There is a lot of evidence of what happened that day in Rabaa in Cairo: Eyewitness accounts, photos, videos, even a documentary, “Memories of a Massacre,” released this month.
But despite all the evidence, those there say there is no real justice to pay for the massacre that took place in Rabaa al-Adawiya square in Cairo a decade ago.
On August 14, 2013, Egyptian security services took positions around the square where an estimated 85,000 people protested the country’s political situation.
The demonstrators were there because earlier in July, the Egyptian military ousted the recently elected president, Mohammed Morsi, also a high-ranking member of the Islamist-political movement, the Muslim Brotherhood. In response, his supporters started rallying in different parts of the country.
According to reports from human rights organizations, almost immediately after telling the people of Rabaa to disperse, the security forces began firing into the crowd. Although estimates vary, it is believed that between 600 and over 1,000 people died that day.
Crime against humanity?
After interviewing more than 200 witnesses and compiling a 188-page reportHuman Rights Watch said the action likely amounted to a crime against humanity. Other rights organizations have described it as one of the worst massacres of demonstrators in modern history. It is also, they say, one of the most visibly documented atrocities in modern history.
So why is no one held accountable?
The Egyptian government previously called reports by human rights organizations about the massacre “biased.” It did not respond to DW’s questions about whether further investigation was necessary.
Egypt is organizing its own investigation into the massacre. One by a fact-finding committee established in late 2013, and the other by the country’s National Council for Human Rights. Both reviews said the Rabaa protesters were at fault because many were armed, something eyewitnesses still dispute. Both admitted that security forces acted with excessive force but did not recommend any charges.
In 2018, the Egyptian parliament passed a bill granting judicial immunity to senior military leaders for acts they may have done in the course of office, from when Egypt’s constitution was suspended in July 2013 to when parliament was reconvened in 2016.
Then, in 2021, Egypt approved changes to the laws governing its own Supreme Constitutional Court or SCC. These changes mean that if any international court or tribunal one day finds Egypt guilty of, say, crimes against humanity, and orders reparations, the decision will be passed back to SCC. This local court will then decide whether the judgment is valid or not.
“[The amendments] send a clear message,” wrote lawyer Mai El-Sadany in a 2021 post for the Carnegie Endowment. “Within the country… [they] signal that those who have committed crimes may continue to do so while enjoying the protection within the home. For the global community, the Egyptian authorities are challenging the international system.
Seeking justice outside of Egypt
As a result, the search for justice has moved to the international arena in the last decade. But even then, there was not much success.
Human rights organizations have called on the United Nations Human Rights Committee to investigate the massacre but so far it has chosen not to. Egypt has not yet fully entered the African Court on Human and Peoples’ Rights, a judicial arm of the African Union. It is also not a member of the International Criminal Court.
In 2014, Egyptian lawyers and the Freedom and Justice Party, to which ousted President Morsi belongs, asked the ICC to investigate alleged crimes against the people of Rabaa. But the ICC turned them downsaying that those requesting the investigation are not legitimate representatives of the Egyptian government.
When a senior Egyptian military commander, Mahmoud Hegazy, visited an arms trade fair in the UK in 2015, lawyers acting for the Freedom and Justice Party asked the British police to arrest him on allegations of torture and because he was “integral in the dispersal plans of Rabaa.” The police refused the request because Hegazy has special diplomatic immunity.
“So the only real options you have left are the kinds of questions with the different bodies of the United Nations. Or universal jurisdiction,” said Rupert Skilbeck, director of Redress, a legal rights organization that based in London that supports victims of torture trying to get justice.
Can ‘universal jurisdiction’ help?
In its purest form, the legal principle of universal jurisdiction allows the authorities of any country to prosecute individuals who have committed war crimes in any other country, even if they or their crimes are connected to prosecuting country.
In practice however, this is often subject to various considerations. This includes whether there are witnesses in the prosecuting country, whether there is any chance of catching the alleged criminals and also, perhaps most importantly, whether local prosecutors want to prosecute. There are usually political aspects involved in that.
“The truth is that universal jurisdiction in this case will be difficult because there is no real possibility of extraditing the elderly from Egypt,” Skilbeck told DW. “And not many countries are willing to do trials in absentia,” he added, referring to trials conducted without the accused in court.
Even in Germany, recently described as a world leader in its use of universal jurisdiction, a case against Egyptian officials is not possible.
First of all, you have to prove that a crime against humanity has been committed, according to legal definitions, explained Andreas Schüller, director of the International Crimes and Accountability program at the European Center for Constitutional and Human Rights based in Berlin. The organization was a prime mover behind Germany’s recent prosecution of war criminals in Syria using universal jurisdiction.
“As far as I know there are no courts or other institutions that make this search. So you have to establish it the first time, which requires a lot of effort,” said Schüller to DW.
The case against the war criminals in Syria continues due to a confluence of factors, including witnesses, evidence and perpetrators in Germany, as well as political will.
“But it’s not like the Syrian case,” Schüller said. “There are no diplomatic relations with the government of Syria. Egypt has a lot of political support around the world. it needs a very targeted investigation and a constellation of reasons for it to be prosecuted.”
“We see it all the time in human rights work,” added Redress’ Skilbeck, “where some Western countries don’t take a strong stand against other countries because of the political situation.”
Schüller also believes that international interest has shifted to countries such as Ukraine, Sudan or Iran.
Amr Magdi, a senior researcher at Human Rights Watch, has similar opinions. “The political climate in the region contributes to human rights violations in Egypt that go unnoticed,” he told DW. “At that time, the whole region was full of problems, including the civil war in Syria, Yemen and Libya.”
The Egyptian government has been able to play with issues that are relevant to the whole world, Magdi argues, “so that democracy and human rights are overlooked instead of Egypt taking care of European interests, such as the fight against irregular migration, security cooperation and economic relations.
Changes in attitudes in Egypt
However, there may be a glimmer of hope that one day justice may be served in the Rabaa case.
Many of the legal decisions made regarding the case took place after the 2013 military coup. In the past, the international community appeared uncertain about how the Egyptian government would progress – the military coup had many supporters and the Morsi government faced popular protests against it.
But over the past decade, that has changed and the current government, led by Abdel Fattah el-Sissi, has been increasingly criticized for its authoritarianism and a particularly appalling human rights record.
“The point is a good one,” Skilbeck said. “This litigation is done immediately after the events. When things are hot, people don’t want to act quickly. In any event, it always takes time to put together the evidence.”
He pointed to long-standing historical examples, such as international tribunals that looked into crimes in Rwanda, Cambodia, the former Yugoslavia, as well as World War II, saying that, “the international that justice often takes a long time.”
“Even a normal trial for murder can take years to complete,” he said. “So it’s no wonder they took so long.
With further reporting by Mahmoud Hussein
Edited by: Ben Knight