On Sunday, February 16, the Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies (CIHRS) hosted an open dialogue between Jeffrey Feltman, the UN under-secretary-general for political affairs, and Samuel Martel, an official in the UN Africa division, and 20 lawyers and rights advocates from nine human rights groups.. The discussion lasted two hours and was preceded by a 30-minute meeting with Bahey eldin Hassan, the director of CIHRS.
The rights organizations expressed their concern with what they consider to be an undeclared state of emergency in Egypt, the collapse of the rule of law, the disregard for the constitution and the law, the undermining of the principle of separation of powers, and the control exercised by the police and Homeland Security over prosecutors and the judiciary. Citizens are being arrested without orders from the prosecution and questioned in security facilities without the presence of lawyers. In addition, lawyers are denied permission to meet their clients and to be present during interrogations and are often prevented from visiting them in prison. Lawyers themselves are also threatened with armed assault. Meanwhile, prosecutors refuse to document the torture of defendants, arbitrarily deny requests by family members to visit detainees despite permission granted by a court for them to do so, and fail to ensure that appropriate health care is provided to detainees. A good example of the latter is Dahab, a detainee who recently gave birth to her daughter Hurriya while handcuffed. One lawyer present at the meeting referred to a recent court ruling that condemned the lack of impartiality on the part of the public prosecution.
Rights advocates were also concerned by the return of practices such as enforced disappearance and the use of trumped-up -at times ridiculously false- charges and evidence against defendants. For example, several Christians and communists previously alleged to have attacked the Muslim Brotherhood were recently charged with membership in the same group. Similarly, a child whose arms had been amputated was charged with stealing a tank, while a woman in her eighth month of pregnancy was charged with blocking a road and preventing the army and police from passing. Some suspects facing these ridiculous charges have been held on remand in inhumane conditions while their detention is routinely renewed for weeks and months on end on grounds that have no connection to the law or the constitution – nor even with counter-terrorism efforts – but rather simply because the police have asked for them to be held in pretrial detention. In some cases, such as that of blogger Alaa Abd al-Fattah, the detention is open-ended, with no period specified on a written document that might be challenged in court, and yet he has not been tried, brought before a prosecutor, or released.
Rights advocates in attendance emphasized the increasing use of arbitrary detention, referring to the case of a group of detainees arrested while at a café, as well as abduction and detention in unlawful facilities, such as Central Security Forces camps. Both Islamist and non-Islamist dissidents have fallen prey to these practices. A group of young people was arrested simply for advocating a “no” vote in the referendum on the constitution, while other citizens have been detained for posting a photo of presidential candidate Hamdin Sabahi.
The advocates also pointed to the resurgence of torture, which has been used against some detainees, such as in the case of activist Khaled al-Sayyed, who was stripped, beaten, cursed, and electrocuted. Sexual assaults of women and torture of children upon arrest have also been reported.
Attendees of the meeting discussed a new practice at length: security predations against minors. Children have been arrested in front of their schools, detained in adult prison facilities or very overcrowded penal institutions, faced ill-treatment, and been prevented from sitting for their exams. A representative of a child rights organization pointed out that children have been sentenced to heavy fines and stiff prison sentences in violation of the law, as was the case of minor Maria Metwalli, who was sentenced to two years in prison and a fine of LE20,000.
The rights advocates believe that the police are seeking to take vengeance against youth activists by targeting and arresting them, subjecting them not only to unlawful prosecution, torture, false charges, or solitary confinement, but also confiscating their right to freedom of expression. Recently, a blogger who criticized the methods of the Interior Ministry was sentenced to three months in prison. Another journalist was arrested while doing his job and his camera was confiscated; no one even knew of his arrest until he was sentenced. Several journalists have also been tried in military courts.
Attendees at the meeting expressed their concern about the rise of a rhetoric of incitement, especially incitement to violence and killing in the media, which has reached unprecedented levels. Numerous articles have urged the security apparatus to kill citizens who are opposed to the current order and call on “honorable citizens” to cooperate with the security services in these efforts. As a result, citizens are increasingly acting as police and judge, arresting people with whom they disagree, punishing and attacking them, or turning them over to the police on false charges.
The rights advocates in attendance were skeptical about the Egyptian authorities’ “counter-terrorism” efforts, noting the repeated failure to protect security facilities and policemen while at the same time moving against peaceful critics of their policies and practices. As the government attempts to justify its oppressive practices before the international community as a “fight against terrorism” and a means to protect minorities, it is violating the rights of minorities and enshrining such violations in the new constitution. No precautionary measures were taken to prevent the destruction, burning, and looting of 48 churches immediately after the sit-ins at Rabaa al-Adawiya and al-Nahda were disbanded. Meanwhile, Shia continue to face abuse, and blasphemy charges are brought against those with different opinions, among them rights advocate Karam Saber. Women’s rights are also not protected; one women’s organization documented 186 sexual assaults of women from June 28 to July 26, 2013 during mass demonstrations.
The rights advocates said the UN should offer aid and advice to the Egyptian government in its counter-terrorism efforts in order to reverse its failures thus far. The rights organizations also believe that national mechanisms for accountability for human rights crimes committed by the current authority should be activated, which requires independent investigations. The fact-finding commission formed by order of the interim president must make its findings public, and the relevant bodies must hold those responsible to account. The commission should request the necessary technical aid from the UN.
The rights organizations also affirmed the important role to be played by the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights with regards to the state of human rights in Egypt, which is currently seeing massive, unprecedented human rights abuses committed with impunity. Participating organizations believe that the UN has a moral responsibility to protect human rights in Egypt, particularly at this time.
The following Egyptian organizations took part in the discussion: CIHRS, the Center for Egyptian Women’s Legal Assistance, the Egyptian Commission for Rights and Liberties, the Egyptian Center for Economic and Social Rights, the Arabic Network for Human Rights Information, the Egyptian Coalition for the Rights of the Child, Nazra for Feminist Studies, the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights, and Egyptians Against Discrimination.
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