Abou Deif, a reporter for the private weekly El-Fagr, died in a local hospital after being shot in the head while covering clashes between anti-government protesters and Muslim Brotherhood supporters outside the presidential palace seven days earlier, according to news reports.
Hassan Shahin, an activist who was at the scene, told Abou Deif’s family and the prosecutor’s office that someone he knew to be a Muslim Brotherhood supporter from prior demonstrations had focused a laser penlight on Abou Deif shortly before the shooting. The laser pen tactic had been used by Muslim Brotherhood supporters and police during protests to identify activists for harassment or attack, according to news accounts.
Earlier in the day, Abou Deif had shot video showing Muslim Brotherhood supporters assaulting anti-government protesters, a colleague, Hossam Sioufi, told CPJ. (A number of reporters and others later published videos showing Muslim Brotherhood supporters beating, intimidating, and detaining protesters that day.) Abou Deif was himself struck by a rubber bullet, suffering minor injuries, earlier in the day.
Abou Deif’s family and colleagues told CPJ they believed the journalist was likely targeted by the Muslim Brotherhood, and that one of his recent articles may have provided further motive. Four months earlier, Abou Deif had written a piece that said President Mohamed Morsi had included a brother-in-law in a mass July 2012 presidential pardon that encompassed 572 people. Morsi’s brother-in-law, Mahmoud Aly, had been serving a three-year sentence on a bribery conviction. Morsi didn’t publicly respond to About Deif’s report. Soon after, Abou Deif told his brother, Salem, and several colleagues that he was being followed on the streets and was receiving threats on his Facebook page from people he identified as Muslim Brotherhood supporters, according to CPJ interviews.
The subsequent investigation and the government’s response were marked by irregularities. In January 2013, Morsi spokesman Yassir Ali disputed any Muslim Brotherhood connection to the killing. In a letter to the Washington Post, he said “forensic reports confirmed that Abu Deif was killed by the same type of bullet that killed seven pro-Morsi protesters at the same demonstrations.”
But the government’s forensic report had not been issued at that point. It was released more than a month later, in February 2013, and was notable for what it did not include. The Forensics Administration said it had not received an investigative memorandum from police, a key document that would typically include witness testimony and other details from the scene. The memorandum, which investigators are normally obligated to file in such cases, would ordinarily be used by the Forensics Administration to help determine the source and distance of the shot and other salient circumstances that would guide the prosecutor in pursuing charges. As it was, the report referred only vaguely to the distance at which the shot was fired, saying it came from “more than a meter” away,” and did not specify the type of weapon or bullet used, although it described the slug as having expanded after entering Abou Deif’s skull.
Statements from witnesses such as Shahin and pressure from the Egyptian Journalists’ Syndicate prompted authorities in April 2013 to summon three Muslim Brotherhood youth leaders for six hours of questioning. The accused were released for lack of evidence. The suspects were publicly identified as Ahmed Sibia, Abdel Rahman Ezz, and Ahmed al-Moghier. Sibia was also the director of Hamas-affiliated Al-Aqsa television office in Cairo. The three denied involvement in the killing and said their own lives had been threatened by opposition activists, according to news reports.
The same month, Abou Deif’s family hired Fakhry Saleh, former head of the Forensics Administration, to conduct its own investigation. Saleh, using the official medical report and eyewitness testimony, concluded that a gunman fired one shot at close range using a “dumdum” bullet designed to expand on impact to intensify the injury.
The public prosecutor’s office reopened the investigation in late May–only to close the case a month later with the vague explanation that it could not identify the “original killer.” The office referred al-Moghier for trial on charges of torturing and detaining opposition protesters during the same clashes in which Abou Deif was killed.
After Morsi’s ouster in July 2013, the prosecutor general’s office asked a Cairo judge to examine the case independently, a step that encouraged Abou Deif’s family and lawyers.