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Egypt under fire for video of soldier shooting at sleeping target in Sinai

International law has rules for how to respond to enemy forces who are not engaged in combat.
Egyptian police cadets take part in a training session at a police academy in the capital Cairo on Dec. 30, 2019.

The Egyptian military is facing criticism for a video that shows a soldier shooting a sleeping enemy combatant. 

Col. Gharib Abdel Hafez shared a video Sunday of Egyptian soldiers taking part in counterterrorism operations in the north of the Sinai Peninsula. At one point, the video shows an Egyptian soldier shooting an enemy fighter who is presumably sleeping in a makeshift structure. Another frame shows a man, seemingly unarmed, running until he is shot from above. A total of 89 fighters were killed in the operation, according to the video. 

Egypt has been battling the Islamic State, al-Qaeda and other Islamist insurgents in Sinai since 2011. 

The United Kingdom-based human rights organization Amnesty International condemned the video Thursday. Amnesty said the video showed “cold-blooded killings” and accused the Egyptian military of violating international law. 

“The harrowing scenes in this video serve as a chilling reminder that the Egyptian authorities hold international law in contempt,” said researcher Philip Luther. 

Amnesty further criticized the United States for its extensive military aid to Egypt in light of such conduct. Relatedly, US Senator Chris Murphy (D-CT) asked US President Joe Biden last month to withhold aid to Egypt due to human rights concerns. 

Egyptian security forces have been accused of carrying out extrajudicial killings in the recent past. Forensic experts and families of the killed have also disputed Egypt's accounts of killing enemy fighters. 

Whether sleeping soldiers can be killed under international law is somewhat a matter of debate. The Geneva Conventions, which are a universally recognized set of laws on warfare, forbid attacking soldiers who are “hors de combat” — a French term meaning “outside of combat.” This can refer to soldiers who are attempting to surrender or who are incapacitated by way of injury, unconsciousness, sickness, and so forth. The conventions do not mention sleep. 

The US military’s rules of engagement hold that if an enemy has been declared hostile by an appropriate authority, then soldiers do not need a hostile act to initiate combat. The rules do encourage that proportional force for the matter at hand often be used.

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