New powers announced by Egypt’s President trample the rule of law and herald a new era of repression, Amnesty International says.
Amendments to Egypt’s Constitutional Declaration announced on 22 November 2012 effectively grant the president unlimited powers, preventing any legal challenge of his decisions until the election of a new lower house of parliament (People’s Assembly) next year. The amendments also allow the President to take any actions and measures he deems necessary “to protect the country and the goals of the revolution”.
In a speech on 23 November, President Mohammed Morsi said that he is acting to speed up reform and secure the gains the uprising. However, trampling on the rule of law is no way to guarantee human rights and to secure justice for victims of the “25 January Revolution” says Amnesty. The organisation urges Egypt’s President to respect the principle that no one is above the law – including himself – by repealing recent amendments giving immunity to his decisions.
In addition, “the Law Protecting the Revolution”, also announced on 22 November, would allow a newly appointed Public Prosecutor to detain people for up to six months in the name of “protecting the revolution,” while they are being investigated on charges related to provisions of the Penal Code on press and media offences, organising protests, worker’s strikes and “thuggery”. Such restrictive provisions have been routinely used to punish peaceful exercise of the rights to freedom of expression, assembly, and association. Under this decree reminiscent of the decried emergency law, people may be held for six months on spurious charges before they are finally brought to trial.
The amendments to the Constitutional Declaration also provide for the re-opening of investigations and prosecutions in relation to killings and injury of protesters, as well as “terror” offences committed against the “revolutionaries” by “former regime” officials in accordance with a new law. The new legislation lifts provisions in Egypt’s Code of Criminal Procedures which prevent re-trials based on new evidence or circumstances. It also applies to offences of “terrorism” under Egypt’s 1992 Anti-Terrorism Law, long criticised for its vague definition of “terrorism”.
Egypt’s new Public Prosecutor reportedly said former President Hosni Mubarak and former Minister of Interior Habib Adly, as well as other Ministry of Interior officials, would be retried. Both Mubarak and Adly had been sentenced to life imprisonment in June 2012 for the killings of protesters in the “25 January Revolution”; a trial in which six other security officials were acquitted.
The new law also provides for the establishment of specialised prosecutors and investigative judges to examine such cases. Retrials after acquittals may be in exceptional circumstances permissible under international human rights standards when new evidence comes to light; however in practice Amnesty International is concerned that this new provision has the potential to be abused by the executive to undermine the judiciary, and the rights of the accused.
The decree by President Morsi further strips the judiciary of the power to dissolve the Constituent Assembly and the upper house of parliament (Shura Council). Egypt’s Supreme Constitutional Court had been scheduled to give its ruling in beginning of December over the formation of the Constituent Assembly and the Shura Council; many expected the court to order their dissolution, as it did with the People’s Assembly in June 2012.
In October, the President failed in his attempt to sack the Public Prosecutor – which is not within his power according to Egyptian law – after the acquittal of all defendants in the 'Battle of the Camel' trial in relation to clashes between pro- and anti-Mubarak protesters in Tahrir Square in February 2011. Criminal courts have acquitted most police officers who have faced trial on charges of killings of protesters during the 2011 uprising. They generally considered that the evidence against the police officers was insufficient, or that the police use of force had been justifiable in order to protect police stations from attacks by protesters.
While Amnesty criticised the acquittals it believes accountability and justice cannot be achieved by undermining the judiciary but rather by reforming and strengthening it.
Thousands of Egyptians have taken to the streets across the country to protest the President’s decree. The President’s decree also followed violence and clashes between riot police and protesters in Tahrir Square, as well as nearby Mohamed Mahmoud Street, which leads to the Ministry of Interior – ongoing since 19 November.
On 22 November, the Al Jazeera TV channel studio in Tahrir Square was set on fire, reportedly by protesters. On 20 November, Mohamed Gaber Salah, a member of the 6 April Youth pro-democracy movement was critically injured by shotgun pellets while dozens of others were injured in clashes with riot police near Mohamed Mahmoud Street and other streets near Tahrir Square. The protests commemorated the first anniversary of mass protests in 2011 against military rule where over 50 protesters were killed by security forces.