Egypt: Justice delayed is justice denied for Egyptians wrongfully imprisoned under colonial-era Assembly Law

In Egypt /Road Map Program, Statements and Position Papers by CIHRS

Appeal challenging the illegal application of the Assembly Law  postponed until January of next year 

On Saturday November 23rd, the Egyptian judiciary again prolonged litigation on an appeal seeking to halt the government’s unlawful use of the repealed colonial-era Assembly Law, filed by the Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies (CIHRS) and 32 public figures.  The Administrative Court postponed the case until next year, January 4th 2020. The perpetual postponement of this case is particularly dire for the over 3000 arrested following the protests of late September; the Egyptian government’s most expansive arrest campaign to date, as well as the thousands of other Egyptians currently imprisoned on the basis [1]of the Assembly Law.

The current appeal has origins in an historic vote on January 30th, 1928, when both chambers of the Egyptian Parliament unanimously repealed a 1914 occupation-era law on assembly, Law 10 of 1914 known as the Assembly Law, originally passed by the British colonialist powers and deemed by the Parliament as “tantamount to martial law.” Even the British occupation authorities described the law as “written in a draconian spirit” and declined to enforce it.  However, the king failed to publish the Assembly Law’s repeal in the Official Gazette, as was legally required of him. Therefore, CIHRS’ current petition being heard in the Administrative Court, no. 26254/71JY, seeks the publication of the Assembly Law’s repeal in the Official Gazette.

Since the Assembly Law’s 1928 repeal, successive Egyptian governments – up until and especially under the current administration of President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi – continued to enforce the nullified law; an egregious legal violation persisting for nearly a century. The law’s illegal enforcement would have likely continued unnoticed were it not for CIHRS’ 2017 report Toward the Emancipation of Egypt, which uncovered the law’s repeal and documented its ongoing illegal use to deny Egyptian citizens’ their right to free association. This extended miscarriage of justice has become increasingly amplified since 2011 and under the current president, targeting  political activists, journalists, and human rights defenders in unjust cases resulting in prolonged imprisonment[2] and even mass  death sentences.[3]

Mass death sentences and mass convictions are facilitated by the Assembly Law, which infringes upon the fundamental legal precept of individual criminal responsibility. Under the Assembly Law, it is only necessary for an assembly to have occurred (defined as five or more persons gathering without a security permit) in order to render all participants and persons calling for it—even those who did not participate—guilty. This has allowed courts to indiscriminately issue mass convictions and death sentences against protesters; enforcing a closure of Egypt’s public sphere and obstructing citizens’ rightful and peaceful participation within it.

After CIHRS’ report, several rights organizations and political parties petitioned the Supreme Judicial Council to stay enforcement of the Assembly Law; pending a resolution of the current appeal challenging the law’s application. In February 2017, CIHRS sent a letter to the current parliament, urging it to hold a public hearing to discuss the Assembly Law, but to no avail. Several attorneys representing defendants in freedom of association cases—such as the Cabinet Clashes case, in which activist Ahmed Douma was convicted—argued for their clients’ acquittal on the grounds that the law was null and void.

The Egyptian government, which is the respondent in the again-postponed appeal, has acted assiduously to prolong the litigation, which has now lasted over two years. The government’s lawyers have repeatedly asked for a continuance, for the ostensible purpose of viewing or requesting documentation. Yet it is likely that the genuine motivation behind these repeated delays is the government’s desire to avoid a reckoning with its illegal application of repealed colonial-era legislation against its own citizens. The court’s delay of the case until next year is justice denied yet again for the thousands of Egyptians wrongfully imprisoned on the basis of this illegitimate law.

[1] Currently, thousands of Egyptians are wrongly imprisoned after being sentenced under the Assembly Law, even before the adoption of Law 107 of 2013 on protests and demonstrations. For years now, the government has exploited  these two repressive laws to shut down the public sphere and imprison citizens for exercising their right to freedom of association.

[2] Prominent cases in which the Assembly Law was cited to unjustly imprison the defendants include the Shura Council case and the Pyramids Hotel case.

[3] Some of these cases, like the Kerdasa case, culminated in death sentences, 20 of which were upheld by the Court of Cassation.

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