Middle East and North Africa researcher at Human Rights Watch. She has been monitoring the situation on the ground since the protests started.
Democracy Now! senior producer. He is currently reporting from Cairo, Egypt.
Human Rights Watch is reporting that at least 302 people have died in Egypt since pro-Mubarak forces launched a violent response to the popular uprising last month. The group says at least 232 people have died in Cairo, 52 in Alexandria, and 18 in Suez, but warns the actual death toll could be far higher. We speak with Human Rights Watch researcher Heba Morayef, who has been monitoring the situation on the ground since the protests began. [includes rush transcript]
AMY GOODMAN: Sharif Abdel Kouddous joins us in Cairo. Human Rights Watch is reporting more than 300 people have died since January 28th in the Egyptian uprising.
Sharif, before we go to Human Rights Watch, can you talk about what’s happened in the last 24 hours, the intensity of the protest yesterday?
SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: Well, Amy, it’s day 16 of the uprising in Egypt, and the protest movement seems as strong as ever. Yesterday we saw what is by some accounts the largest gathering of protesters in Tahrir. We were there yesterday. It was just absolutely packed, an ocean of people, well into the night, chanting against Mubarak, chanting for his ouster, people that we hadn’t seen before joining the protest for the first time.
We’re also seeing that organized labor has now joined the revolution. There is a wave of strikes that is sweeping the country. Thousands of workers at several service companies owned by the Suez Canal Authority have staged a strike. In Mahalla, 1,500 workers have staged a sit-in. At the Al-Ahram building, the state newspaper here, a hundred journalists have staged a protest in the lobby. Just driving over to Tahrir today, I saw a group of about a hundred or 150 electrical workers protesting in front of their district branch office. So there’s a burgeoning and growing movement to already mass protest that is happening.
Today also, it’s Wednesday, and it marks one week since the Mubarak regime launched this campaign of violence against the protesters here in Tahrir, sending in hundreds and thousands of the baltaguia to attack the protesterss. They managed to hold their ground, but many died. And if you walk around Tahrir, you see in memorials, photos of the martyrs, they call them. They say, if this is a revolution, then these people who died are martyrs.
Now, Human Rights Watch has documented the number of deaths since this uprising began. I’m joined here in Cairo by Heba Morayef. She’s a researcher for Human Rights Watch on Egypt.
Heba, how many have you found have been killed, and what is the latest?
HEBA MORAYEF: We’ve been working on documenting the number of casualties by visiting different hospitals. So we visited five hospitals in Cairo, together with another colleague from the International Federation for Human Rights. We also visited two hospitals in Alexandria and one hospital in Suez. The number we have, as of this point, based, in some cases, on lists of the dead that we managed to obtain, in others, on visits to the morgues, and in other cases, where we were unable to gain access to the morgues because access to hospitals was very difficult, but we based this on interviews with doctors who were on duty at the ward at the time — our number at this point is 302. We believe that this estimate is a very conservative one, because we only visited hospitals in those three cities. We chose cities and hospitals that we thought were strategic and where victims of the violence and some of the worst violence that we saw on the days of January 28th and 29th were likely to have been taken, but there were uprisings and excessive use of force and live gunshots that occurred in many other cities in Egypt, and we expect the actual total death toll to be much higher than that.
I think it’s interesting, the minister — the Egyptian minister of health was on BBC Arabic last night, and he rejected Human Rights Watch’s figures and said, when pushed by the presenters, said that the government would be issuing its figures in a few days’ time, Insha’Allah, God willing. And I think one of the questions that we need ask is why, since the majority of these deaths occurred on January 28th and January 29th, why the government has not issued official death casualties so far.
AMY GOODMAN: Heba —
SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: And Heba, talk about the number of arrests — go ahead, Amy.
AMY GOODMAN: Go ahead, Sharif.
SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: I was going to ask you about the number of arrests. There’s been hundreds, thousands of people arrested. Now they’re being arrested by the military. Talk about this distinction now, the troubles of people being arrested by the military. There’s also been allegations of torture.
HEBA MORAYEF: Since the police withdrew from the streets of Cairo and Alexandria and other cities on — late on January 28th, the military has been deployed on the streets. And so, it’s the military police that is right now conducting a lot of these arrests, sometimes in coordination with uniformed police officers and also very often together with officers from State Security Investigations from the Ministry of Interior. But it’s clear that the military police is making the decisions insofar as these arrests are concerned.
What we’ve been documenting is what we think is an illegitimate crackdown on journalists, activists and peaceful protesters. The actual number of overall arrests is much higher than that. The government’s already announced, announced early on, that over a thousand had been arrested in connection with criminal activities in the two days when we saw a lot of insecurity and looting. The Ministry of Interior has reportedly announced today that it’s freed over a thousand prisoners. We’re still trying to confirm that. We have procedural concerns about those arrests, because we believe that in the vast majority of the cases, the military is detaining them incommunicado and is not bringing them before a military prosecutor in a timely way, which is what’s required in terms of procedural guarantees. But what we’ve been looking at and where we’ve documented at least 119 illegal arrests of journalists, both international and Egyptian, of human rights activists and youth activists, and of protesters arrested either leaving the square, entering the square, trying to bring blankets to the square, and this is a picture that is of very serious concern to us in terms of the presence of the military on the streets in the months to come.
AMY GOODMAN: Heba of Human Rights Watch, the government said they killed something like five. Then they went up to seven, perhaps nine, 11. And now you’re saying it’s over 300, and that’s what you could determine at this point. So, when it comes to detentions, is it possible that there are thousands of people detained around the country?
HEBA MORAYEF: I think it’s very possible, just because of the approach of the military police in terms of how they’ve arrested people and in what circumstances. Just to give you an example, in one case, four protesters, three guys and one European girl, were walking home from the square to a neighborhood nearby. They live in Garden City. The neighborhood patrol wouldn’t believe that they live there because they had a foreigner with them. They handed them over to the military police, and the military police arrested them and started questioning them about whether there were any foreign powers funding them or encouraging them to protest. So that level of paranoia with regards to foreign involvement, I think, is driving a lot of these arrests and has also driven some of the torture cases that we’ve documented. Because of that, our expectation is that there may be dozens of other arrests that we’re not able to document because the military isn’t announcing the number of actual detentions and isn’t allowing people to communicate.
What usually used to happen with Ministry of Interior arrests, because I’ve been working on monitoring demonstrations for years in Egypt, is that as soon as they’re arrested, they’re still able to make a phone call, or even when they’re taken to a police station, they’re able to make a phone call to the lawyers, and the lawyers then know their name, and they can then send out human rights lawyers to the police station to defend them. So we knew more or less what was happening. With the military police right now, it’s a bit of a black box. People are still very scared of the military. It’s been one of the red lines that you can’t talk about, that you can’t criticize in the Egyptian media. And I think it’s been very difficult for the human rights community to document the actual number of arrests.
AMY GOODMAN: The Vice President —
SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: Now, Heba, there’s also a —
AMY GOODMAN: The Vice President, Suleiman, said that they were going to lift emergency law and then said, "Well, we’re not going to do it that fast." How does emergency law enable this? I mean, it’s been in effect for what? For decades right now. And also, while the U.S. government is saying that the Egyptian regime should stop arresting people, hurting people, they are continuing the weapons flow to Egypt. They haven’t cut off that. What about that, in enabling this happening, as people pick up tear gas canisters that say "Made in U.S.A."?
HEBA MORAYEF: I think for us and for the Egyptian human rights community, lifting the emergency law is really one of the primary demands. What the emergency law has allowed over the last years is not only that it has become a tool that the Ministry of Interior relied upon to arrest thousands of people, to detain them without charge, many for over a decade — they don’t have a possibility of judicial review, and they’re just thrown in jail and forgotten about for years at end — that’s really allowed the Ministry of Interior to crack down whenever it wants, both on peaceful protests and on cases where they may have had legitimate security concerns but have just gone about it in a completely repressive way.
But beyond that, the reason the emergency law is such a concern for us is that it’s created this culture of impunity, where state security officers and other Ministry of Interior officers feel that they’re above the law. They’re not limited by constitutional guarantees in the Egyptian constitution or by international human rights law. They can just go out and handle things in whatever way they see fit. And it’s really created this culture of fear that I think we’ve seen shift slowly over the past six months and finally really broken on January 25th, which is why lifting the emergency law, for us, is a priority.
And we believe that Western governments, such as the United States and European governments, who have taken position against the renewal of the emergency law again and again, we believe that this is the precise moment, at a transitional point in Egypt’s history, where they have to push for this as a primary demand, because Omar Suleiman’s position on the emergency law was: we will lift the emergency law when the protests are over and should the security situation allow. “Should the security situation allow” is what we’ve heard from President Mubarak and from the Minister of Interior for the past two decades, and which has just allowed them to perpetuate the state of emergency — and very often with the West’s blessing, that has allowed the Egyptian government to give this image of the need for the emergency law, the need for repression to ensure stability in Egypt. And for once, our hope is that the voices of protesters will be louder than those voices.
SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: And Heba, one person who has disappeared this week is Kareem Amer, a prominent blogger who was jailed, himself, for years. Any word of him? And what has happened to him?
HEBA MORAYEF: So far we don’t have any word of Kareem Amer. And the human rights community is very concerned because he’s one of Egypt’s most famous bloggers. He was jailed and in prison for four years for legitimate freedom of expression. The Egyptian authorities considered his writing to be critical President Mubarak and critical of Islam, and this is why he was convicted. He was finally released a few months ago.
And so, his re-arrest is not just a concern in terms of everything I’ve described to you so far, in terms of the nature of treatment he may be experiencing, in terms of his right to communicate with his family and with his lawyers, and instead he appears to be held incommunicado, but beyond that, it’s also very seriously of concern for us because of his status as a blogger who has inspired other generations of young bloggers here today.
I think what we saw from Wael Ghonim’s case, it’s a happy ending in that he was released and that he was able to go to Tahrir and inspire other young people in Egypt. But he was disappeared for 12 days at State Security Investigations headquarters. And State Security Investigations are notorious for their systematic torture, for their reliance on enforced disappearance. This is a very serious human rights violation and a crime under international law. And the pattern of disappearances is one of the things which has to change, just as systematic torture has to change, because these are the things — this kind of police abuse is what sparked off the January 25 protest in the first place. And so, we’re very seriously concerned about Kareem Amer’s well-being.
AMY GOODMAN: And yet, Heba, the Vice President, who seems to be running things now, Omar Suleiman, his record, since that is who the U.S. seems to be putting stock in right now? The U.S. has the closest relationship, the U.S. military, the U.S. CIA, you know, his role in cooperating in extraordinary rendition. He has been in charge of this as head of military intelligence for years, all that you’re describing.
HEBA MORAYEF: I think that’s one of the reasons why the human rights community and Human Rights Watch is really pushing for the kind of legal reforms that would provide a check on the power of the military. It’s clear right now that the military is in charge, that they’re making all the political decisions, also that Omar Suleiman is seen as a good partner because of his counterterrorism cooperation with the West. And we see this as very worrying, because unless structural changes, such as lifting the emergency law, such as immediate constitutional reforms and a different approach to the rule of law, prosecutions beyond just the Minister of Interior, an announcement to an end to the abusive practices — unless these things are put in place now, at this point, while the protesters are still in the square and while the international community is thinking about how it can relate to Egypt, we could see very serious abusive practices continuing, because the role of Omar Suleiman in rendition, his personal role in terms of providing guarantees, in terms of overseeing torture personally, is well documented. And this should be a warning to everyone who is seeking to reestablish stability in Egypt at the price of human rights.
AMY GOODMAN: Heba Morayef, I want to thank you very much for being with us, Middle East and North Africa researcher at Human Rights Watch, has been monitoring the situation. Again, Human Rights Watch says more than 300 people have been killed, not clear how many people are detained. I have also written a column on Kareem Amer, the young blogger who had been in prison for four years, now has now disappeared, since two days ago, taken right before Wael Ghonim, the Google marketing executive, was released. And we will continue to follow his case. You can go to our website at democracynow.org for that column. Thanks also to Sharif Abdel Kouddous, our senior producer.
When we come back, we speak to Anjali Kamat, Democracy Now! correspondent on the ground in Cairo, and Robert Fisk. Stay with us.