A leading human rights organization accused the Egyptian military Tuesday of trying to cover up its responsibility in the deaths of two dozen Christian protestors and called for an independent investigation.
Video circulating via social media and the internet shows an Egyptian armored personnel carrier (APC) plowing into a crowd outside Cairo's State Television building on October 9.
"This had been an essentially peaceful protest until the military used excessive force and military vehicles ran over protestors," said Joe Stork, deputy Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. According to HRW, preliminary autopsies showed that of 23 protestors killed during the demonstration, "eight of the people had died of bullet wounds, two from blows to the head, and 13 from injuries and fractures inflicted by the vehicles."
After weeks of mounting sectarian tension, thousands of Coptic Christians, who make up about 10 percent of Egypt's population, had taken to the streets in Cairo on the evening of Sunday, October 9 to protest an attack on a Coptic church. Though most of the protestors were unarmed, the situation degenerated into violence. In addition to the civilian deaths, at least one Egyptian military officer died.
After the violence, the ruling Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) promised a military investigation into the incident, but publicly absolved soldiers of intentionally targeting protestors. In an Oct. 12 press conference, the SCAF denied that APCs had been used intentionally to harm protestors. "The soldiers driving armored vehicles were trying to avoid protestors, who were throwing stones and Molotov cocktail bombs at them," said General Adel Emara of the SCAF.
During the protests themselves, Egypt's official state television network, which is housed in the State Television building where the protests were taking place, called for "honorable citizens" to "defend the Army against attack." State television also claimed that armed Coptic demonstrators had shot and killed three military officers.
Human Rights Watch criticized the actions of the state broadcaster Tuesday, saying that such calls "would have amounted to incitement to discrimination and violence against Copts."
The New York based organization called on the SCAF to transfer its investigation into the October 9 violence "from the military prosecution to a fully independent and impartial investigation" and urged an investigation into whether the military had manipulated state media coverage.
In Egypt, military prosecutors and judges are subject to the military chain of command headed by Defense Minister Field Marshall Tantawy, head of the SCAF, which has been governing Egypt since the overthrow of President Hosni Mubarak last February.
Since the SCAF took power on February 11 ending the country's 18-day mass uprising, activists charge that the military has clamped down on discontent and opposition in a manner comparable to the Mubarak regime. While laws curtailing the freedom of Christians to build houses of worship date back more than a century, the number of attacks on Christian communities and places of worship has increased since the transfer of power.