Evidence analyzed by Human Rights Watch shows a uniformed police officer apparently directing a masked man who fires a shotgun toward a group of about two dozen peaceful protesters whom police were dispersing from Talaat Harb Square. Shaimaa al-Sabbagh, 32, is seen immediately falling to the ground following the shot. She died later from what medical authorities described as “birdshot” injuries. Prosecutor General Hisham Barakat announced an investigation into al-Sabbagh’s death the same day.
“The prosecutor general needs to follow through on his pledge to bring those responsible for al-Sabbagh’s death to justice,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East and North Africa director. “The world is watching to see whether this case breaks the pattern of impunity for rights abuses that has marred Egyptian justice since the 2011 uprising.”
The prosecutor general said that investigators would review all the available evidence, including surveillance camera footage and official logbooks detailing the weapons used by security forces, and would question the police who dispersed the protest. In a statement, Barakat confirmed his office’s “commitment to apply the law to everyone with all firmness and without discrimination and present the perpetrators of the incident – whoever they were – to criminal prosecution.”
However, Barakat also said that “preliminary investigations” had found that the police had only used teargas, and only after the protesters had failed to respond to police orders to leave and had injured police with rocks and fireworks. On January 28, 2015, an official from the Interior Ministry, which oversees the police, told the media that the projectile that killed al-Sabbagh was not a type that the security forces use and suggested that videos of her being shot were fabricated.
On January 31, the Qasr al-Nil district prosecutor’s office, which is investigating the incident, ordered the arrest of the vice president of al-Sabbagh’s political party, 60-year-old Zohdi al-Shami, who had been present at the protest and had gone to the prosecutor to offer testimony. Prosecutors questioned al-Shami as a suspect for about nine hours before ordering his arrest, according to one of al-Shami’s lawyers, Mohamed Abd al-Aziz. They presented a report from the National Security Investigations Service that said al-Shami is suspected of having carried a weapon to the protest, Abd al-Aziz told Human Rights Watch.
Prosecutors have also charged nearly a dozen people involved in the protest with breaking an anti-protest law passed in November 2013 than bans all unauthorized gatherings, according to some of those charged. One witness told Human Rights Watch that the district prosecutor investigating the killing initially attempted to arrest her when she offered her statement.
Human Rights Watch interviewed four witnesses to the shooting and analyzed 18 photographs and three videos. This evidence shows that the security forces deployed in Talaat Harb Square that day used excessive force in response to a small, peaceful march organized by the Popular Socialist Alliance Party, and fired teargas and birdshot at the protesters apparently without warning.
One video that shows security forces dispersing the protest captured what appears to be the moment that al-Sabbagh was shot. Four gunshots are audible in the video. The first two were fired in quick succession at the outset of the dispersal, with the third shot nine seconds later and the fourth shot seven seconds after that. When the first two shots were fired, protesters on the sidewalk carrying a large red banner had begun moving away, southwest along Talaat Harb Street toward Tahrir Square. Their banner can be seen near the door of the Air France office that faces Talaat Harb Square. Based on published photographs showing both al-Sabbagh and the banner at this position, al-Sabbagh was standing and was not wounded at that time.
In the video, the protesters can be seen walking southwest farther along Talaat Harb Street, pursued by the police, when the third shot is heard. At that moment, a masked man in dark clothes is seen standing beside a uniformed officer, identified as a police brigadier general, in the street. The masked man adopts a shooting stance and points his firearm in the protesters’ direction as the police officer runs toward and points at the protesters. Three photographs published by local media organizations also show this moment, with the police officer and the gunman, from different angles.
Hisham Abd al-Hamid, spokesperson for the Justice Ministry’s Forensic Medical Authority, told the television channel Al-Hayat in a January 24, 2015 interview that al-Sabbagh had been shot in the back and neck by birdshot from a distance of about eight meters. A forensic medical report documenting al-Sabbagh’s death, photos of which were posted on Twitter, states that al-Sabbagh died after being shot in the back, causing lacerations to her lungs and heart and massive bleeding in her chest.
The United Nations Basic Principles on the Use of Force and Firearms by Law Enforcement Officials, which set out international law on the use of force in law enforcement situations, provide that security forces shall as far as possible apply nonviolent means before resorting to the use of force. Whenever the lawful use of force is unavoidable, the authorities should use restraint and act in proportion to the seriousness of the offense. Lethal force may only be used when strictly unavoidable to protect life.
“The claim that these protesters attacked police or that the images of al-Sabbagh’s death are fabricated simply defies all available evidence and smacks of an attempted cover up,” Whitson said. “After so many protesters have died exercising their basic rights, the prosecutor general needs to step up and ensure that those responsible for this death are held to account.”
Evidence from Witnesses
Azza Soliman, a 48-year-old lawyer and director of the Center for Egyptian Women’s Legal Assistance, told Human Rights Watch that she was at a café across the street with her son and watched the 25 to 30 protesters, some of whom carried flowers and were chanting. Before the dispersal began, she went out to greet friends she saw among the protesters. Within about five minutes, Soliman said, she heard sirens and saw security force personnel, some wearing masks and carrying shotguns, approach the protest and fire both teargas and shotguns in the direction of the protesters.
Osama Hammam, a photographer who was covering the protest, confirmed to Human Rights Watch the details of an account he posted to Facebook, in which he described security forces firing teargas and shotguns at the protest without warning.
“The demonstration was simply 30 people carrying some roses, half of them were old guys, and the street was empty,” he wrote to Human Rights Watch. “And the police were on the sidewalk on the opposite side.”
Human Rights Watch stabilized and enhanced the video to analyze the moment of the third shot. In the enhanced video, al-Sabbagh can be seen falling to the ground immediately after the shot is heard. Two protesters, one wearing a black jacket and identified as Sayyid Abou al-Ela, a fellow member of her party, and one wearing a green sweater, reach down to assist her. Two additional photographs from two different angles show al-Sabbagh falling at this moment and the men reaching down to help.
An Egyptian newspaper photographer who was taking pictures of the dispersal from a short distance away told Human Rights Watch that the man wearing the black mask, who was standing to his left, fired the shot that hit al-Sabbagh. He said that the protesters, 20 to 25 people by his estimate, had been chanting slogans of the 2011 uprising – not against the authorities. The security forces had fired on the demonstrators with teargas and shotguns without warning within two minutes of the marchers’ arrival at Talaat Harb Square, he said.
The video clearly shows that the fourth and final shot – identical in sound to the previous three – was fired by the masked man toward an unseen location farther down Talaat Harb Street, in the direction of Tahrir Square, not toward al-Sabbagh. She can be seen at the same moment lying on the sidewalk as al-Ela tries to assist her.
The video then shows the masked man hand his shotgun to another member of the police in exchange for what appears to be a grenade launcher. The masked man then fires again toward the unseen location farther down Talaat Harb Street. Unlike the previous four shots, this weapon emits a different sound and a large muzzle blast containing gray smoke, suggesting that it fired a large projectile, such as a teargas grenade.
The shotgun the masked man carried appears to have been equipped with a launching cup attached to the barrel, which is used to fire teargas grenades and other projectiles if a specific cartridge meant for such purposes is loaded into the shotgun. However, the launching cup would not have obstructed the man from “shooting through” with birdshot. Furthermore, no smoke or projectile is visible after the apparently fatal third shot fired in al-Sabbagh’s direction, suggesting that the shotgun was not loaded with tear gas at that time.
In an account of the incident posted on the Tahrir News website, al-Ela wrote that he heard the sound of birdshot hitting the windows of the Air France office after the shot fired in the protesters’ direction and saw al-Sabbagh bleeding from her face. Al-Ela carried al-Sabbagh across Talaat Harb Street before another friend carried her through a nearby alley as the two tried to hail a car to take her to a hospital, he wrote. A police officer and a police brigadier general arrived and arrested al-Ela and at least three other men, as al-Sabbagh tried to hold al-Ela’s hand, he wrote.
Al-Ela confirmed his written account in a later interview with Human Rights Watch. He said that after the dispersal, police arrested a number of witnesses and others who were attempting to help al-Sabbagh and held them for two days. On the second day, the prosecutor questioned them as if they were suspects, al-Ela said, and they provided their testimonies. According to the Popular Socialist Alliance Party, the prosecutor released seven people that day without bail, including the party’s general secretary, after charging them with breaking the law banning protests.
Al-Ela said he believed the men stationed in Talaat Harb Square that day included regular police and plainclothes detectives, masked men not wearing insignia, and members of the Central Security Forces, a paramilitary riot police force often charged with securing government buildings and embassies. The police brigadier general seen pointing at the protesters was the highest-ranking officer present, he said.
Soliman, who witnessed the incident with her son, went to Zeinhom Morgue, where al-Sabbagh’s body was transported, to offer her testimony, according to an account she posted on Facebook and later confirmed in an interview with Human Rights Watch. She went to the district prosecutor’s office, and when the prosecutor called Soliman, who was accompanied by a lawyer, he took her testimony but subsequently accused her of participating in what he described as an “unauthorized march” and threatened to arrest her. The police report of the march, he told her, said protesters had used rocks and fireworks against the police, she told Human Rights Watch.
Soliman told Human Rights Watch that the prosecutor charged her with breaking the protest law and resisting the authorities and had also made similar charges against four other witnesses who came forward. She said it was unclear whether the prosecutor would pursue the charges or drop them.
Dozens of police officers and soldiers faced charges related to the killing of at least 846 protesters during the 2011 uprising, but only three low-ranking security force personnel were ever convicted and sentenced to prison. Since the mass killings of July and August 2013, which left at least 1,150 protesters dead, the authorities have not brought charges against any member of the security forces for killing protesters. The official Fact-Finding Committee tasked with investigating the 2013 incidents, which included the worst mass killing in Egypt’s modern history, completed its investigation in November 2014 and did not recommend any charges. The prosecutor general has not announced an investigation.
Given the Egyptian government’s failure to hold authorities responsible, Human Rights Watch has previously called for a commission of inquiry at the United Nations Human Rights Council to investigate.