In an unusual signal of willingness to hold security forces accountable for abuses, an Egyptian prosecutor ordered the arrests of four police officers in connection with the deaths of more than three dozen Muslim Brotherhood detainees more than two months ago, state media reported Tuesday.
Meanwhile, suspected Islamist militants ambushed an Egyptian military convoy in the volatile Sinai Peninsula with rocket-propelled grenades, security officials said. A soldier and a civilian were reported killed and seven soldiers hurt â the latest violent episode in the strategic peninsula, where the army has been battling what appears to be an increasingly sophisticated insurgency.
The move to prosecute police officers in the deaths of 37 demonstrators who were arrested during Cairo protests in August was being closely watched as a potential precursor to greater scrutiny of the interim governmentâs overall dealings with the Muslim Brotherhood. Human rights groups have cited the maltreatment of Brotherhood detainees as a key cause for concern that military-backed administration will not proceed with democratic reforms.
Some 2,000 members of the Muslim Brotherhood are behind bars, including deposed Islamist President Mohammed Morsi. Reports of beatings and torture of prisoners have filtered out, including detailed accounts by two Canadians caught up in the dragnet who spent seven weeks behind bars before being released earlier this month.
The Interior Ministry had initially dismissed the outcry over the deaths of demonstrators as they were being transported to a Cairo prison, blaming the fatalities on fighting that broke out after the detainees tried to escape and seized a hostage.
But a preliminary investigation found that they were asphyxiated by tear gas fired into the stifling and tightly packed van where they were confined, according to security sources quoted by the state-owned Ahram website. The four officers were ordered jailed pending further investigation, it said.
Authorities have shown little inclination, however, to revisit the much larger death toll â nearly 1,000 â that came in mid-August, when police and soldiers violently dispersed Morsi followers who had set up sprawling protest camps.