Egypt has jailed four top security officials accused of ordering police to shoot and kill protesters during country's 18-day uprising, which ousted longtime leader Hosni Mubarak, officials said Friday.
Rights activists welcomed the move as a step toward ending the culture of impunity in Egypt's massive security forces, which are hated and feared in Egypt.
Officials put the number of protesters killed during the uprising at 365, but human rights activists and others have said the figure is much higher. According to a count by the Front to Defend Egypt Protesters, a group that provides medical and legal assistance to the demonstrators, 685 people died as of March 7.
The suspects jailed are the former Cairo security chief, the head of the State Security agency and the heads of General Security and riot police. They are the most senior security officials to be interrogated in the violence that marred the early days of the protests.
The men are accused of "inciting, assisting and agreeing to the killing" of protesters under instructions from their superior, said Adel al-Said, deputy General Prosecutor. They allegedly obeyed directives that "contradict government orders to preserve public order."
"This is the beginning of the process of healing from those abuses we faced for years and the first step in getting rid of the culture of impunity," said Soha Abdelati, a lawyer with the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights.
Egypt's security forces number at least 500,000, slightly more than the armed forces. Loathed for their heavy handedness and rampant corruption, the security forces are accused of some of the worst human rights abuses in the suppression of dissent against Mubarak's nearly 30-year rule.
The Cabinet member in charge of the police at the time of the protests, former Interior Minister Habib el-Adly, has blamed his subordinates for the violence. El-Adly is on trial on unrelated charges of corruption and money laundering, but he is being interrogated on charges connected to the protests.
The prosecution also is interrogating the former head of the State Security agency, Hassan Abdel-Rahman, for allegedly ordering the destruction of thousands of official documents after Mubarak stepped down.
Abdel-Rahman has acknowledged issuing the orders, saying the papers were secret and related to national security, according to the prosecutor's office. But he said copies of the documents remain stored on the ministry's central computer system.
Thousands of people stormed the security offices earlier this week upon hearing reports of officers destroying documents, which protesters say can be used to incriminate officials in abuse.
Protesters have found thousands of shredded and burned documents and seized others. They posted them on websites to expose the incredible network of intelligence gathered on dissidents and public figures.
What to do with Egypt's tainted security agencies remains one of the most contentious issues facing the military rulers, who took charge after Mubarak was forced to step down on Feb. 11. The new minister of interior has apologized for "violations" by the force and promised a formal apology by the police soon.
The Front to Defend Egypt Protesters says the military beat and detained some 100 protesters during a March 9 rally in Cairo's Tahrir Square and denied them legal representation in front of the military prosecution.
New-York based Human Rights Watch had criticized Egypt's military for sending civilians to military trials, calling it a vestige of the Mubarak regime.
Also Friday, thousands of people turned out for a demonstration in Tahrir Square calling for religious unity, after clashes between Christians and Muslims this week killed 13 and wounded 140.
"We have to talk sense at this critical time and get the reasonable people to take action, and all of us are calling today to try to avoid religious tensions," said Ahmed Mohamed, a Muslim protester.
Tuesday's clashes deepened a sense of chaos as the police and ruling military struggle to maintain order a month after Mubarak stepped down.
The Coptic Christian minority makes up 10 percent of Egypt's 80 million people and complains of widespread discrimination that they say relegates them to second-class citizen status.
(This version CORRECTS name of organization in paragraphs three and 14.)