Egyptian organizations respond to the government’s decision to deny entry to Human Rights Watch executives
By Kaylan Geiger and Alia Ibrahim
The Egyptian government, along with several Egyptian organizations and politicians, have denounced a critical report issued by Human Rights Watch which labels the 2013 dispersal of the Rabaa al-Adaweya and Nahda Square sit-ins as “crimes against humanity.”
The government released an official statement claiming that Human Rights Watch “does not enjoy any legal status that may allow it to operate in Egypt. […] Conducting investigations, collecting evidence and interviewing witnesses without any legal backing are activities that constitute a flagrant violation of state sovereignty under international law.”
Two executive directors for HRW, Kenneth Roth and Sarah Leah Whitson, were denied entry and held overnight at Cairo International Airport on August 11, after arriving from the United States with the intention to release the results of HRW’s investigation in Cairo. According to HRW, this is the first time any staff member had been denied entry to the country with the reason given being “security reasons.”
The Ministry of Interior said in an official statement, however, “The organization’s delegation arrived at Cairo Airport on the date they set for their part without obtaining the required visas to enter the country. This is consistent with approach pursued by the organization, as it perceives itself an entity above the law and not subject to its provisions.”
Omar Shakir, the principal researcher and reporter for the HRW report, said that the organization had shared the report’s findings with the Egyptian government but received no response. "It seems the authorities have decided, though, that only one narrative can be heard in Egypt. Shutting us down cannot erase what happened one year ago," Shakir told Reuters. "We will continue to demand that those responsible for grave abuses be held accountable."
As HRW and many Western media outlets condemned the Egyptian government’s reaction to the report, a coalition of 17 Egyptian human rights organizations held a press conference on August 13 denounce HRW as “illegal” and its report biased. Dr. Naguib Gobrail, president of the Egyptian Union of Human Rights Organizations told The Cairo Post, “We have evidence and facts to prove the Muslim Brotherhood’s crimes; the MB imposed a siege on the Rabaa region and its inhabitants. We, Egypt’s NGOS, will undertake legal measures against HRW.”
Maged Atef, a former correspondent for Newsweek magazine who covered the Rabaa al-Adaweya dispersal, accused HRW of “manipulating” his testimony to investigators about the killing of a police officer, believed to be the first person to die during the dispersal. He asserted to Al-Masry Al-Youm that despite meeting HRW only once and not providing detailed timelines, “The report mentioned that its writer met with me twice and that the question on the incident of killing a policeman was confusing. The report stated that it cannot rely on my testimony because of my conflicting words.”
Nasser Amin, a member of the state-affiliated National Council for Human Rights (NCHR) responsible for investigating the August 14 dispersals, claimed that Atef’s testimony was one of the strongest testimonies in NCHR’s investigation. “Atef’s story shows that the organization’s report about the dispersal of Rabaa was biased and unsystematic and that those who made it were biased. It includes fatal fallacies that destroy the credibility of the international organization,” Amin told Al-Masry Al-Youm.
In a phone interview on the Egyptian channel Dream 2, Tamarod spokesperson Mohamed Nabawy criticized HRW's decision to issue the report on the anniversary of the controversial dispersals.“They are essential partners in mobilizing opposition against the Egyptian state and provoking citizens against the armed forces,” he said, adding that “our only response is with our shoe” to any organization or country, even the United States, that intervenes in Egyptian affairs.
“This organization is not professional and issued a politicized report siding with the Brotherhood,” said Abu Bakr Abdul Kareem, the assistant minister for human rights in the Ministry of Interior, during a phone interview on the Egyptian channel Mehwar. He added the report is not objective and against the rights of the Egyptian people.
Dr. Hamza Zawba, a columnist and writer with the pro-Brotherhood Freedom and Justice Party, sided with the HRW report, saying that it “puts the noose around the neck of the coup leader […] it is an important step on the road towards the end.”
The 188 page report by HRW claims “the killings not only constituted serious violations of international human rights law, but likely amounted to crimes against humanity, given both their widespread and systematic nature and the evidence suggesting the killings were part of a policy to attack unarmed persons on political grounds.”
The report claims that the dispersal killed at least 817, but the death toll could be greater than 1,000. The National Council of Human Rights estimates the death toll to be 693.
The HRW report acknowledges that participants in the sit-ins did use some violence toward security forces during the dispersal, but claim that police found only 15 firearms among thousands of demonstrators and only eight police officers had been killed that day. “Such a grossly disproportionate death toll suggests something deeply wrong with this operation,” Roth writes in Foreign Policy, “especially as it was a policing operation in which international law required that lethal force be used only if necessary to meet an imminent lethal threat.”
Some see the government’s response to HRW as further evidence that a crackdown on NGO is underway, particularly given the recent draft law that would put these groups under stricter government control.
“The government sees this as a great opportunity to silence any critical voices, which it portrays as against the interests of Egypt,” Gasser Abdel Razek, the head of the Egyptian Initiative on Personal Rights, told the Washington D.C. based Al-Monitor. “We are seeing horrendous rights violations of a magnitude probably not seen in Egypt before, and it isn't sustainable. By documenting these abuses we're trying to help those in power to make the right decisions and not shut down completely all dissent — that is in Egypt's interests.”