CAIRO -- An Egyptian court Tuesday sentenced a police officer to 10 years in prison for the killing of 37 Islamists during the height of the government crackdown on supporters of ousted President Mohammed Morsi, marking the first time the government has held its forces responsible for its often violent tactics toward government opponents.
A Cairo court handed Lt. Col. Amr Farouk, deputy head of Heliopolis police station, a decade in prison for his role in the death of the prisoners. Three other police officers received a one-year suspended sentence.
The conviction comes just one day after a state-appointed panel, The National Council for Human Rights, concluded the Aug. 14 violent clearing of Morsi supporters at two sit-in sites, which killed as many as 1,400 people, was in part caused by excessive police response, not simply a product of violent protesters.
Both the death of protesters and the prisoners four days later set off an ongoing crackdown here against opponents of the military-backed government named after Morsi’s ouster. Government forces said they have arrested 16,000 since then, though some estimates are as high as 23,000.
Either way, the rampant arrests, often tainted by torture and internationally sanctioned prison conditions, seemingly undid one of the main objectives of the 2011 uprising that led to the fall of former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak – ending pervasive police brutality. And the widespread crackdown, which has included the arrest of top leaders of the Muslim Brotherhood, the secretive organization through which Morsi rose to power, has polarized the nation. Egypt today is deeply divided among those who believe the military approach is the only means to restore stability and those who feel the government has undone the gains of the 2011 uprising.
Whether the court ruling and the report’s finding marked an Egyptian government readjustment of its approach toward opponents, which McClatchy has found has created new anti-government fighters, remains unclear.
But the events of the last two days marked a change in tone from the government, which until now has steadfastly defended its actions.
In the days after the prisoners died Aug. 18, the government blamed the detainees, who were crammed into a police van, for their own deaths, saying their rioting forced police to fire tear gas. A court found Tuesday no evidence to back those claims.
The trial revealed that 45 prisoners, who were being transferred to Cairo’s Abu Zabal prison, were stuffed in a vehicle designed to only hold 24.
Those who survived the tear-gas assault on the police van talked to fellow prisoners about what they saw within days of the incident and contradicted the government version of events.
In November, McClatchy interviewed one prisoner, Al Jazeera correspondent Abdullah Shamy, who talked to some of the injured in the police van. Shamy said witnesses told him the prisoners had been left inside the truck for hours. One of them banged on the side of the truck, trying to draw attention, as they were suffocating from their cramped conditions. Then all the prisoners in the truck started banging. The police responded by throwing three tear-gas canisters inside, killing 37 of those inside from asphyxiation. Shamy said the witnesses told him they heard the police say, “Let them die.”
A day earlier, the human rights panel released its finding after a six-month investigation into the events at the Rabaa sit-in, the largest of the two broken up on Aug. 14. The report concluded that violence began when armed protesters shot and killed a policeman. While police warned the thousands gathered they were moving in, it gave those peaceful protesters no means to safely escape, the study found. The panel also concluded that the majority of those killed were peaceful, concluding 632 died and another 1,496 were injured in Rabaa.