How 36 Egyptian Prisoners Suffocated to Death in the Back of a Police Van

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. 


National Security

The Craziest Detail About the CIA's 1953 Coup in Iran

For most people, the name "Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf" evokes the image of "Stormin'  Norman," the U.S. Army general who oversaw Operations Desert Shield and Desert Storm as commander of the military's Central Command from 1988 through the effort to eject Saddam Hussein's forces from Kuwait in 1991. The Desert Storm general, though, was the son of Maj. Gen. H. Norman Schwarzkopf, whose varied and colorful career took him from being the founder and commander of the New Jersey State Police (where he led the investigation into the kidnapping of the Lindbergh baby), to serving as a general in World War II, training Iran's national police, and advising Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi. In 1953, he was the CIA's asset in Tehran when the country was convulsed by a coup.

Schwarzkopf's role has been the subject of speculation since the day after Prime Minister Mohammed Mossadegh's arrest on Aug. 19, 1953. On Aug. 20, the New York Times reported on Schwarzkopf's visit to Tehran and noted an editorial in the Soviet newspaper Pravda accusing Schwarzkopf of delivering the orders for the coup. Now, 60 years later, the CIA has confirmed his role in declassified documents obtained by the National Security Archive.

The six years of tensions preceding the coup began with Iranian nationalist efforts to retain more profits from the Anglo-Persian Oil Company (which changed its name in 1953 to the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company, and later to British Petroleum and now just BP), and continued with Mossadegh's rise to prime minister and his efforts to whittle away the Shah's political authority. In 1953, CIA officer Kermit Roosevelt, the grandson of President Theodore Roosevelt, oversaw the planning of TPAJAX, the CIA's plan for the "quasi-legal overthrow" (the CIA's euphemistic term of art) of Mossadegh. A CIA history describes Schwarzkopf's role:

Arrangements were made for a visit to Iran by General H. Norman Schwarzkopf, former head of the US Gendarme Mission, whom the Shah liked and respected. Schwarzkopf was to explain the proposed project and get from the Shah signed firmans (royal decrees) dismissing Mossadeq, appointing [retired Iranian army general Fazlollah] Zahedi, and calling on the Army to remain loyal to the crown.

Schwartzkopf was given a cover -- a tour of the Middle East, including destinations in Lebanon, Egypt, and Pakistan, with a stop in Iran. He met with the Shah on Aug. 1; Pahlavi took Schwartzkopf to a large ballroom where they sat at a small table in the center of the room because of the Shah's worries about microphones being placed in the walls. The Shah refused to sign the orders in their first meeting, citing concerns over the army's loyalty. Over the next two weeks, the Shah met with Roosevelt, who assured him of President Dwight Eisenhower's support for the plan.

After the initial stage of the coup, it became clear that the Mossadegh government had been aware of the plot, and Iranian nationalist papers reported that the decision to proceed with the coup was made on Aug. 9 in a meeting between Schwarzkopf and the Shah; a post-operational CIA report on the coup also cites an Aug. 9 meeting with the Shah, "which later proved vital to the success of the military phase of TPAJAX," though it does not mention Schwarzkopf. On Aug. 13, the CIA received two signed orders, the first dismissing Mossadegh, the second appointing Zahedi. The courier told Zahedi that the queen had ultimately swayed the Shah's decision. The next day, the CIA's office in Tehran requested $5 million to support the new government.

The CIA history incredulously notes several popular accounts of the coup that were written "[p]roceeding on the theory that their readers will believe anything dealing with 'spies,' 'agents,' and 'the secret world of espionage.'" The report calls out Andrew Tully's CIA: The Inside Story for "the purple of its flamboyant prose." In Tully's apparently hyperbolic account, when the coup stalled, "the word later was that in a period of a few days Schwartzkopf supervised the careful spending of more than ten million of CIA's dollars. Mossadegh suddenly lost a great many supporters." This is probably fictitious -- the CIA's official account does not mention Schwartzkopf again after his initial meeting with the Shah. It appears he departed Tehran quietly shortly before the coup. By Aug. 19, he was home in Trenton, N.J., where the New York Times found him and asked him about his trip. "I went there to call on some friends whom I had struck up an acquaintance with during the years I was in Iran reorganizing the National Gendarmerie," he told the reporter. "I was not there this time in an official capacity and I conducted no business there."

When the Times pressed him about the coup, he demurred, feigning ignorance of the political situation. The Times notes, "he explained that he preferred not to [discuss Iranian politics] since he had been out of touch 'for too long a period.'" It had been 18 days since his first meeting with the Shah to discuss the coup.