Freedom of assembly Faces dangerous relapse in Egypt, Turkey, and Algeria

In Arab Countries, United Nations Human Rights Council by CIHRS

1_5 copyOn Friday, June 13, 2014, the Cairo Institute for Human Rights, in conjunction with the Euro-Mediterranean Human Rights Network (EMHRN), the World Organization Against Torture, and the International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), organized a special event on the right to peaceful assembly in the Euro-Mediterranean region, titled “Freedom of assembly in the Euro-Med Region: a dangerous relapse?” The side event was held at the 26th session of the UN Human Rights Council, which is currently convened in Geneva and which will continue until June 27.

The event featured Osman İşçi, Human Rights Association of Turkey and Executive committee member of EMHRN; Yacine Zaid, unionist and member of the Algerian League for the Defense of Human Rights, (LADDH)Algeria; and Bassem Al Samragy, a researcher on Egypt program at the CIHRS. The discussion was chaired by Gerald Staberock, Secretary General of the World Organization Against Torture (OMCT).

The event reviewed the most significant conclusions of a regional study prepared by the EMHRN on the statutory framework regulating the right of peaceful assembly in 13 Euro-Mediterranean countries and their compliance with international standards. It also highlighted flaws in law and practice in Egypt, Algeria, and Turkey, proposing specific recommendations  for reform and the promotion and protection of human rights in the context of peaceful protests.

The event is opened with a discussion of the major points of the EMHRN field study, presented by Osman İşçi; who noted that new forms of peaceful assembly had emerged during the recent uprisings in the region, which the study viewed as a clear reflection of citizens’ desire to expand the limits of citizenship and actively participate in politics.

The study found that countries all over the region impose harsh penalties against demonstrators, including heavy fines and/or prison terms, most seriously in Egypt, Palestine, Turkey, and Syria. Many of these countries use exceptional laws, such as counterterrorism laws, to severely punish demonstrators (as in Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon, Morocco, Syria, Turkey, and some European countries). In addition, some states try civilians before military or exceptional courts that do not meet fair trial standards (Egypt, Israel, Jordan, and Turkey).

For example, Turkish authorities, according to İşçi, treat protests as an ongoing threat to the regime. The law dictates that the authorities be notified of any protest three days in advance, leaving no space for spontaneous protests. Harsh sentences have also been given to demonstrators convicted on terrorism charges after they simply took part in a peaceful protest. “The identity of the demonstrators also determines the Turkish police’s response to the demonstration,” İşçi said. “Minorities, for example, face more violations.” He added that activists are often harassed and charged as members of illegal groups and occasionally terrorist organizations, which are the most common charges against activists in Turkey. He discussed his own experience in this regard, after he was sentenced to one year in prison on similar charges.

Yacine Zaid, unionist and member of(LADDH), focused on the situation in Algeria, saying, “Algeria is always the first to sign and ratify international human rights conventions, but when it comes to implementation, it is not interested. It’s only concerned about its image before the international community. It’s also equally concerned about preventing activists from talking about violations that do occur.”

Zaid added that despite changes to the legal framework in 2011, arbitrary laws and administrative practices persist when it comes to exercising the right to demonstrate. There are also tight restrictions on the media’s coverage of protests and police violence during peaceful assemblies, while the state-owned media smears human rights defenders and labels activists as traitors and foreign agents working against the state. Police also engage in repressive practices during protests, including arbitrary bans, preventive detentions, dispersal of peaceful assemblies, use of excessive force, the prosecution of demonstrators and activists, and intimidation and retaliation against those who exercise their right of peaceful assembly.

Bassem Al Samragy, from (CIHRS), spoke about the situation in Egypt, saying, “What happened in January 2011 was that people retook ownership of public space, where it had previously been monopolized by the government for decades. The governments that followed the fall of Mubarak—which have simply tried to reconstitute Mubarak’s regime with some cosmetic changes—realized they had to win the battle to reclaim and re-monopolize public space. So they began criminalizing protest and treating citizens as potential criminals, thus treating rights and liberties as potential crimes.”

Al Samragy said that the police began to resume their brutal suppression of demonstrators, which led to an intensification of demonstrations that costed governments dearly. Accordingly, successive governments legalized these violations. In its early days in power, the Muslim Brotherhood attempted to pass a repressive anti-protest law, and the interim government that followed again made the protest law a priority. The law was adopted in November 2013—the same law under which numerous political activists are now being tried.

At the end of the event, participants offered several general recommendations, applicable to most countries in the region, including affirming the right of all persons without discrimination to exercise their right to peaceful assembly; removing all legal restrictions on the organization of protests and slogans and posters used during protests; and, most importantly, adopting a notification system rather than permit regime for protests, establishing clear legal basis for restrictions on these demonstrations that conform to international and democratic standards, and guaranteeing effective, timely instruments to appeal these restrictions.

Participants also recommended strengthening the principles of necessity and the incremental and proportionate use of force in engaging protests; prohibiting the use of firearms or lethal weapons when dealing with peaceful demonstrations; guaranteeing immediate, independent, fair investigations into complaints of the use of excessive force or human rights violations during protests; and establishing mechanisms for specialized, independent investigations.

The discussion also emphasized that police regulation of demonstrations should be minimized and that individual violations by demonstrators should be addressed individually, rather than being used as a pretext to confiscate the right to demonstrate in full. In addition, exceptional laws, such as counterterrorism legislation, should not be used against protestors to limit their right to freedom of expression, refer them to special courts, or impose harsh sanctions.

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