The UN postpones its regional conference in Egypt on the crime of torture

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

Human rights organizations: Egypt’s appalling record of torture should disqualify it from hosting conference

The signatory Egyptian rights organizations thank all parties, both Egyptian activists and international organizations, for their pressure on the UN to postpone its regional conference on “Defining and Criminalizing Torture in Legislation in the Arab Region,” originally scheduled to be held in Cairo on September 4th and 5th and co-sponsored by the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights and Egypt’s National Council for Human Rights. We call for this pressure to be maintained until the conference is transferred to another state possessing at least minimal human rights standards.

It is ironic that the Egyptian government, which regularly prosecutes activists and human rights defenders for collaborating with the UN, was selected to host a UN-sponsored international conference.  One of many examples is that of Ibrahim Metwally, the founder of the League of the Families of the Disappeared,  who was forcibly disappeared and arrested by the Egyptian authorities at the airport on his way to Geneva to attend a meeting of the UN Working Group on Enforced Disappearance.

One the charges against Metwally is ‘maintaining contact with foreign entities, a charge also faced by rights advocate Mohamed Zaree and others because of their cooperation with UN instruments. Following an official visit to Egypt by the UN Special Rapporteur on adequate housing in September 2018,  several human rights defenders and right to housing advocates were harassed by state security and  detained, with the  homes of several demolished in retribution for their communications with the Special Rapporteur, who, in a joint statement with the Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders, condemned these violations. The two experts concluded “Unless Egypt ensures that human rights defenders and victims of human rights violations can interact with UN human rights envoys without fear of reprisal, it is in our view not ready to host further visits.”

As the main perpetrator of torture in Egypt, it follows that the Egyptian government’s record is not only devoid of any political will to combat torture,  but that it also actively resists all  efforts to stop the practice, prosecuting organizations and individuals engaged in anti-torture activism. Judges Assem Abd al-Gabbar and Hisham Raouf are currently being prosecuted for contributing to a draft law to define and combat torture in Egypt- the same topic of the upcoming UN conference. The Nadeem Center, the only NGO in Egypt dedicated to rehabilitating victims of violence and torture, was shut down in February 2017 after government authorities ordered its closure a year prior. For over two years, the judiciary failed to issue a fair judgment in the center’s appeal. In 2014, state security forces arrested Mahmoud Hussein, aged 16 at the time, for wearing a t-shirt that said “a country without torture.” Hussein was held in pretrial detention for more than two years, during which he was tortured; he was released in March 2016.

Several of the undersigned organizations have documented cases of death under torture, and received complaints of individual and collective torture. From 2014 to 2018, 2,400 allegations[1] of torture in Egyptian police stations and prisons were published online; 534 people died in detention sites, among them 189 due to torture, according to statements from their families and lawyers. In the first half of 2019, there were 327 allegations[2] of torture, and 39 deaths in detention sites, 3 resulting from torture, as well as one person who committed suicide in detention after being torture.

Thus it is evident that ‘defining’ torture is not the primary issue in Egypt; the issue is the pervasive, systematic practice of torture in Egypt, sanctioned at the highest levels of the government with impunity for perpetrators. This shameful reality is not only acknowledged by Egyptian rights groups, but by international organizations as well, including the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights and the UN’s Committee Against Torture,  and Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch.  The 2017 Committee Against Torture report described torture in Egypt as “a systematic policy.”

The National Council for Human Rights, which is subordinate to the Egyptian state,  has a shameful record on human rights, often defending human rights violators.[3]  The council’s co-sponsorship of the UN conference on torture can be seen as part of the state’s overall campaign to effectively nationalize human rights work in Egypt. The state and its national councils monopolize rights conferences and proceedings, carefully selecting the topics and participants. At the same time, the simple act of organizing a press conference has become dangerous for rights organizations, which are facing unprecedented repression from the Egyptian government in order to prevent exposure of its systematic abuses.

Moreover, even the organization and sponsorship of such international forums does not prevent the Egyptian government from abusing and intimidating foreign participants. When Egypt hosted the 64th session of the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights, representatives of African rights organizations received open threats, and a member of the state security apparatus slapped an African delegate after refusing, for no stated reason, to give her official credentials.

The signatories reiterate that this conference is  an attempt to whitewash the image of the Egyptian government before its upcoming  UPR session and to divert attention from the recommendations and commitments on torture Egypt has failed to honor since the last UPR session in 2014.  The OHCHR should not participate in this shameful whitewashing ploy.

If Egypt is seriously seeking to improve its reputation regarding the crime of torture, it must first comply with several preliminary recommendations previously called for by OHCHR and other local and international organizations, by

  • Issuing a law through the parliament that includes a definition of the crime of torture in accordance with the Egyptian constitution and the United Nations’ Convention Against Torture.
  • Acceding to the Optional Protocol to the Convention Against Torture.
  • Approving official requests from the UN Special Rapporteur on torture to conduct official visits to Egypt.
  • Ending investigations against Assem Abd al-Gabbar and Hisham Raouf, the judges currently being prosecuted for contributing to a draft law defining and combatting the crime of torture.
  • Revoking the 2016 decision to close the Nadeem Center, and immediately and unconditionally releasing human rights lawyer Ibrahim Metwally, founder of the League of the Families of the Disappeared.

Unless the Egyptian government complies with these recommendations, the signatory organizations urge the UN and all international organizations to boycott any human rights activities or conferences organized under the patronage of the Egyptian government or its national bodies. It is imperative that the UN reject Egypt, a leading perpetrator of torture globally, as host of the upcoming conference on torture.

Signatory Organizations

  • Egyptian Front for Human Rights
  • Arabic Network for Human Rights Information
  • Committee for Justice
  • Freedom Initiative
  • Cairo Institute of Human Rights Studies
  • Egyptian Center for Economic and Social Rights
  • Nadeem Center
  • Belady Center for Rights and Freedoms
  • Border Center for Support and Consultations
  • Adalah Center for Rights and Freedoms
  • Egyptian Commission for Rights and Freedoms
  • Egyptian Platform for Human Rights
  • Arabic Foundation for Civil and Political Rights – Nedal

[1] 1,723 complaints of individual torture and 677 complaints of collective torture and ill treatment.
[2] 283 complaints of individual torture, 44 complaints of collective torture
[3] In a recent interview with al-Shorouk newspaper, the president of the council, Mohammed Fayeq, defended the death penalty, saying it was one aspect of the “particularity” of human rights in Egypt.

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