CAIRO — Of all the ways to die, this was one of the most horrible. On Monday, the Egyptian government acknowledged that its security forces had killed 36 Islamist prisoners the day before — the first time mass casualties had occurred involving Egyptians in government custody. Security officials said that the prisoners had rioted while in a prison truck and captured a guard, causing the officers to respond by firing tear gas and the prisoners to die of asphyxiation. If that’s the case, crowd control experts say, the prisoners perished in agony — gasping for air and incapable of resisting their guards.
The incident underlines the brutality of the struggle between the new Egyptian government and its opponents. While the death toll from last week primarily consisted of civilians and security forces caught up in the violence of mass demonstrations, this week’s casualties have largely been the result of targeted attacks on particular groups. And Egypt’s security forces have suffered casualties as well: Islamic militants executed 25 off-duty police conscripts on Monday near the city of Rafah, along the Israel-Egypt border.
Human Rights Watch researcher Priyanka Motaparthy visited the Zeinhom morgue, where the bodies of the Islamist prisoners were being held. She found a chaotic scene outside, as angry families banged on the metal doors to the morgue, demanding access to the corpses. And perhaps not surprisingly, they didn’t trust the staff at the morgue or the security forces.
"People were saying things like, ‘they were burned,’ some people were talking about bullets," Motaparthy said. "People were saying they were killed and executed, they were tortured."
So far, there is little hard evidence that the cause of death was anything but asphyxiation. Motaparthy said that she had examined pictures of the bodies, and they bore no obvious signs of torture. Lawyer Ossama ElMahdy visited the morgue on Monday as well, and tweeted extremely graphic pictures of the bodies. He wrote that the dead men’s faces were so blue — almost black — that the families assumed they were burned, but they were not.
Most of the bodies have now been claimed by the victims’ families, but as of last night six families were still refusing to sign the permission of burial necessary to gain custody of the corpses. "It listed the cause of death as asphyxiation, and some didn’t accept that," Motaparthy explained.
Mahmoud Hasmy, one of the lawyers representing the victims, is another person who doesn’t accept that the deaths were solely caused by asphyxiation. He said that he had examined some of the bodies and that they had cuts on their heads from sharp objects. "We tried more than one time to have a copy of the reports [listing the cause of death and injuries to the bodies]," he said. "But the morgue refused."
Hasmy and other lawyers then went to the prosecutor general’s office to file a formal complaint. "The office replied not to worry as they have noted down what they have seen of the injuries," he said.
It is possible to kill 36 people with tear gas, but it is extremely difficult — a fact that illustrates Egyptian security forces’ inability or unwillingness to properly use the non-lethal weapons at their disposal.
Crowd control experts have formulas to determine how much tear gas is necessary to pacify a crowd, and how much can cause fatalities. While the math can get a bit complicated, the basic principle is fairly simple: If you know how large the area affected is and the number of tear gas canisters used, you can calculate the time it will take for most people to become incapacitated, or for most to die.
Take the case of the prisoners killed in Egypt on Sunday. We can make an educated guess on the size of the police truck: Let’s assume it is similar to a small U-Haul truck, with a length of 11 feet, a width of seven feet, and a height of seven feet. If two tear gas projectiles were fired into that truck, it would take 42 minutes for half of those exposed to die — more than enough time for police to save the prisoners, if they wanted to. If 10 projectiles were fired into the truck, half of those exposed would die in a mere eight minutes and 20 seconds.
"It would be an agonizing death as well, with a burning sensation on all the wet areas of the body, a gasping and even gagging sensation, coughing, tightness of the chest," said Sid Heal, a former officer in the L.A. County Sheriff’s Department and expert on crowd control techniques. "Long before the lethal concentration threshold was reached, the victims would be rendered near helpless and willing to do just about anything to get clean air."
Whatever happened in that prison truck, however, did not convince the police officers to let in fresh air and save their prisoners’ lives.