May, 11 people protesting the military arrests at Abbasiya were arrested outside the military court. Those arrested were charged with approaching military areas and various other charges.

Ahmed Sabry, 30, is an engineer who was arrested in front of the military court. He recently set up a company making highly ranked mobile applications and is a former employee of Microsoft and IBM. Furthermore, he was part of a team of programmers that created Egypt’s first 3D game.

“I arrived there late and we heard that three or four had been arrested earlier,” Sabry explains. “A formation of military police started chasing after us even though we were on the main street not the side street that has the entrance. I was beaten by the soldiers and at one point there were almost five of them hitting me on the head with their sticks. All my injuries are to my head, but my hands were hurt as well because I was protecting my head. I was taken inside and all soldiers were hitting me along the way.”

“After the official investigation, there was a non-official one. This was really aggressive, at the very end he took a photo of me and said I should learn his face because I will see him again.”

Sabry - who has been released but whose case has not been dismissed - describes some of the many horrors faced by the prisoners. “When we went to prison, they cut everyone’s hair. Everyone had head injuries. Some 45 people were kept in a three by nine metre cell. Some people slept and some people had no space to even sit. We experienced physical and verbal abuse. They didn’t even care for the wounded.”

Farah, distraught over the abuse faced by her fiancé in military prison, called this reporter back to make sure her fiancé’s story gets out. “They hit him on his good eye intentionally. He wasn’t released even though he had brain surgery earlier and was scheduled to perform more crucial surgeries,” she said.

A Human Rights Watch report condemned the military’s involvement in the mistreatment of protesters through beatings and torture. The Human Rights Watch report stated, “The brutal beating of both men and women protesters shows that military officers have no sense of limits on what they can do.”

Sabry confirms the mistreatment and describes further how the military police would use plastic to tie prisoners’ hands and then use a lighter to melt the plastic when they wanted to set them free causing deep burns in the process.

Sabry thinks it may have been personal due to false information being spread about the protesters. “Inside there were a lot of insults, hitting on the back of the neck and verbal abuse and all soldiers were prejudiced against us. They were being told that Israel was about to attack and that we were infiltrators causing instability. They also told us they hadn’t slept for 48 hours because of us. It makes it personal,” says Sabry.

Being locked in prisons randomly, prisoners were unable to vote. Farah says: “Mahmoud Amin was hurt not being able to cast his vote. He sacrificed his eye and his life and he was deprived of this right. There is insistence on keeping him locked in. The people who arrested him were people in civilian clothes. His health is deteriorating. He is unable to walk long distances. Why are they doing this? Maybe for the next president to free the prisoners, will we always be political victims. He has 17 shrapnels in his skull.”

Ahmed Shafiq, a presidential candidate at the time, remarked in a televised interview that the Abbasiya events were a small preview of how the military would deal with anyone opposing his presidency if he is democratically elected.

Those arrested continue to face military trials and activists showing solidarity are subject to military prosecution. Under President Morsi, Mohamed Gahrib was sentenced to three years by the Suez military for expressing solidarity with the Abbasiya detainees. Others have also been sentenced to six months.

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