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Rights groups say Egyptian prison guards are gunning down inmates

Egyptian human rights group and Amnesty International say that guards at several prisons have killed at least 200 prisoners, and that those who try to administer medical aid or move the bodies are fired upon as well.

February 27, 2011|By David Zucchino, Los Angeles Times

Reporting from Cairo — Prison guards indiscriminately fired on inmates during the recent unrest in Egypt, sometimes gunning down men who were carrying the dead or even staging escapes that ended in new volleys of bullets, human rights groups and inmates charge. At least 200 prisoners were killed, the groups say.

As many as 168 inmates at Fayoum prison near Cairo were killed Jan. 30 after jailbreaks triggered by the street demonstrations that would depose Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, according to a lawsuit filed by the Egyptian Center for Development and Human Rights.

Amnesty International reported that inmates provided a list of 43 prisoners they say were killed by prison guards at Al Qatta al Gadeed, another prison near Cairo.

The lawsuit, filed with Egypt's prosecutor general, described prisoners' corpses riddled with gunshot wounds to the head and chest, and signs of torture such as fingernails pulled out. Amnesty International said some inmates were shot by guards firing from towers.

During the chaos of street demonstrations in recent weeks, Egyptian news media have reported on a number of escapes by prisoners after guards fled. But the allegations by human rights groups represent the first suggestion that prisoners still locked in prisons were gunned down by guards.

In Egypt, prison guards are required to first fire a warning shot, then shoot to maim, resorting to lethal force only as a final recourse. The accounts of the prisoners could not be confirmed.

Government officials could not be reached for comment on the allegations. For decades, security forces have been accused by human rights groups of torture, false arrests and brutality.

Prisoners at Al Qatta began to riot and demand their release after hearing news reports of escapes at other prisons, inmate Mohamed Ahmad Mahmoud Sedeek said in a telephone interview with The Times from the prison. After several guards opened their cells, Sedeek said, other security forces opened fire, killing several prisoners.

Later, Sedeek said, guards told prisoners to help themselves to food from prison larders. As the inmates collected food, guards again fired, killing several more.

"They wanted to show that we were stealing or trying to escape to justify later why they opened fire and killed so many people," Sedeek said.

He said he and other prisoners are able to buy cellphones from guards. "Everything in prison is business," said Sedeek, 35, who said he is serving three years for dealing drugs.

Many families of shooting victims have refused to collect corpses from the morgue for burial because they want to preserve proof that the men were shot to death. Sahar Farouk Sayed said in a telephone interview with The Times that a death certificate listed her brother's cause of death at Al Atta prison as "riots." It did not mention his gunshot wounds.

Sayed said inmates told her that her brother, Saber Mustafa Sayed, 32, was shot by prison guards Jan. 30 after he and other prisoners carried the bodies of those who had been shot the day before to a mosque in the prison. The earlier shootings took place in the prison courtyard, she said.

Sayed said her brother had told her in phone conversations before the unrest that guards sometimes killed prisoners in their cells and dragged their bodies to the courtyard as a warning to others not to cause trouble. She said her brother was serving 15 years for his involvement in a murder.

Amnesty International quoted an unnamed prisoner as saying he was wounded and another inmate was fatally shot by guards Feb. 12 as they carried the body of an inmate who had been killed the day before.

As the inmates were carrying the corpse to the prison gate to deliver it to family members waiting outside, guards opened fire on them, the prisoner said.

"We dropped the body and ran for our lives," the report quotes the prisoner as saying. "I was injured in my left shoulder. A prisoner from another wing who was helping us was killed and another two were injured."

Describing the same incident, another prisoner told Amnesty International that a friend was shot and killed by guards firing from watchtowers.

"The bullet hit the back of his head and he was bleeding heavily," the inmate reportedly said. "He died shortly afterwards."

A pharmacist at one prison told Amnesty International that he had tried to provide rudimentary care for prisoners wounded by guards' gunfire. The pharmacist said he had treated 45 wounded inmates without antibiotics.

"I'm applying Betadine to torn pieces of underwear to bind prisoners' wound because there are no bandages," the pharmacist said, according to Amnesty International.

Malcolm Smart, the group's Middle East and North Africa director, called for an independent investigation in Egypt. The rights group says inmates are short of food and water.

"The authorities must stop the use of lethal force against inmates and allow all those injured to receive medical treatment immediately," Smart said.

david.zucchino@latimes.com

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