This is pretty horrific and points up the total breakdown of security in 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.
The Egyptian police apparently know little about the non-lethal weapons at their disposal. They threw in far too much tear gas into the back of the truck so that fatalties were inevitable:
"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.
The security forces, at times, appear nearly leaderless, which contributes to the lack of security in the capital. The death toll continues to climb with a near total breakdown in civil society imminent.