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Military Council urged to end attacks on protesters, preserve state security records

(Human Rights Watch/IFEX) - Cairo, March 9, 2011 - Egypt's Supreme Military Council should take all necessary measures to end the military and security forces' use of excessive force against protesters and the mistreatment of detainees, Human Rights Watch said today.

The council should urgently protect all government records relating to the abusive state security agency, which are crucial for holding past rights violators to account, Human Rights Watch added.

Between March 4 and 6, 2011, government security forces used excessive force to break up protests outside State Security Investigations (SSI) offices and mistreated persons arrested. In Cairo's Lazoughli Square on March 6, government-backed thugs attacked demonstrators and soldiers beat those taken into military custody. In Alexandria on March 4, state security officers shot live ammunition and lobbed petrol bombs at demonstrators.

"Security force attacks on demonstrators sounds like the old Egypt, not the hoped-for new Egypt," said Joe Stork, deputy Middle East and North Africa director at Human Rights Watch. "The Supreme Military Council needs to adopt urgent measures to end the misuse of force once and for all."

From March 4 to 6, demonstrators gathered outside SSI offices in Cairo, Alexandria, and other cities throughout Egypt in response to reports on Twitter and Facebook that SSI officers were destroying documents, including records that might be used to hold former officials accountable for human rights violations. They sought to prevent further destruction of SSI documents and archives and to protest continued operations by the security agency, which had long been implicated in the arbitrary detention and torture of activists.

Demonstrations took place at the SSI headquarters in Nasr City in Cairo, the Lazoughli Square building, and offices in at least four other Cairo neighborhoods, and at the main SSI office in Alexandria. Demonstrators also assembled in front of SSI offices in the cities of Assiut, Fayoum, and Marsa Matrouh, and in the towns of Zagazig and Qena in the Nile Delta, according to local media reports. In some areas, protesters were able to enter SSI buildings.

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Destruction of State Security Documents

State security documents should be preserved so that those responsible for past torture and other ill-treatment can be held accountable, Human Rights Watch said.

In Alexandria, Ahmad al-Ghonaimy, an activist who attended the March 4 demonstration outside the SSI building, told Human Rights Watch that "some people [wanted] to find [any] papers still inside [that were] still in one piece, and some people were there for the symbolic reason – to say they know officers were shredding paper inside. You don't want to allow this to happen."

The protesters eventually entered the building and found that massive destruction of documents had taken place. "As soon as we got in, there were mountains of shredded paper everywhere, inside every office," Ghonaimy said.

Some positive steps have been taken. On March 5 in Nasr City, Cairo, some of the hundreds of demonstrators gathered outside the SSI headquarters gained entry through a side gate. They dragged from the building trash bags full of shredded paper, computer hard drives, and remaining files, and collected them in the compound's courtyard. Others began searching the building for secret cells that might be holding detainees, shouting, "Where are the prisoners?"
A few hours later, soldiers present permitted larger numbers of protesters to enter through a main gate. After 9 p.m., the protesters called for a representative of the public prosecutor's office to come and ensure safekeeping of the materials inside. Later that night, Zakariya Abdulaziz, former head of the Egyptian Judges' Club, arrived with representatives of the prosecutor's office to take custody of the documents. Army officers searched protesters as they left the premises to ensure that they did not take documents with them.

Since then, photographs and videos of the SSI headquarters have proliferated on Twitter and Facebook. Through these outlets, protestors have reported finding SSI files relating to well-known activists including Ahmed Maher, co-founder of the April 6 Youth group, and Khaled Said, a 28-year-old man beaten to death by two undercover police officers on an Alexandria street in June 2010, whose case set off demonstrations across the country in the following months.

International law requires governments to investigate grave human rights violations such as custodial killings and torture. For instance, the United Nations Principles on the Effective Prevention and Investigation of Extra-Legal, Arbitrary and Summary Executions calls upon governing authorities to establish a secure chain of custody over evidence, including government records, that will permit the prosecution, when warranted, of those former and present officials implicated in abuses. The right to redress entails that victims of human rights abuses and their survivors have access to information that may shed light on the abuses they endured and the parties responsible for them.

"The mountains of shredded government documents that protesters have already discovered suggest that the Supreme Council of Armed Forces is failing its duty to preserve important records from willful destruction," said Stork. "By moving in a decisive and transparent manner to conserve the SSI's files, the council can begin to end the impunity for human rights abuses that the agency has enjoyed until now."

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