At least 846 Egyptian protesters were killed during the 18-day uprising that swept former President Hosni Mubarak from power, a government-appointed fact-finding commission said Tuesday.
Egyptian police shot and killed many of those who were slain in the crackdown meant to quell Egypt's unrest, according to the commission. It also said Mr. Mubarak should be held accountable for the casualties.
The report is a key step toward holding accountable those responsible for the brutal treatment of demonstrators, say human rights activists. They say that it's a sign, along with Egypt's move to join the International Criminal Court (ICC), the country is moving toward implementing the rule of law and away from the impunity that characterized Mubarak’s era.
“It is a step forward in the right direction, and this is totally different than what we saw in the past,” says Bahey El Din Hassan, director of the Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies. “But the political will still has a role to play” in holding officials accountable. “I am afraid that justice is still not blind in Egypt.”
The commission's findings more than double the number of dead the government had previously acknowledged, and is much nearer to the numbers that rights activists tallied. The report also says that 26 police officers and one prisoner were killed in the violence, and that more than 6,000 people were wounded.
In an important step, the report acknowledges what had been widely reported by protesters: that security forces used snipers to fire on them. Many of those killed had gunshot wounds to the head or chest, according to the report. The commission said that snipers from the counterterrorism unit of the State Security apparatus were used against demonstrators.
The commission also said that police used vehicles to run over protesters, and charged plainclothes police and members of Mubarak’s National Democratic Party, now dissolved, with hiring thugs to attack protesters. Most of the protester deaths happened between Jan. 28 and Feb. 2 – a day of peaceful protest that quickly turned bloody when organized gangs attacked protesters who had gathered in Tahrir Square, using rocks, sticks, Molotov cocktails, and even camels and horses to charge the crowd.
The report was based on more than 17,000 eyewitness accounts and 800 videos. It also charges that police were complicit in the wide release of criminals from prisons during the uprising.
The commission concluded that Mubarak should be held accountable because it was on his watch that his Interior minister, Habib al-Adly, ordered police to use live ammunition on protesters. Mr. Adly is now facing trial on charges of ordering the shootings.
Last week, Egypt’s public prosecutor ordered that Mubarak and his sons Alaa and Gamal be detained for 15 days while prosecutors investigate charges of corruption and violence against protesters. Mubarak is currently hospitalized in the Red Sea resort town of Sharm El Sheikh for heart trouble, while his sons are in Cairo’s notorious Tora Prison.
But Mr. Hassan questions whether the interim government has the political will to hold top officials accountable. The military council that is temporarily ruling Egypt until new elections is headed by Field Marshal Mohamed Hussein Tantawi, Mubarak’s long-time Defense minister. Hassan says the two months it took prosecutors to order the Mubarak detentions indicates a lack of intent to bring charges against key regime figures.
Yet he welcomes Tuesday's announcement by Foreign Minister Nabil al-Arabi that Egypt is seeking to join the ICC. “This would be a strong preventive step concerning the practice of torture, because the perpetrators of torture could be referred to this court if they would not be held accountable in Egypt, which has been the case for decades in Egypt," says Hassan.
Under Mubarak’s rule, torture and abuse were routinely practiced by police and state security agents, and few were ever held accountable. The case of Khalid Said, a young man beaten to death by policemen on the street in Alexandria, sparked widespread public outrage in Egypt last year. A Facebook group created called “We are All Khalid Said” was key in organizing the protests that eventually led to Mubarak’s fall.