CAIRO -- It's been nearly four months but the bloody events of mid-August still haunt many Egyptians. On Tuesday, a consortium of human rights groups called for an official probe of the slayings then of nearly 1,000 Islamist protesters by security forces.
The 13 domestic and international rights organizations argued that it will be difficult for the country to move forward without a full and transparent accounting of the crackdown on followers of deposed Islamist president Mohamed Morsi. Human rights groups have called the deaths the largest unlawful mass killing in modern Egyptian history.
The groups issuing the joint call included New York-based Human Rights Watch and London-based Amnesty International. Egyptian organizations, themselves facing heavy pressure from the military-backed interim government, also joined in the demand for a full investigation of political violence, mainly that associated with Morsi's fall.
The vast majority of the deaths occurred over a two-day span beginning Aug. 14, when Egyptian police and soldiers broke up sprawling sit-in camps set up by supporters of Morsi. The army had removed the president six weeks earlier after massive popular protests demanding his ouster.
The mid-August crackdown inaugurated a wide-ranging campaign by the government against Morsi's Muslim Brotherhood. Thousands of his followers are in jail, and he and his top lieutenants are on trial. Egypt is still torn almost daily by small but fierce street demonstrations demanding Morsi's reinstatement.
Though extremely unpopular after a year in office, Morsi had been Egypt's first democratically elected leader, and his ouster drew international criticism. Egypt's ties with important regional allies such as Turkey have been badly strained by the coup. The Obama administration cut some military aid in response to the coup and the subsequent crackdown, though Secretary of State John F. Kerry signaled during a visit to Egypt last month that the United States hoped for a transition back to democracy via a constitutional referendum and presidential and parliamentary elections.
The rights groups, in their statement, urged the government to establish "an effective independent fact-finding committee to investigate responsibility through the chain of command for the unlawful killings."
Egypt's police force, widely decried as incompetent, corrupt and violent, has led the way in the ongoing crackdown on not only the Muslim Brotherhood but secular activists who played a key role in toppling longtime autocrat Hosni Mubarak in 2011. About two dozen activists, including well-known figures associated with the Tahrir Square protest movement, have been charged with violating a new law that in effect bans protests, and their cases on Monday were referred to a criminal court -- considered a severe step.
Egyptian government officials have argued for months that the police and army acted to defend themselves against violent demonstrators. The rights groups acknowledged that a small number of protesters were armed, but said that an independent investigation would help establish culpability.
In a related statement, the groups also called for an investigation into seemingly organized sexual assaults against female protesters, beginning during the uprising against Mubarak.
Nearly 200 such gang assault were reported to have taken placed in and near Tahrir Square in a two-week span in late June and early July of this year, when huge crowds had gathered to call for Morsi's removal.