Cairo • An Egyptian rights group on Tuesday accused the country’s authorities of failing to bring to account those it says are responsible for the deaths of 26 Coptic Christians who were killed during an anti-government demonstration last year.
That protest, which began as a peaceful march through Cairo, spiraled into some of the worst state-perpetrated and sectarian violence during the 17-months of military rule following the uprising that toppled longtime ruler Hosni Mubarak. For many Egyptians, the scenes that night of armored security vans running over protesters, military police chasing after demonstrators with batons, and piles of corpses stacked in buildings altered their views of the generals who took power after Mubarak’s fall.
For Egypt’s Coptic minority, in particular, the bloodshed marked a turning point.
“The military police committed against the Copts murder crimes with no legal or human deterrent, which is unprecedented in Egypt’s modern history,” the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights said in a report released Tuesday’s anniversary of the violence. “A whole year later, the real perpetrators who gave the orders to commit these crimes were never brought to justice.”
A military court convicted three soldiers of involuntary manslaughter and sentenced them to two-years in prison, a punishment the group described as “flimsy.” It said authorities shelved an investigation into the shooting of 11 other protesters.
“The main demand is justice and accountability” said EIPR director Hossam Bahgat, which he said would send a “positive signal” to Coptic Christians that the state recognizes its responsibility in the killings.
The report said the crackdown marked a culmination of a series of sectarian attacks against Copts, during which Baghat said the military’s security agents “either stood by passively or actively participated” in them.
“As long as Copts feel that whenever they are subjected to the worst forms of violence and perpetrators are shielded from accountability, they will always be in fear of the next violent attack,” he said.
The military had defended its actions during the protest, saying at one point that the crowd “instigated” the violence.
The country’s military ruler during the transition, Field Marshal Hussein Tantawi, and his chief deputy were both awarded Egypt’s highest medal by the nation’s new president, prompting criticism that it may exempt them from prosecution.
On Tuesday’s anniversary of the killings, Copts and their supporters marched along the same route of last year’s demonstration, from the Shobra neighborhood to the state television building along the banks of the Nile in the heart of the capital, to demand that the generals in charge of Egypt at the time be put on trial.
“The case won’t die, and blood won’t be forgotten no matter how much time passes,” said Mary Daniel, whose brother, Mina, was killed during the protest. Mina has become one of the symbols of what is known in Egypt as the “Maspero massacre,” referring to the name of the state TV building, outside of which Copts regularly protested.
That night, the rally began as a peaceful protest against attacks on churches, which escalated after the fall of Mubarak, but turned into a melee as soon as the protesters arrived near the state TV building. Military police fired shots in the air to disperse the crowd of thousands, attacking some with batons to turn them back. Then armored vehicles wildly sped into the crowd, driving back and forth over more than a dozen of protesters, killing 15. Another 11 people died of gunshot wounds.
“It was a ground war,” Daniels said, “but a war between unequals.”
Lawyer Hani Ramsis said a complaint against some of the generals who were ruling Egypt at the time, including top leader Filed Marshal Hussein Tantawi was filed to the civilian prosecutor Monday. Complaints also were filed against state TV officials for incitement against Copts, he said.
Ramsis said prosecuting the generals may be easier now that they are no longer ruling the country. The military council handed over power to Egypt’s first democratically elected president, Mohammed Morsi, in late June.
“They (the generals) are now regular civilians,” Ramsis said. “Before, the military used to try its own people. And how can that be if they are party to the case?”
Bahgat said the Copts feel “double-victimized” because of the official narrative about the attacks continues to blame the Christians for the violence. One soldier was killed in the protest.