On the anniversary of the detainees’ vehicle massacre mass killers are free

August 21, 2019

On the sixth anniversary of what is known as the detainees’ vehicle massacre, which followed the Rabaa massacre, Egyptians consider that this incident is a stark example of the contradiction in Egyptian judiciary judgments. 

This incident occurred on August 18 2013 when security forces fired tear gas canisters inside a transportation vehicle for detainees protesting against the overthrow of the elected civilian president, Mohamed Morsi, on July 3, 2013.

Police kept the detainees locked up in the vehicle despite their appeals that there was no room and that they could not breathe, killing 37 of them by asphyxiation. Although 37 detainees were killed, the trial issued reduced sentences for the accused officers.

The prosecution described the crime as a “misdemeanour” and not a “felony” and therefore the Egyptian judiciary sentenced Lieutenant Colonel Amr Farouk, Deputy Commissioner of Heliopolis Police Department, to imprisonment with work for just five years. The three other police officers were sentenced to a suspended sentence of imprisonment for one year.

Audio leaks broadcast in 2014 proved that Abbas Kamel and General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, then bureau chief, and the General Intelligence Services (GIS) director, personally intervened to persuade Mamdouh Shaheen, the defence ministry’s legal adviser, to speak with the court judge to commute the verdict.

The detainees died as a result of asphyxiation when tear gas was fired into the back of a vehicle transporting 45 of them to a prison outside Cairo.

Security officials initially said the detainees had rioted and captured a guard while en route to Abu Zaabal prison on 18 August, causing the officers to respond by firing tear gas into the vehicle. 

However, prosecutors found no evidence to support the claim and that the vehicle transporting them was designed to carry only 24 detainees. Crowd control experts said at the time that the detainees would have died in agony, gasping for air, incapable of resisting the guards.

Human rights campaigners say that Egypt’s police operate in a climate of impunity and are rarely punished for abuses. The deaths sparked international condemnation, with UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon saying he was “deeply disturbed” by the events.

That mass killing took place four days after almost 1,000 people were killed when security forces cleared two sit-ins in Cairo where demonstrators were protesting in support of President Mohamed Morsi, who was ousted by the military in July 2013. The difference is that the person responsible is known and has been identified, but he was not held accountable.

Opponents reject the prosecutor’s characterisation of the crime as a misdemeanour and not a felony, stressing that it was premeditated murder and that the officer deliberately left 45 detainees in a small vehicle with a gas bomb so that they suffocated to death.

All members of the force received a one-year suspended sentence, meaning they would not serve any real sentence, while the deputy commissioner received a five-year sentence. This provision means that the officer responsible for the incident spent less than 50 days in prison for each man who died.

Egyptian opponents recall that many of the people who judges have issued death sentences against have not murdered anyone. For example in case no. 174 a military court sentenced eight of the defendants to death and gave life imprisonment to the rest of them. In this case, there was no evidence yet the military prosecutor said that the defendants intended to assassinate General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi. The court did not present any evidence for the indictment, but issued harsh sentences. 

The death sentences were later commuted to life imprisonment. In some cases where defendants were arrested after they had been to a demonstration they were sentenced to life imprisonment, or to long terms ranging from 10 to 15 years.

Six years after the detainees’ vehicle massacre, the officer who murdered them is free, while thousands of young people accused of demonstrating are still in prison.