CAIRO (AP) — Gunmen drove into Cairo's Tahrir Square before dawn Monday and fired at an anti-government sit-in, seriously wounding a protester who had been jailed and tortured by former military rulers after he witnessed the killing of another activist. Two lawyers involved in the case suggested it was a targeted attack.
Lawyer Tamer Gomaa identified the seriously wounded activist as Muhanad Samir, 19, and said he was battling for his life with a number of pellets embedded in his skull and in his face.
Gomaa said witnesses recognized the attackers and identified them as security agents dressed in civilian clothes. Gomaa quoted witnesses as saying some of the attackers had visited the square hours before and inquired about Samir by name and about others at the sit-in.
A security official dismissed the charges as nonsense, noting that some of the witnesses said the attackers were masked. He was speaking on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the media.
He added that authorities were searching for the attackers.
Other witnesses said the attacker aimed at Samir's, shooting him at close range, according to Gomaa. One of the attackers was collecting bullet shells, apparently to clear evidence.
Political tensions have been running high in Egypt over the past month pitting opponents of Islamist President Mohammed Morsi against his supporters, turning violent at times. Police and security have largely stayed out of the confrontations.
Activists who revolted against police abuse in Egypt's uprising nearly two years ago say little has changed in the conduct of security forces.
Samir is a witness to the killing of another activist, his friend, during violent protests last year outside the Cabinet. They were protesting against the military rulers who were in charge before Morsi's election.
Samir, who was shot in his leg at the time, was sent to trial, charged with attacking soldiers and vandalizing public properties. He was released in October pending trial.
He then told a prominent TV presenter that after accusing the military of shooting him and his friend, he found himself accused in the case. He said he was tortured during his 11-month detention and forced to confess to vandalism charges. Gomaa accused soldiers of orchestrating the attack on properties.
"I was forced to confess," Samir told Egypt's ONTV back in October. "I was beaten, insulted, hung by my hands. ... This is not over," he added.
He said he wanted justice for himself and his friend who was killed.
"(Muhanad) knows who killed his friend. He is the only survivor and he had just testified in the case last month," said Gomaa. "He is able to rattle the throne of some in the police."
Another lawyer in the case, Haitham Mohammadein, said some shells were found at the scene and prosecutors said they could have been used by private citizens or police.
"This is a very troubling case. We don't know who has an interest to do this," he said.
He said protesters feel vulnerable because there had been virtually no just for the more than 900 people killed since the uprising began and their attackers got away with impunity. Another problem, he said, is there has been no overhaul of the hated security agencies that operated under the ousted regime of Hosni Mubarak.
"With no justice ... and no reform to the security apparatus, anyone can do whatever they want, including killing or harassing activists, and get away with it," the lawyer said, suggesting that Samir may have been targeted.
There was a second attack in Tahrir at the same time that Samir was shot. A different group of assailants snatched another activist from the sit-in and beat him before setting him free, the lawyer said.
Mostafa Diab, 19, was badly beaten by unknown assailants who entered the square from a different end but at the same time, lawyer Mohammadein said. Mohammed was then found on the floor with a gash in his head.
Following this attack, protesters went on an angry spree looking for the attackers and vandalized some cars. They also appeared to be angered by the lack of security.
The U.S. Embassy, which is off Tahrir, said one of its vans was vandalized in the rampage. It warned U.S. citizens in a warden message to stay away from Tahrir Square, where New Year's celebrations are planned. Tahrir was the center of Egypt's uprising nearly two years ago.
The Tahrir sit-in is in its second month. Protesters took over Tahrir to protest against Morsi's moves to pass a disputed constitution. Despite the charter passing in a referendum, the protesters stayed in the square, demanding the constitution be amended.
Some have hanged banners against Morsi and his Muslim Brotherhood group. One reads: "The people have impeached the president."
Mohammadein said it was not the first time the protesters came under attack. Activists have also been briefly kidnapped and released and the cases were never investigated, he said.