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Egypt investigates military rulers in protest deaths

CAIRO — Egypt launched an investigation Monday of the country’s former military rulers and their alleged role in the killing of protesters during their 18 months in power, an unprecedented civilian probe into the affairs of an army that has traditionally shielded itself from outside scrutiny.

International and local rights groups have pressed Egypt’s newly elected president to hold to account the council of military officers who ruled the country from the February 2011 overthrow of Hosni Mubarak to this summer. At least 120 protesters died in clashes with security forces and soldiers during this time.

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A court official said Judge Tharwat Hamad is leading the investigation of accusations against Field Marshal Hussein Tantawi, head of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, and the other generals who sat on the body that ran Egypt during the 18-month transitional period. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to reporters.

But investigation is up against what rights groups call the military’s culture of impunity, as well as a decree passed by the military council before giving up power that protects members from civilian investigation even after they are out of service.

Some lawyers have questioned whether civilian investigators will be able to take key steps like summoning the generals for questioning.

Hamad might be able to find a legal way around the ban, for example, summoning the generals in their capacity as political leaders at the time. But lawyers like Basma Zahran — who represented the families of some of the 26 Coptic Christian protesters killed in an October 2011 march — are skeptical that he will do so.

Zahran said Hamad was in charge of part of that investigation.

She said the judge admitted at the time that he was unable to summon commanding officers as accused or even witnesses, and ended up shelving the investigation into the deadly shooting of 11 civilians.

A separate military tribunal convicted three soldiers of manslaughter and sentenced them each to two years in prison for the crushing of 15 civilians under armored vehicles.

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