“We will never betray the martyrs’ blood," Muslim Brotherhood member Saad al-Katatny pleged in his first speech after being elected a speaker in the People’s Assembly in January.
He stressed the importance of swift, just trials against those responsible for killing protesters during the revolution, and building a new democratic Egypt.
Even before that speech, and continuing since then, the protesters have continued chanting, “O martyr, sleep and rest, and we will continue the fight,” and “I hear the calls of a martyr’s mother [asking] who will retrieve her child’s rights?”
But with several cases of the killing of protesters ending in favor of the defendants, politicians’ pledges to defend the rights of those killed during the revolution are sounding more like sheer populism. Lawyers say the cases are marred by investigative failures and a lack of political will to change the situation.
“The hope of having retribution for my brother has died along with all the court verdicts that found the perpetrators innocent and set them free without any repercussion,” Mostafa Ramadan told Egypt Independent. His brother Mahmoud Hassan Ramadan was killed on 28 January 2011.
At least 846 people were killed during the 18-day uprising, while more than 6,400 were injured, according to an official fact-finding mission. At least nine courts have acquitted officials and low-ranking officers on charges of killing peaceful protesters that period.
The latest verdict was issued last week. Twenty four prominent former regime officials and MPs were acquitted on charges of being involved in the killing of at least 11 peaceful protesters and the injury of thousands from 2–3 February 2011 in the Battle of the Camel.
Dozens of supporters for former President Hosni Mubarak had charged into Tahrir Square on camels and horses, trampling and beating the protesters calling for his ouster.
The verdict outraged many Egyptians, who lost any last vestiges of hope that those responsible for the killings would be convicted.
Weaknesses within the system
The first innocent verdict was issued in December, when four police officers and one low-ranking officer were acquitted of killing five martyrs, and attempting to murder five others, in front of the Sayeda Zeinab Police Station.
The case was the beginning of a series of verdicts in favor of the defendants, who are typically acquitted based on lack of evidence and an assumption that officers were obligated to protect police stations against angry protesters.
“The cases presented by the prosecution were weak and lacked basic evidence, like a thorough examination of the crime scenes and the murder weapons, and accurate autopsies of the deceased,” says Tareq Mouawad, a lawyer with the Front to Defend Egypt’s Protesters.
The Battle of the Camel trial only started last September — months after Mubarak stepped down, after mounting pressure and street protests demanding accountability. The evidence put together by the prosecution boiled down to hearsay and contradictory testimonies that were of little use to the judges.
In most cases, the defendants were released and either went back to their old jobs, or were transferred to another area without being suspended.
“This allowed the defendants to tamper with the evidence and influence witnesses,” says Taher Abul Nasr, a lawyer with the Front to Defend Egypt’s Protesters.
He says the Interior Ministry, whose employees and officials have been on trial, was responsible for handing over the evidence in these cases, including the weapons and bullets used to kill the protesters.
“No one can expect the Interior Ministry to present evidence that would incriminate its own men,” he says.
The main dilemma with these cases is the difficulty of identifying the perpetrators. It was easier to pinpoint those responsible for the killings around police stations on 28 January, the Friday of Rage.
However, the majority of the defendants in the Friday of Rage cases were found innocent as well, because the judges said they were performing their duty by protecting the police stations and themselves from protesters’ attacks.
“There’s a difference between protecting a police station and shooting to kill by aiming at the protesters’ heads and eyes,” says Hoda Nasrallah, a lawyer with the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights (EIPR).
She says security officers should be trained on how to deal with angry protesters and protect vital institutions without killing them. “Their main job is to protect the people and their rights, not kill them,” she says.
Last April, a government-affiliated fact-finding mission issued a report confirming that police fired live ammunition at peaceful protesters across Egypt starting 25 January. “The fatal shots were caused by firing bullets at the head and the chest,” the report read, saying hundreds lost their sight.
There have been recurring calls by activists and political powers to dismiss Public Prosecutor Abdel Meguid Mahmoud due to his ties to the former regime. After the Battle of the Camel trial verdict, President Mohamed Morsy decided to remove Mahmoud from his post, appointing him ambassador to the Vatican instead. But after mounting criticism accusing him of interfering in the judiciary, Morsy announced Mahmoud would keep his post.
Meanwhile, judges aren’t free from blame, either. “The court has the jurisdiction to reinvestigate cases it deems weak or lacking in sufficient evidence,” says Reda Marei, another lawyer with EIPR who represents the martyrs’ families.
Ramadan and many martyrs’ relatives think that now, more than a year after the revolt, people are starting to forget about the sacrifice the martyrs made. “The martyrs’ rights and the call for retribution has become old news now. No one cares anymore,” he says.
The fact-finding committee
One of Morsy’s first decisions as president was to establish a fact-finding committee to reinvestigate the killings of peaceful protesters from 25 January 2011 to 30 June 2012. The committee consists of 16 members, including former judges, the head of the General Intelligence Services and the assistant interior minister for public security, in addition to six representatives of the martyrs’ families and revolutionary youth.
However, the task of the committee, which started to gather evidence more than a year after the revolt, is proving to be difficult. Last month, the committee rejected the withdrawal of Ali al-Geneidy, father of martyr Islam and representative of the martyrs’ families in Suez, who said the committee was weak and incapable of presenting strong cases to the prosecution.
“There’s a problem with government institutions giving out information to anyone, including the committee … there’s no transparency,” says Ahmed Ragheb, a member of the committee and head of the Hisham Mubarak Law Center. He adds that it isn’t an executive authority, and has no control over whether the prosecution follows its reports.
Earlier this month, the committee called on the public prosecutor to refer Mubarak, former Interior Minister Habib al-Adly and their six aides to criminal court once again.
In June, Mubarak and Adly were sentenced to 25 years in prison for being involved in killing the protesters during the 25 January revolt, while six of their aides were acquitted.
The prosecution couldn’t prove Mubarak and his aides gave orders to kill peaceful protesters. However, the court found Mubarak and Adly guilty of not acting to stop the deadly crackdown of security forces on peaceful protests.
The verdict sparked protests against the judiciary and the public prosecutor.
The committee said in its report that the court focused on attacks that occurred in Tahrir Square during the 18-day revolt, while neglecting the killings in other governorates and main squares, including those in Alexandria and Suez.
Activists and protesters have called for the swift trials of those involved in killing peaceful protesters. However, the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces rejected the call during the transition, saying Egypt was a civilized nation that depended on the rule of law, not “barbaric” actions.
“We should have held revolutionary courts when we had the chance, right after the 25 January revolt, but now it’s too late. The government and the judiciary won’t accept it,” Ramadan says.
Mouawad says laws for establishing an exceptional or revolutionary court should have been established by the interim government, right after Mubarak stepped down.
Marei says he was against any “exceptional courts” that deprive defendants of their basic rights. “But I’m also against deliberately neglecting evidence to ruin these cases, which is exactly what happened,” he adds.
Michael Wahid Hanna, a lawyer and fellow at the Century Foundation, a New York-based think tank, sees a more pragmatic option. Unlike revolutionary courts, exceptional tribunals could be set up within the existing criminal justice system to deal with these cases.
“Even if we think that we’ve settled into a phase that is not necessarily a transitional one, there’s no reason to think that accountability has to be forgotten,” Hanna says.