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HRW: Likely crimes against humanity in Egypt

FILE - In this Wednesday, Aug. 14, 2013 file photo, A supporter of ousted Islamist President Mohammed Morsi throws a drinking glass during clashes with Egyptian security forces in Cairo
FILE - In this Wednesday, Aug. 14, 2013 file photo, A supporter of ousted Islamist President Mohammed Morsi throws a drinking glass during clashes with Egyptian security forces in Cairo's Nasr City district, Egypt. The scene on Aug. 14, 2013, was the start of the biggest massacre in modern Egyptian history, as security forces crushed the sit-in by Islamist supporters of Mohammed Morsi, the elected president who had been removed by the military a month earlier. (AP Photo/Manu Brabo, File)
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By Sarah El Deeb, The Associated Press

CAIRO - The New-York based Human Rights Watch called Tuesday for an international commission of inquiry into mass killings by Egyptian security forces last summer, saying they likely amount to crimes against humanity.

Based on a year-long investigation into the incidents that followed the ouster of Islamist President Mohammed Morsi on July 3, 2013, HRW called specifically for an inquiry into the role of country's current President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi, and at least 10 senior military and security chiefs in the killing of 1,150 protesters in the span of six weeks.

The group also called on Egypt's allies to suspend military aid and co-operation with the Egyptian authorities and military until the government adopts measures to end human rights violations.

Egypt's government rejected the report, accusing HRW of being "biased and unprofessional." In a statement issued by the government press office, it said the report's authors operated in Egypt without a permit, which it called a "blatant violation" of the country's sovereignty.

"While it is not surprised by the report, in light of the organizations' clear leaning and methods, the government rejects the report and criticizes its bias," the statement said, without clarifying what it meant by "leaning."

The 188-page report said it found that authorities had used excessive and deliberate force against protesters on political grounds in successive attacks on their gatherings.

The worst incident of mass killings occurred on Aug. 14, when authorities opened fire on a massive pro-Morsi sit-in at Cairo's Rabaah al-Adawiyah square. HRW said the day's death toll there was at least 817 and likely as high as 1,000, higher than the toll of 624 documented earlier by the state's human rights body. HRW called it the "world's largest killings of demonstrators in a single day in recent history."

Two HRW executives, arriving from New York on Sunday, were barred from entering Egypt and were turned back ahead of a planned launch of the report in Cairo. Officials said they were barred from entering after the government asked them to postpone their visit until September. The executives refused and insisted on coming, the Interior Ministry said Tuesday.

Holding a video-conference from Geneva, Beirut and New York to launch their report, HRW executives and researchers said the September invitation was not conveyed to the group's members before the ministry statement Tuesday.

HRW Executive Director Kenneth Roth, speaking from New York, said his group would like to continue its dialogue with the Egyptian government, but stressed that justice must be realized to ensure a transition to democracy in Egypt. He pressed Egypt's allies to pressure the government to establish the rule of law.

"It is very short-sighted on the part of the major Western governments to believe if they just make nice with el-Sissi's government that somehow this imagined transition to democracy which is repeatedly trumped will somehow come to pass," he said. "The message sent so far is that Egypt can get away with mass murder. That is a disastrous message to try to build a genuine democracy."

The report's authors said they had been in touch with government officials throughout their investigation, asking them repeated questions about their policies and planning, but received no response.

One of the main researchers of the HRW report also left the country after the executives were barred from entering.

The report's findings provide a detailed look at the government's policies and measures against successive protests by pro-Morsi supporters in the days following his ouster.

HRW accused authorities of using "deliberate and indiscriminate lethal force to disperse the two sit-ins, where protesters had remained encamped for 45 days.

While Egyptian security forces have often used excessive force to respond to demonstrations, the Aug. 14 dispersals were "unprecedented in the scale of sheer brutality." The group said the government failed to identify a specific time for the dispersal or give sufficient warnings for the protesters to leave the area.

The report found that the attack on the encampment at Rabaah was carried out from five different directions, with witnesses saying there were gunmen shooting down from helicopters at protesters who were being besieged with no access to safe exits for most of the day. Snipers took positions on rooftops overlooking the sit-in and fired from there, it said. Roth said at no time did police act "fearful," as if coming under attack.

The report also stated that "the brutal manner in which the security forces carried out the Rabaah and al-Nahda dispersals appears to reflect policies that the Egyptian authorities at the highest levels implemented after weeks of planning," the report said.

The New York based-group said that after its yearlong investigation, it concluded that the Egyptian government used "disproportionate force, failed to take measures to minimize loss of life and knowingly opened fire on unarmed protesters."

"The systematic and widespread nature of the deliberate and indiscriminate killings, coupled with evidence indicating that the government anticipated and planned to engage in mass unlawful killings ... indicate that the violations likely amount to crimes against humanity," it added.

The government had said the sit-ins had constituted a disruption of public order and security and accused the encampments of harbouring "terrorists."

However, the HRW report said the dispersals of the large sit-in were not isolated developments, but rather "part of a systematic campaign by the Egyptian government to violently disperse dissent."

The government's final toll for the Rabaah killings was 624 dead. Morsi's supporters say they documented names of 2,500 dead. At least eight policemen were killed during the dispersals.

Soon after Morsi's ouster, authorities repeatedly used lethal force to disperse protests. In four different incidents investigated by HRW in July and August before the dispersal of the sit-ins, at least 281 protesters were killed when security and military opened fire on the crowd.

The group suggested that "some protesters" carried weapons and shot at police. But based on interviews with 200 survivors, witnesses including protesters, local residents, medics and journalists, "they were few in numbers" and didn't justify indiscriminate firing at unarmed protesters, the group said.

The report said that rather than investigating potential wrongdoing, the government has refused to acknowledge any possible infractions on the part of the security forces. No formal investigation by prosecutors has been made public and no single officer or any official has been held accountable.

Instead, the government has accused foreign correspondents of biased coverage, and provided them with material, footage and photos, to show that the encampments were training grounds for militants, often failing to authenticate the material or provide details on when it was taken or where, the report said.

___

Associated Press writer Maggie Michael contributed to this report from Cairo.

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