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Lawyers wary of Abou Zaabal vehicle verdict

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Four policemen are accused of manslaughter regarding the death of 37 detainees; lawyers representing the victims say they did not testify in court during trial

Expectant of a verdict on Tuesday regarding the death of 37 detainees inside a police vehicle on 17 August, 2013, Maha Youssef, one of the lawyers representing the victims, said none of the lawyers had testified in court.

On 21 October, the prosecutor’s office ordered the detention of three police officers and a vice-warden of the Heliopolis police station. They were charged with manslaughter.

The detainees were reportedly killed after being arrested during the forcible dispersal of the pro-Mohamed Morsi sit-in at Rabaa Al-Adaweya on 14 August. After being detained for three days, they were transported to Abou Zaabal Prison. According to reports, the prisoners complained of inadequate ventilation and began creating a disturbance, prompting the police officers to fire a teargas canister inside the vehicle. Of the 45 prisoners, only seven survived, one of whom is still in critical condition.

If found guilty, the four policemen would face between three to 10 years in prison. Youssef expected the latter verdict, since the policemen caused the death of more than three individuals.

“I have worked as a lawyer for 15 years, I have never seen a court case where a session is scheduled for a verdict without listening to the testimonies of any lawyers, neither from the defendants’ side or the victims’,” Youssef said in a press conference held on Saturday by civil society organisations who have worked on the case. They included the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights, the Hisham Mubarak Law Centre (HMLC), and El-Nadeem Centre for Rehabilitation of Torture Victims.

The prosecutors charged the officers with manslaughter after their inability to prove their criminal intent in murder, which is a prerequisite in first-degree murder. Youssef criticised the charge, saying that “the officers were aware of the danger of using tear gas in a closed space and that it would lead to death.”

Abdel Meguid Al-Deeb, father of one of the victims, Mohamed Al-Deeb, accused the policemen of purposefully murdering the 37 detainees.

“When you cram 45 men into a vehicle with a capacity of half this number, you are planning a murder,” he said during the press conference.

An expert summoned to give an opinion on the case said that the vehicle transporting the deceased detainees can accommodate no more than 24 persons. Youssef added that the ventilation system in the vehicle was not working.

The prisoners were kept inside the vehicle without proper ventilation for almost six hours before the teargas canister was fired. The prosecution’s report states that “an unidentified person” fired the teargas canister. Youssef stressed that at the time of the incident, the vehicle was present inside Abu Zaabal Prison and tended to by policemen.

Mohamed Abdel Maaboud, one of the survivors of the incident, confirmed teargas was indeed fired into the vehicle, adding that he could clearly smell it. He added that once the gas was fired, it was difficult to open the vehicle and extract those inside. The Forensic Authority’s report stated the victims died of suffocation from inhalation of CS teargas.

Gamal Seyam, father of Sherif Seyam, one of the victims, claimed that some of the detainees died of suffocation before the teargas canister was fired.

Mohamed Abdel Ghany, father of Rafeek Abdel Ghany, one of the victims, said his son received a release order on an EGP 5000 bail on 17 August. Abdel Ghany said he paid the bail on 18 August by 10.30am, yet the authorities would not release his son citing “security concerns”.

“I have not hired a lawyer,” the 70-year-old Abdel Ghany said, “I will be representing my son. If I die, I shall be relieved of the burden my son’s killer placed on my shoulders.”

Seif Al-Islam Hammad, a lawyer from HMLC working on the case, said the families of the victims will resort to the African Court on Human and Peoples’ Rights should the domestic judiciary fail to achieve retribution for those killed. Egypt is yet to ratify the protocol which established the court.

“I doubt that the Egyptian judiciary will do us justice,” Hammad said. “The public prosecution and the judiciary have become the state’s arms of injustice.”


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