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Rights group says prison officer killed by subordinates key to probe into escape of thousands
CAIRO (AP) ' A senior prison officer was killed by his subordinates as he tried to stop mass prison breaks during Egypt's popular uprising against President Hosni Mubarak, an Egyptian rights group said Monday.
The case of Mohammed el-Batran is key to the mystery surrounding the mass prison break in Egypt in one weekend in late January, when nearly a quarter of Egypt's prisoners escaped.
Some allege the mass prison break was engineered by an embattled regime trying to cling to power by creating anarchy, though other testimony suggests there may not have been a single guiding hand.
Chaos struck Egypt's prisons as inmates watched the uprising against Mubarak unfold on television staring Jan.25.
An official investigation has yet to be completed into the escape of more than 23,000 inmates and deaths of at least 120.
The Egyptian Organization for Human Rights said witnesses say el-Batran opposed an alleged official plan to unleash anarchy in the country as a way of derailing the popular uprising against Mubarak.
At the time, authorities and state media said el-Batran was killed by rioting inmates in al-Qatta prison on the outskirts of Cairo.
"This is a version that has been refuted by many witness accounts," the report said. "There were many stories during the revolution that he refused to let the prisoners out."
The report reviews witness accounts of inmates and prison officials, as well as forensic evidence describing the circumstances surrounding the death of el-Batran, the head of the prison investigation department in the Interior Ministry, on Jan.29.
El-Batran had argued with a prison official, asking him to leave so he could handle the angry inmates, the report related.
As he walked out of the cell block with hundreds of prisoners following him, a police officer opened fire at the crowd from a watchtower, killing el-Batran and others, the report said.
The findings confirm an earlier report by a national fact-finding mission, which was ignored by the authorities until a new forensic report came out this summer.
"Was this all part of a plan and upon orders, or was it because of the pressures the officers were under, we don't know yet," said Ghada el-Shehbandar, a member of the EOHR board. "But we accuse the (former interior minister) of negligence and creating chaos."
The police vanished from the streets three days after the revolt began, and the military took over. The police have yet to full redeploy, and the country is suffering a serious increase in crime, further complicating Egypt's transition to a new regime.
The group said some prisoner escapes involved organized and heavily armed attempts to free relatives. But there is enough evidence, the report said, to suggest that some prison breaks were orchestrated by security officials "to spread chaos and instability and to bury the revolution."
At one lockup, prisoners said they were left for days without food or water after the wardens fled, and only armed guards manning watchtowers remained behind.
Also Monday, Justice Ministry officials said two sons of Mubarak have an estimated $340 million in Swiss bank accounts.
Assem al-Gohary said Swiss authorities are investigating whether one of the sons, Alaa, was involved in money laundering along with other ex-regime figures.
At home, Mubarak and his sons have been charged with corruption and all three are under arrest. Mubarak is also charged with complicity in the killing of about 850 protesters during the uprising.
Switzerland has already frozen the assets of the Mubarak family and other ex-Egyptian regime figures, which al-Gohary estimated at nearly $450 million. He added that most of those assets belong to the sons.
Al-Gohary also said that the wealth of Mubarak's top associate, tycoon Hussein Salem, and his family exceeded $4 billion. He added that Salem and his family have transferred funds overseas in the past six months, including to Hong King, the United Arab Emirates.
The 77-year-old Salem is co-defendant in the Mubarak corruption trial and faces charges in relation to lucrative land and other deals, including exporting gas to Israel. He is also under arrest in Madrid, Spain.
Additional reporting by Sarah El Deeb.