By William Fisher
Despite diplomatic maneuvering designed to block any review of its human rights record, a United Nations special rapporteur has told the UN Human Rights Council that proposed changes in Egypt’s constitution “would create a permanent legal state of emergency.”
The report of Martin Scheinin, the UN Special Rapporteur Rapporteur on the Promotion and Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms while Countering Terrorism, said Egypt’s Emergency Law is often applied in situations where there is no link to terrorist activities, such as the frequent arbitrary detention of political activists and bloggers and the repeated use of military courts and state security courts in politically motivated cases.
The Special Rapporteur also emphasized that, when combined with the pending counter-terrorism law, Article 179 of the Egyptian Constitution as amended in March 2007 would create a permanent legal state of emergency.
That law grants the police absolute powers in the area of arrests, allows the police to monitor private conversations, and would allow the Egyptian president to deny those accused of terrorism access to the ordinary judiciary and to refer them to extraordinary military courts.
The UN report is the first issued by the main human rights body of the United Nations that deals exclusively with the human rights situation in Egypt. Representatives from the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights and the Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies attended the session in Geneva as observers and delivered oral interventions in which they supported the report’s recommendations and urged the government to implement them immediately.
In his report, based on a mission to Egypt in April 2009, Scheinin
highlighted that administrative detention orders repealed by the judiciary in
Egypt are often “renewed immediately upon a person’s release or, in the worst case, just ignored through unacknowledged detention until a new order of official administrative detention is obtained.”
That was the case in the contemporaneous trial of Ahmed Mustafa, a 20-year-old civilian engineering student who was arrested and, for the first time, brought to trial in a military court charged with blogging false information about the army and insulting officers involved in recruitment at a military academy. He was accused of writing a single blog post more than a year earlier. The post told the story of a student allegedly forced to resign from a military academy in order to leave room for another applicant amid accusations of nepotism.
Apparently bowing to pressure from the United Nations and international human rights groups, and after several delays, the military court unexpectedly released Mustafa, who promised to apologize and take his web posting down.
Moataz El Fegiery, the Executive Director of the Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies (CIHRS), told IPS he believes pressure from Egyptian and international human rights groups, plus the UN report, played a major role in the court’s decision to release Mustafa.
The Egyptian Government’s harassment and prosecution of bloggers has become more intense in recent years. A number of bloggers have been convicted and sentenced to prison. Many others are regularly harassed and intimidated by police before being released.
Earlier, as part of its review before the UN Human Rights Council, Egypt stood before governments from around the world and either rejected or failed to commit to important human rights reforms.
Key rights recommendations that were rejected include: to "allow independent national and international election monitoring in upcoming elections;" "end the state of emergency and abstain from legislation that introduces measures of the Emergency Law into the Constitution;" "release bloggers and human rights defenders detained under emergency laws" and "ensure that NGO activities and activities of human rights defenders not be inhibited or their ability to raise funds be impeded."
But Egypt did accept proposals from Pakistan and Sudan to "speed up" the adoption of Emergency Laws within its Constitution in the form of "anti-terrorism laws."
"While the government of Egypt accepted a number of important recommendations, it did not commit to some of the most important ones," said El Fegiery. "Nonetheless, the fact that Egypt committed to some reform in front of the world is a small victory for human rights defenders in Egypt,." he added.
Important recommendations accepted by Egypt include: ensuring that the definition of torture in Egyptian law conforms with the Convention Against Torture and that the government will "increase efforts" to combat torture; the repeal of laws that allow for imprisonment of journalists for exercising their right to freedom of expression; to continue to promote the political participation of women including in the judiciary; to not use Emergency laws against journalists and bloggers; to ensure the full observance of the Declaration on Human Rights Defenders; and to enable human rights organizations to monitor elections.
According to CIHRS, Egypt had earlier attempted to ensure that no meaningful review of its human rights record took place by getting other states, mostly from the Arab region, to take the floor and offer only praise during its review. The attempt failed in large part because the Coalition of Egyptian NGOs lobbied states both in Cairo and in Geneva to take the floor during the review and give substantial recommendations that could be monitored and followed up on.
El Fegiery said, “Today the Special Rapporteur confirmed what human rights defenders have been warning about for several years: the proposed counter-terrorism law in Egypt is an attempt by the government to normalize the state of emergency and undermine the constitutional protection of fundamental rights.”
He recalled that during the presentation of the report by the Special Rapporteur, Egypt denied all of its substantial observations by claiming that the Emergency Law does not suspend or limit ordinary laws or judicial oversight despite clear legal clauses that do precisely this.
”Egyptian officials did everything they could to limit the scope of the Special Rapporteur’s mission: they barred him from visiting prisons and interviewing detainees and refused to let him observe any terrorism trials or meet with families of victims and detainees” said Hossam Bahgat, Executive Director of the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights. “But the facts are clear, and the mission report provides the most damning assessment of systemic human rights abuses committed in the name of security since 1981.”
The Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies and the Egyptian Initiative for
Personal Rights urged Egypt to lift the State of Emergency, abolish the recently added Article 179 of the Constitution on combating terrorism, and to ensure that any existing and future anti-terrorism law complies with all international human rights standards.
The head of the Egyptian Association for Freedom of Thought and Expression (AFTE), Emad Mubarak, said that Egyptian authorities have been ramping up their pressure on political bloggers, especially after a few of them reported some of the ruling regime's human rights violations.
Egyptian emergency law allows military courts, which are presided over by an officer, to try civilians. The armed forces are extremely sensitive to criticism.
Egyptians have been living under an Emergency Law (Law No. 162 of 1958) since 1967, except for an 18-month break in 1980. The emergency was imposed during the 1967 Arab-Israeli War, and reimposed following the assassination of President Anwar Sadat.
Under the law, which has been continuously extended every three years since 1981, police powers are expanded, constitutional rights suspended and censorship legalized. The law sharply circumscribes any non-governmental political activity: street demonstrations, non-approved political organizations, and unregistered financial donations are formally banned. Some 17,000 people are detained under the law, and estimates of political prisoners run as high as 30,000.