Egypt using counterterrorism laws against critics, says Human Rights Watch

By agency reporter
July 16, 2018

Egyptian authorities are increasingly using counterterrorism, state-of-emergency laws and courts to unjustly prosecute journalists, activists, and critics for their peaceful criticism, Human Rights Watch says.

These abusive practices and distortion of counterterrorism measures have taken place at the same time as Egypt was chairing one of the key United Nations committees to ensure compliance with counterterrorism resolutions and while the UN’s most senior counterterrorism official was visiting the country.

“While Egypt faces security threats, the government of President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi has exploited these threats cynically as a cover to prosecute peaceful critics and to revive the infamous Mubarak-era state security courts,” said Nadim Houry, terrorism/counterterrorism director at Human Rights Watch. “Egypt is combining a bad law with unjust courts and the outcome has been predictably disastrous, as al-Sisi’s Western allies look the other way.”

In the period before the March 2018 presidential elections, Egyptian police and National Security Agency forces carried out a wave of arrests of critics of al-Sisi. The crackdown continued after the election with the detention of prominent activists and journalists and their prosecution under Egypt’s 2015 counterterrorism law. The law criminalises a wide range of acts, including publishing or promoting news about terrorism if it contradicts official statements.

Some cases have been transferred to the Emergency State Security Courts, a parallel judicial system operating since October 2017, under the state of emergency that the government claims is being used only against terrorists and drug traffickers. These courts do not guarantee a fair trial and their decisions are not subject to appeal. 

Human Rights Watch has documented the detention of scores of activists and journalists since 2015, when the new counterterrorism law was issued, who have been referred for prosecution under terrorism-related charges. In each case, the charges are apparently based on peaceful criticism or opposition to the authorities. Some of those prosecuted are affiliated with opposition parties and movements such as Strong Egypt Party and April 6 Youth Movement, while others are journalists and human rights activists.

Those recently arrested include a well-known blogger and rights defender, Wael Abbas. Security forces detained him on 23 May, 2018, and kept him for almost 36 hours in an undisclosed location before taking him before prosecutors. Other recent detainees include Amal Fathy, a political activist and the wife of the head of the Egyptian Commission for Rights and Freedoms, a human rights organisation, and Shady Abu Zaid, a comic known for a 2016 viral video in which he inflated condoms and handed them to security forces guarding Tahrir Square on the anniversary of the 2011 Egyptian revolution.

Authorities have referred these cases to Supreme State Security Prosecution, the branch of general prosecution that usually oversees terrorism cases. Lawyers are frequently prevented from accompanying their clients to interrogations. The prosecutors charged several activists under the counterterrorism law with “aiding a terrorist group in achieving its aims”, or “spreading false news”, or joining a “banned group” and referred them to Emergency State Security Courts.

Prosecutors indicted Abbas on claims that he was part of the “media wing of the Muslim Brotherhood”, the political group of the ousted elected President Mohamed Morsy. Several journalists and activists have been indicted in this case, case 441 of 2018, over the past weeks, including some who are actually critical of the Muslim Brotherhood.

Al-Sisi’s government, assisted by a mainstream media that Reporters Without Borders says is under increasing control of the intelligence services, has sought to portray a broad conspiracy against the security of Egypt that includes human rights and labour activists, members of the Muslim Brotherhood, journalists, and rights lawyers. In March 2018, the Interior Ministry published a video, The Spider’s Web, which portrayed diverse groups ranging from the Islamic State (also known as ISIS) to the Muslim Brotherhood, to human rights groups, including Human Rights Watch, as part of a plot against Egypt’s security.

Since 2013, Egypt has banned a wide range of groups as “terrorist organisations”, including the Muslim Brotherhood; April 6 Youth Movement, an activist group that played a key role in the protests organised against Mubarak in 2011; and football Ultras, hardcore fan groups. The Cairo Court for Urgent Matters, a non-specialized court, issued most of these decisions.

The reliance on the emergency courts adds to a broader legal arsenal that security forces have used in the name of fighting terrorism, including terrorism courts and expedited legal proceedings.

In March 2018, the head of the newly established UN Office of Counter-Terrorism, Under-Secretary-General Vladimir Voronkov, visited Egypt. Voronkov’s office was established in June 2017 to provide leadership in carrying out the General Assembly counterterrorism mandates. These include, as one of four 'pillars' of counterterrorism strategy, “ensuring human rights and rule of law.” While the exact nature of discussions was not disclosed, no criticism was publicly voiced about Egypt’s abuse of one of the UN’s key pillars to fighting terrorism.

From January 2016 to January 2018, while Egypt was using its counterterrorism courts to silence dissent, Egypt was chair of the UN Security Council Counter-Terrorism Committee (CTC), a subsidiary body composed of all 15 Council members that monitors member states’ implementation of the various Security Council resolutions and decisions dealing with counterterrorism. Security Council resolution 1624 (2005), which addresses incitement to commit terrorist acts, emphasises that countries must ensure any measures they take to carry out the resolution comply with all their obligations under international law, in particular international human rights law.

“Egypt is proud of presenting itself as a key international actor in the fight against terrorism, but its domestic record shows that it is fighting peaceful critics and dissidents under the cover of countering ‘terrorism’”, Houry said. “And the most worrying part is that international actors in charge of ensuring an effective and human rights compliant counterterrorism strategy have been completely silent about this crackdown.”

The Emergency State Security Courts are exceptional courts grounded in Egypt’s State of Emergency Law No. 162 of 1958. President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi declared a nationwide state of emergency in April 2017, which has been renewed and in effect ever since. Former Prime Minister Sherif Ismail issued a decree in October 2017, placing numerous crimes, including those related to protest, assembly, terrorism, and labour law, under the jurisdiction of the State Security Courts.

* Human Rights Watch https://www.hrw.org/

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