(Beirut) – Egypt’s parliament should pass a transitional justice law establishing a new, impartial investigation into the mass killings of protesters in 2013, that will lead to accountability and fair compensation for victims’ families. The constitution requires parliament to pass such a law during its first session, which will probably end in October.

   If President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi’s government hopes to have any credibility with the thousands of Egyptians who have suffered over the past three years, it should ensure a serious accounting for these grave crimes. The mass killings of August 14, 2013, remain a dark stain on Egypt’s record that no amount of spin from the government or its allies will ever wash away.    

Sarah Leah Whitson

On August 14, 2013, Egyptian security forces killed at least 817 people, and probably more than 1,000, who were in Cairo’s Rab’a al-Adawiya Square protesting the military’s removal of former President Mohamed Morsy – one of the worst mass killings in modern history. The dispersal at Rab’a and several other mass killings of protesters in 2013 probably amounted to crimes against humanity, but in the three years since, the Egyptian authorities have held no one accountable, and the United Nations has taken little action.

“If President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi’s government hopes to have any credibility with the thousands of Egyptians who have suffered over the past three years, it should ensure a serious accounting for these grave crimes,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East and North Africa director at Human Rights Watch. “The mass killings of August 14, 2013, remain a dark stain on Egypt’s record that no amount of spin from the government or its allies will ever wash away.”

Egypt’s recently elected House of Representatives, the first legislature since the dissolution of the former People’s Assembly in 2012, opened its inaugural session in January 2016. Article 241 of the constitution requires the parliament, before the end of this session, to issue “a transitional justice law that ensures revealing the truth, accountability, proposing frameworks for national reconciliation, and compensating victims, in accordance with international standards.”

Egyptian lawmakers should take up their constitutionally mandated duty and responsibility as elected representatives and pass a law that opens the door for victims of the mass killings of 2013 to receive justice.

Different drafts of the transitional justice law have been circulating among representatives in recent months amid rumors that some might specifically include provisions for reconciliation with the Muslim Brotherhood, Morsy’s former organization, thousands of whose members have been arrested or killed since his removal. Many representativesobjected to any mention of the Brotherhood in the bill.

Mostafa Bakry, a member of parliament harshly opposed to the Brotherhood, told the Huffington Post Arabic in early July that “we as representatives will not accept in any way reconciliation with this group, and even if the Germans reconcile with the Nazis, we will not accept reconciliation with the Brotherhood.” Though Transitional Justice Minister Magdi al-Agati was expected to propose a draft to parliament at the time, he declined to do so, explaining in a statement that a number of representatives had objected to it.

Sources within parliament’s National Security Committee said that representatives received instructions from “sovereign entities” – a commonly used euphemism for intelligence agencies – not to discuss the issue of reconciliation at that time, the Huffington Post Arabic reported.

Between Morsy’s ouster on July 3, 2013, and August 16, 2013, Human Rights Watch documented six instances in which security forces unlawfully killed protesters, leaving at least 1,185 people dead, including those on August 14. In the past, government officials have expressed willingness to compensate the injured and the families of those who died.

In December 2014, the secretary general of the National Council for Care of Martyrs Families and the Injured – established after the 2011 uprising – said he had proposed adding the victims of the mass killings to the council’s responsibilities. In August 2015, a member of the government fact-finding committee that justified the police use of force during the mass killings said he nevertheless supported compensation for the victims, and a judicial inquiry.

Some of the discussion has revolved around the Islamic concept of compensation calleddiya, which can be paid by a party responsible for a crime, such as murder, in place of other penalties.

Saad al-Katatny, a former speaker of parliament and member of the Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party currently appealing a death sentence, said during a court hearing in February 2015 that a representative of the government had approached him in prison and proposed the payment of diya for the mass killings to resolve the political impasse with the Brotherhood. Al-Katatny said he responded that he did not have the “jurisdiction” to accept such an offer and “rejected the coup” in any case. Yasser Borhamy, a founder of one of Egypt’s largest salafist political parties, which supports the government, has also proposeda solution involving diya.

Compensation for the mass killings of 2013, though far from a complete solution, is an essential part of an effective remedy for a gross human rights violation under international law.

The right of victims to an effective remedy before an independent and impartial authority is enshrined in multiple treaties to which Egypt is a party, including the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. It requires fair and adequate compensation, an investigation that determines the facts, and prosecution of those responsible. International courts have found that impunity for crimes like the mass killings of 2013 only increases the suffering of victims and their families.

The Egyptian government fact-finding committee that looked into the killings and the events that precipitated and followed them released an executive summary of its findings on November 26, 2014, but blamed protesters for starting the violence, said the police response was mostly justified, and did not recommend any charges. Human Rights Watch and other groups said the government should make the report public, but it has not.

The Prosecutor General’s Office has not announced any investigations. Instead, prosecutors are pursuing a mass trial against more than 400 people arrested at the Rab’a al-Adawiya protest, whom they accuse of blocking roads and harming national unity. Thousands of others accused of membership in or sympathy for the Brotherhood face trial, including journalists, former members of parliament, and others arrested at protests.

Despite the Egyptian authorities’ failure to seriously investigate the mass killings, neither the United Nations Human Rights Council nor the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights have established international commissions of inquiry, even though they remain one of the last resorts for victims. Human Rights Watch continues to call on both organizations to establish such commissions.

“The international community has abandoned any pretense that justice for the victims of August 2013 will stand in the way of business as usual,” Whitson said. “If Egypt’s lawmakers want to represent all Egyptians, they should prove it by seeking basic accountability for the crimes committed by Egyptian security forces.”