Another Egyptian Christian conscript has died in suspicious circumstances.
Michael Gamal, 22, was due to finish his two-year compulsory military service this May, when his family heard the shock news of his ‘suicide’.
Last time his family heard from him was Feb 15. “As often, we talked over the phone. Michael was in good spirits. He was jesting and joking. He had a couple of months to go before his service was over,” said Osama, Gamal’s brother.
But the next several hours took an unexpected turn.
“When I called the next day, Michael, unusually, didn’t respond.”
Later that night a fellow draftee made a call from Gamal’s phone. “I was told my brother was seriously injured. I couldn’t believe it!” added Osama.
Hurriedly making their way to Shebeen el-Kom (76 km north of Cairo), where Gamal was posted, members of the family were informed by the military police that their son “had committed suicide”.
At the hospital, an initial coroner report stated the cause of death as a “gunshot to the upper chest from close range”. The body bore trauma marks to the forehead and right temple, they said
Perhaps more suspicious was, according to the family, repeated attempts by army officials to discourage an autopsy.
“Three members from the military police asked us who last called Gamal. They claimed we argued with him on the phone. This is flat out false! They said that he shot himself after he finished his call with us!” said Alaa Gamal, a second brother.
“The military wanted to bury the body before the rest of the family made their way from Asyut, 6 hours drive north to Shebeen. They tried to persuade me not to bring the family,” said Osama Gamal.
“There were no hospital admission papers, despite the claim that Michael had still been alive when brought to the hospital. Later, a lieutenant from Michael’s unit, Lt. Mohamed Medhat, tried to persuade us to immediately bury the body. He even said he’d fly the body on a military chopper and speed up all the necessary paper work” added Gamal.
In absence of an investigation, and before the body had left the hospital (Feb. 17), the military authorities were ready with a written report stating Michael “had shot himself dead”.
Yet the family has strong grounds to discredit this claim.
“Michael told us that in his last post, over the past few months, he was “support personnel”, so he neither carried on-duty nor was he issued any firearms. He couldn’t have had access to a weapon to allegedly shoot himself with,” said the older brother.
“How can he pull the trigger of a long rifle on himself?”
Gamal’s mysterious death mirrors the case of Bishoy Kamel, another Copt conscript whose suspicious death last November was also reported as ‘suicide’.
This takes the tally of Christian conscript deaths in either the Egyptian army or police to four since June 2015, and seven known cases over a decade. The cases were predominantly attributed to suicide.
Much to the families’ anguish, claims of religious bullying were never properly investigated by the authorities.
“While in his last unit, Michael complained of ill-treatment by fellow soldiers and some officers” said Fr. Hydra Garas, who had been in close touch with him.
The family tellingly recall how Michael told them two months ago that an officer beat his back with a stick, leaving marks imprinted on the back of his under vest.
Yet during his last time off (29 Jan- 6 Feb) he seemed to have put the incident behind him.
“Last time I saw him, he was happy. He said ‘Father, it’s almost over!’ ” said Fr. Garas, referring to the near conclusion of Gamal’s draft service, due on May 25.