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A Year From 'Egypt's Tiananmen,' Report Surfaces On Cairo Massacre


In July and August of last year, Egypt's capital was the site of bloody violence. Human Rights Watch calls it Egypt's Tiananmen. The country's first freely elected president, Mohammed Morsi, was ousted by the military. Thousands of his supporters in the Muslim Brotherhood took to the streets in protest that went on for six weeks. On August 14, a year ago this week, Egypt's military forces moved in to clear two camps occupied by protesters.


VIGELAND: Hundreds were killed. Human Rights Watch has just completed an investigation into what happened at one of those sites - Rab'a Square. Kenneth Roth is the executive director of Human Rights Watch, and he spoke earlier this week with Arun Rath.

KENNETH ROTH: What happened in the course of about 12 hours is that the Egyptian security forces went in. They had said in advance that there would be a gradual dispersal of the crowd, that warnings would be given, that safe exits would be provided. Virtually none of that happened. Literally, within minutes of warnings that most people didn't hear, the troops went in with bulldozers, armored personnel carriers, hundreds of police shooting. Human Rights Watch has carefully compiled the list of the victims, and we actually have names of 817 individuals who were killed in that 12-hour span. And we estimate that the overall death toll was probably somewhat above 1,000.

ARUN RATH, BYLINE: And beyond the violence, the bloodshed, your report goes into some detail about how these were planned, methodical killings.

ROTH: Part of why we call this massacre a crime against humanity is that it was so carefully planned. The dispersal was a sign to the Interior Minister, Mohamed Ibrahim, and he said in advance that he anticipated several thousand deaths. There were actually arrangements made so that it would be difficult to conduct a forensic investigation of the scene. Ammunition was distributed from multiple sources and the records for that distribution were doctored so that it'd be difficult to assign more responsibility. After the dispersal, the interior minister, despite the huge death toll, said that it went exactly according to plan. He actually gave out bonuses to the people who had participated, and they erected a monument in Rab'a Square in honor of the police and the army.

RATH: The government in Egypt has released a statement in response to - to the findings of Human Rights Watch report. They say that the report reveals a bias in favor of the Muslim Brotherhood, which they call a terrorist organization. And they said that you left out references to police who were killed by people you claimed were peaceful protesters.

ROTH: It's interesting that the government's response to the Human Rights Watch report suggests they didn't even read it. But we actually go into great detail about the principle government defense to what happened, which in essence was - there was some violence in the square and so the police's use of lethal force was justified as self-defense. And as a result of violence by the protesters, there were eight members of the security forces who lost their lives that day - compared to the 817 or more demonstrators.

Perhaps more to the point - based on the testimonies we collected, the security forces were not operating on that day as if they were fearful for their lives. There were snipers on rooftops who were randomly picking people out. At one stage, they were shooting at anybody entering the hospital in an area that became known as Sniper's Alley. This was nothing like a targeted effort to go after the handful of people engaged in violence. Rather, this was a very deliberate effort to kill a large number of demonstrators and send a message to the Muslim Brotherhood protesters - never again will you challenge military rule.

RATH: Kenneth Roth is the executive director of Human Rights Watch. Ken, thank you so much.

ROTH: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.