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Maspero: Four years later, justice still delayed

Four years since the Maspero massacre, Egypt’s failure to prosecute crimes committed by the Armed Forces and crimes committed against religious minorities has perpetuated institutional injustice. Without effective and comprehensive investigation, full enjoyment of domestic and international human rights remains illusory. Legal processes have stalled, victims have not been granted redress, and the courts have largely been unable to guarantee justice.

On October 9, 2011, thousands of peaceful protesters gathered in Shubra, north of downtown Cairo, to march toward Maspero, the Egyptian radio and television building, to demonstrate against the destruction of the St. George Church in Edfu, Aswan. As the protest neared the end of Shubra Street, residents threw rocks at the demonstrators from an overpass, and gunshots were heard at various points along the route.  As marchers approached the Maspero building, security personnel and members of the Armed Forces fired live ammunition and tear gas at the protesters and drove armored personnel carriers into the crowds. Amid the violence, state television anchor Rasha Magdy began to incite against the demonstrators, calling on “all honorable citizens” to take to the streets and defend the military from what she referred to as Coptic attackers. Sectarian vigilante groups attacked protesters as they attempted to flee the area. Twenty-eight demonstrators were killed and 212 were injured.

Despite the horrific nature of the massacre and the well-documented events of Maspero, there have only been two cases litigating the matter, neither of which has been able to produce a clear narrative nor guarantee justice for the victims. Rather than hold security personnel and the Armed Forces accountable, the Egyptian judicial and legal system opted to charge the protesters instead. In December 2011, a judge investigated more than 30 civilians reportedly present at the Maspero massacre for inciting sectarian strife, disturbing public security, and attacking security forces. Due to a lack of evidence, the majority of investigations were closed. In April 2012, however, two of these men, Michael Adel Naguib and Michael Mossad Shaker, were referred to trial. They were ultimately sentenced to three years in prison on the charge of stealing a machine gun from the Armed Forces.

The only other instance in which Maspero has come before the court system involved the issuing of minimal and symbolic sentences to three army soldiers. In December 2011, the Supreme Military Tribunal sentenced Mahmoud Sayed Abdel-Hamid Sulaiman and Karam Hamid Mohammed Hamid to two years in prison and Mahmoud Jamal Taha Mahmoud to three years. The men were found guilty of unintentionally killing 14 protesters, a charge that is punishable by a maximum imprisonment of seven years. Despite the deliberate nature involved in the decision to drive a military vehicle over the bodies of protesters and the severe violations of the right to life documented by witnesses and survivors of the massacre, the court tried the men for manslaughter rather than murder, discrediting activists’ narrative on Maspero. The court argued that the men exercised a lack of precaution and that they were negligent, driving vehicles in a chaotic manner inappropriate in light of the crowded nature of the road.

Egypt’s response to sectarian attacks and religiously motivated crimes is unfortunately consistent, and the Maspero massacre is just one of a number of such cases that remain unresolved. The Two Saints Church bombing that claimed the lives of 23 Christians has remained largely uninvestigated since January 1, 2011. The Imbaba church attacks that involved the death of at least 12, the injury of 232, the burning of three churches, and the destruction of numerous Coptic homes have been left unprosecuted. Even today and despite the spike in sectarian attacks since August 2013, authorities have, instead of pursuing legal charges, resorted to informal reconciliation sessions that leave the victims without any meaningful protection or redress. At times, the sessions have even adversely impacted the rights of the victims themselves. Most recently, a rare court order in favor of a Christian whose land had been stolen resulted in a violent dispute, the destruction of the Christian’s home, and damage to the local church. Rather than ensure the implementation of the court order, authorities favored a reconciliation session that forbade the Christian man from demanding his land and attending church for a period of four months. The violent perpetrators were only asked not to go anywhere near the land.

Egyptian authorities have not only failed to investigate crimes committed against religious minorities, but have also consistently failed to prosecute crimes committed by security forces more broadly. Following the Abu Zaabal incident in which 37 prisoners died in the back of a police van, likely due to asphyxiation, the vice warden of the police station received a five year sentence and three soldiers received suspended one year terms. Acquittals, including those handed down to six police officers for the killing of 83 protesters in Alexandria during the January 25 Revolution, remain the rule, rather than the exception. When litigation is successful in favor of victims of security force violence, sentences are minor; First Lieutenant Mahmoud al-Shinnawy, infamously known as the “Eye Sniper” for his deliberate shooting at protesters’ eyes during the Mohamed Mahmoud Street clashes in November 2011, was sentenced to a mere three years in prison. From the mass deaths in Port Said Stadium riots to the Rabaa al-Adawiya square, the events since Egypt’s January 25 Revolution have uncovered a consistent lack of commitment on the part of authorities to bring about justice for victims of security sector violence.

The overall failure of the court system to prosecute security forces for the Maspero massacre, coupled with its intent to take punitive measures against peaceful protesters and victims of horrific violence even outside of the context of Maspero raises serious questions on the judiciary’s ability to bring justice to the most marginalized members of society and even more broadly, its ability to guarantee transitional justice at a time in which most, if not all, violations perpetrated by security forces remain unprosecuted. With President Abdel-Fattah El Sisi’s recent decision to cancel the mandate of the Ministry of Transitional Justice, these judicial and legal shortcomings are unlikely to be remedied.