Monday, March 22, 2010

Wittes, Goldsmith, and KSM: “Absurd,” “Cynical.”

By William Fisher

It’s been a few days now since Benjamin Wittes and Jack Goldsmith wrote their op-ed in the Washington Post calling the trial of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed “dispensable” and proffering that “the politically draining fight about civilian vs..... military trials is not worth the costs.”

Their proposal: “Instead of expending great energy on a battle over the proper forum for an unnecessary trial of Mohammed and his associates, both sides would do well instead to define the contours of the detention system that will, for some time to come, continue to do the heavy lifting in incapacitating terrorists.”

Benjamin Wittes is a senior fellow and research director in public law at the
Brookings Institution. Jack Goldsmith teaches at Harvard Law School and served as an assistant attorney general in the Bush administration. Both are members of the Hoover Institution's Task Force on National Security and Law.

After all the kerfuffle and back-and-forthing concerning where KSM would be tried and by whom, the Wittes-Goldsmith approach seemed sufficiently outside the box to at least warrant some further exploration.

So I contacted some of the brainiest civil rights lawyers I know to ask their opinions. Here’s what some of them told me:

David Frakt is a Lt. Col. in the Air Force Reserve JAG Corps and a professor of law at Western State University College of Law. He was formerly a military defense counsel who challenged the legitimacy of Military Tribunals and won the release of a GITMO detainee and his repatriation to Afghanistan.

He told me, “Wittes and Goldsmith's solution would satisfy no one. A trial would serve a number of important functions other than simply providing a lawful basis for incarceration if convicted and sentenced. The American people deserve to know what happened on 9/11 and who was behind it. The families deserve an opportunity to see justice served. The accused deserve an opportunity to have their guilt proven, or establish their innocence.”

He added, “Nearly everyone agrees that this was one of the most monstrous single crimes ever committed. Whether one views KSM and his alleged co-conspirators as war criminals or simply mass murderers, there needs to be a criminal trial in some forum.”

Frakt’s point of view is echoed by most of those we contacted. For example:

Chip Pitts, president of the Bill of Rights Defense Committee, said, “Blinded by the fog of the so-called “war on terror,” it is not surprising that a misguided and complicit former Bush legal official and a non-lawyer apologist for the war paradigm would be so ready to walk away from the last vestiges of the rule of law, but a moment’s reflection by thoughtful disinterested parties should confirm that continuing the illegal, immoral, and counterproductive indefinite detention of accused al Qaeda members simply risks more lives by further diminishing the nation’s reputation and handing the terrorists yet another propaganda victory.”

He continued: “The absurd and cynical invocation by these individuals of the abominable mess they helped to create as justification for Obama to make an even bigger mess of things might suit their interests, but it only further dilutes the possibilities of our country restoring justice and effective national security. As the father of international law, Hugo Grotius, wrote in 1625, ‘No one readily allies himself with those in whom he believes that there is only a slight regard for law, for the right, and for good faith.’ These authors should be ashamed and silent: no person of reason wants any more of their ‘advice.’ ”

“The suggestion that the Obama administration shouldn’t even bother to try Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the self-described mastermind of the September 11 terrorist attacks, and his alleged co-conspirators is appalling. It disregards the experience of the victims of that attack, who deserve to see justice done. It also disregards the national and historical importance of publicly trying and convicting the men who, if proven guilty, orchestrated the largest mass murder and most lethal terrorist attack ever committed on U.S. soil.”

And Daphne Eviatar, senior counsel with Human Rights First, told me: “Wittes and Goldsmith acknowledge that it would be a terrible idea for the administration to try these defendants in a new, untested military commission system that raises unresolved legal questions and lacks international legitimacy. The right answer, then, is to try them in legitimate, time-tested federal courts with experience trying and convicting hundreds of international terrorists over the past eight years, not simply to take the cowardly way out via indefinite detention.”

Eviatar damns the WAPO piece with very faint praise, saying, “Still, Wittes and Goldsmith’s op-ed provides an important service: It highlights the shaky legal and moral basis of indefinite detention of any suspected terrorists charged with the killing of civilians on U.S. soil.”

Marjorie Cohn, president of the National Lawyers Guild, reminded me that “no trial” equates with “indefinite detention.”

She said, “While proposing an apparently pragmatic solution, Wittes and Goldsmith advocate an illegitimate process of dispensing with trials for these men. Holding people indefinitely without charge violates the
International Covenant on Civil and Rights, a treaty the United States
has ratified which makes it part of US law under the Supremacy Clause
of the Constitution. The Geneva Convention's procedure of holding
prisoners of war until the end of hostilities does not apply here, as
we are not involved in a "war"; terrorism is a tactic, not an enemy.”

She also reminds us that the presumption of innocence and the right to a trial “is enshrined in our Constitution; let's not dispense with them so cavalierly.”

Given the huge and as yet unresolved controversy generated by the question of where and by whom KSM should be tried, one can see how Goldsmith and Wittes might find it convenient to skip this quaint nicety altogether.

But take that step and we won’t have to wait long for the Al Qaeda propaganda machine to ramp up to full bore. Hear it now: "Those Americans, who think they’re so special because they follow the rule of law, are perfectly willing to throw their cherished Bill of Rights overboard whenever its convenient.”

Plus, we Americans would lose the considerable value of having KSM’s own testimony to confirm to the world that he is far too dangerous to ever be allowed back in the more or less civilized world.

Let us pray that Eric Holder and his boss find the cajones to hold their ground.

Families Appeal GITMO Deaths

By William Fisher

The families of two prisoners who died at the U.S. Navy Base at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, are asking a Federal court to reconsider its ruling dismissing their lawsuit, which seeks to hold federal officials and the U.S. government accountable for their sons’ torture, arbitrary detention, and ultimate deaths.

According to their lawyers, the Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR), the families’ request is based on newly discovered evidence from four soldiers who describe a cover-up by the authorities and say they were ordered not to speak out. The soldiers’ accounts were reported in Harper’s Magazine in January.

The Pentagon maintains that the two men, along with a third prisoner, committed suicide in their cells in 2006. But their lawyers say the soldiers’ first-hand accounts “raise serious questions about the actual cause and circumstances of the deaths.” They charge that “their accounts strongly suggest that the men died as the result of torture at a ‘black site’ – a secret prison – within Guantánamo.

In a statement directed to U.S. President Barack Obama and American judicial authorities, Talal Al-Zahrani, father of one of the men who died that night, said, “Mr. President, the killing of my son in the hands of his guards and under the supervision of the administration of the detention center is a serious and gruesome crime. It is against all human values and norms, and whoever covers up this gruesome crime or obstructs the criminal and judicial investigations is a co-conspirator with those who have committed the crime itself.”

“It is not unusual in any society to find crime and criminals, but it is a catastrophe when a democratic society that raises the banner of defending human rights stays silent in the face of such a crime. Mr. President, neither you nor your government stand to gain anything by covering up this crime, unless you believe in the achievements of former President Bush and his Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld, and wish to share in their legacy,” Al-Zahrani said.

He added, “I would like to tell you that the reason hatred against America is spreading all over the world is because you are disregarding people’s feelings and showing contempt and disrespect for the lives of others. Too often you let criminals -- from powerful politicians and decision makers to low-level perpetrators -- get away with serious crimes. All these people are doing is damaging your reputation and the values you stand for.”

The district court granted a request by the government and 24 federal officials, including former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, to dismiss the families’ case. The CCR says the court therefore “accepted the defendants’ argument that national security factors should bar the constitutional claims on behalf of the deceased, and that the alleged torture of the men, even if ‘seriously criminal,’ was within the officials’ ‘scope of employment,’ thus barring claims asserted under the Alien Tort Statute (ATS).”

The court also dismissed claims under the Federal Tort Claims Act (FTCA) for breaches of the officials’ basic duty of care toward the deceased and for the emotional distress suffered by the families, ruling that Guantanamo is a “foreign country” for the purposes of the act and thus outside the scope of its protection. The dismissal effectively left the families and their sons with no remedy for the violations they asserted again U.S. officials.

The ATS gives district courts jurisdiction of any civil action by an alien, committed in violation of the law of nations or a treaty of the United States. It allows U.S. courts to hear human rights cases brought by foreign citizens for conduct committed outside the U.S. The FTCA permits private parties to sue the United States in a federal court for acts committed by persons acting on behalf of the U.S.

The families’ request for the court to reconsider its dismissal of their claims is based on the accounts of four soldiers stationed at the base the night the men died. Human rights lawyer Scott Horton reported in Harper’s Magazine in January that the soldiers’ eye-witness accounts, including that of a ranking Army officer who was on senior guard duty the night of the deaths, “strongly suggest that the men were taken to a secret ‘black site’ at Guantánamo nicknamed ‘Camp No’ that night, and died at that site or from events that transpired there.”

The CCR said the undisclosed facility is thought to have been used by the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) or the Joint Special Operations Command of the Defense Department to hold and interrogate detainees at Guantánamo. The soldiers further describe a high-level cover-up they say was initiated by the authorities within hours of the men’s deaths. They say they were ordered by their superiors not to speak out.

Said CCR attorney Pardiss Kebriaei, “It took courage for these soldiers to come forward with information that the government had every intention of keeping secret, and the details that are emerging are disturbing to say the least. The families of these men should not be barred at the courthouse door without any further inquiry.”

A report prepared by the Seton Hall University School of Law concluded that the military’s investigation files “reveal major unanswered questions and information gaps in the official account of the deaths, including failures to review relevant available information and interview material witnesses.”

Six prisoners have died at the Guantanamo facility since it was opened in 2002. In June 2009 Muhammad Ahmad Abdallah Salih, a 31-year-old Yemeni man detained since 2002became the sixth person to die at the base.

CCR represents the families of Yasser Al-Zahrani of Saudi Arabia and Salah Al-Salami of Yemen, the two men who died at Guantánamo in 2006, along with a third detainee, Mani Al-Utaybi of Saudi Arabia.

At the time of their deaths, Al-Zahrani and Al-Salami had been detained for more than four years without charge. Al-Zahrani was 17 at the time of his arrest.
CCR has organized and coordinated more than 500 pro bono lawyers across the country to represent Guantanamo detainees, former detainees, and their families.

GITMO: Obama’s Crockery

By William Fisher

In 2008, the Supreme Court, in a landmark decision, ruled that prisoners at Guantanamo Bay had to right to challenge the basis for their detention. That decision – a major rebuke to the Administration of then-President George W. Bush – parted the seas for a flood of habeas corpus petitions.

And there is no sign that the flood will recede any time soon.

Since the court’s ruling – the case was known as Boumediene v. Bush –
42 habeas petitions have been decided in Federal court in Washington DC. Of these, 33 have been granted and nine have been denied. Most of these petitions were, in fact, filed before the Boumediene ruling. Lawyers representing GITMO detainees say hundreds of additional petitions are in the pipeline.

The High Court’s decision in Boumediene granted habeas rights to GITMO detainees, and also ruled the Military Commissions Act (MCA) of 2006 unconstitutional. But it provided no help to the judges who would be hearing these cases, and trying to thread their way between national security and tainted evidence

For example, the government’s case against one detainee seemed a sure thing. DOJ lawyers said he had traveled to Afghanistan, trained at an al Qaeda camp, stayed at a guesthouse reportedly run by terrorists, and fought at Tora Bora. Evidence against him came from his own words and from a fellow detainee.

The judge was not impressed. The court ruled that the government’s “informer” could not be relied on and the prisoner’s own testimony was suspect because it had been obtained through coercion.

This case is fairly typical. Federal judges – appointed by both Republican and Democratic Administrations – have been giving DOJ prosecutors some heavy migraines. And the headaches are likely to continue.

Numerous legal observers have remarked that this was one way the policies of the George W. Bush administration “shot us in the foot.” Prisoners who were subjected to Bush-era “enhanced interrogation techniques” were unlikely to be losers in federal courts.

There are currently about 200 detainees at Guantanamo Bay. Of these, about 90 are believed to be from Yemen, posing yet another problem: The administration has suspended repatriations to Yemen because of the activities of Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. The so-called Christmas-Day-Bomber, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, claims to have been trained in Yemen by this organization.

The DOJ says approximately 110 can be released – though their destinations remain unclear and/or are being negotiated with other governments. The Attorney General has said he wants to prosecute some 35 men in federal courts or before Military Commissions. That would leave about 50 the government considers too dangerous to be set free but where evidence is too dicey to stand up in court.

What happens when these 50 prisoners file their habeas corpus petitions, demanding to know the legal basis for their continued detention? The chances are the judges will order at least some of them to be set free.

But that immediately sets up another huge speed bump. Even if the government is prepared to comply with a court order to set a prisoner free, where is the prisoner to go?

In October 2008, a federal judge faced precisely that dilemma. He ordered the government to release into the United States a group of 17 Chinese Muslims held at Guantanamo.

At the U.S. District Court in Washington, Judge Ricardo M. Urbina said whatever authority the government possessed to detain the Uighurs – whom the government conceded were not enemy combatants but could not be returned to China for fear of potential persecution – had “ceased.”

Urbina said his order was based on the fact that the Uighurs’ detention had become effectively indefinite, that the government conceded they would not return to the battlefield, and that the government had provided no alternative grounds for detention.

He noted that the government’s “extensive diplomatic efforts” had yet to find a country willing to accept the Uighurs, and rejected the government’s argument that the Executive branched possessed authority to “wind-up” their detention.

The government appealed the ruling and the appeals court agreed with the government, whereupon the Uighurs’ lawyers asked the Supreme Court to review the case. The Justice Department claimed that since most of the Uighurs had since been transferred to other countries, the case was now moot; SCOTUS agreed and the court ordered the D.C. Circuit Court to take another look at the case -- testing federal judges’ powers to order Guantanamo Bay detainees to be released from custody.

But many of the approximately 50 “too dangerous to free” prisoners are likely to petition for habeas corpus and to present the courts with a similar dilemma: Trying to determine the reliability of the government’s evidence.

Was the evidence obtained through torture? And is the government producing a witness whose testimony is reliable?

Given the ubiquitous application of enhanced interrogation techniques – the very same that Vice President Cheney is so proud of – the likelihood is that coercion will be a factor in a large majority of situations coming before a judge.

And with all the built-in incentives GITMO provides to rat-out one’s fellow prisoners, it would not be surprising if the line of “jailhouse snitches” keeps getting longer.

Overlaying this panoply of legal headaches are two more:

First, if there are ever any trials of any GITMO prisoners, it is now unclear whether any will be held in Article 3 courts in the U.S. So cacophonous is the NIMBY outcry, particularly from Congresspersons, that it’s a 50-50 bet that the Obama administration will ultimately have to back off.

But civil libertarians aren’t likely to go with this decision quietly. David Frakt, a former Air Force defense lawyer for a GITMO prisoner, says relying solely on Military Commissions would “remove the option from the Executive Branch of trying suspected terrorists in Federal court, the most effective and most appropriate forum in which to try terrorist crimes. This is an unprecedented interference with the ability of the Executive branch to enforce the laws in the way it sees fit. Furthermore, many of the crimes alleged to have been committed by detainees at Guantanamo are not crimes under the law of war and do not belong in military commissions. If military commissions are the only option, this may preclude some detainees from being tried at all.”

Second, the whole of the human rights advocacy community, a good chunk of the legal professoriat, and most members of Obama’s leftwing base, believe that military commissions should be scrapped because they represent a second-class justice system. They will do whatever they can to sabotage what they refer to as “these kangaroo courts.” They are equally apoplectic on the issue of indefinite detention. That solution, they say, makes us just like the enemy.

Some observers say the President can invoke his right under the Laws of War to indefinitely hold as “enemy combatants” people who are captured on the battlefield.

But many others take issue with that conclusion. They say the people who are being held at Guantanamo are not properly labeled “enemy combatants” because most were not actually members of a fighting force with which we are at war, and most were not captured on a “battlefield.”

Second, as Gabor Rona, International Legal Director of Human Rights First, told Truthout:

“The notion that we can hold GITMO detainees under the laws of war is wrong - a misapplication of those laws. There is presently not one GITMO detainee whose detention is authorized by the laws of war. Only domestic law governs detention in wars that are not between two or more states. For that reason, and because the U.S. does not have an administrative detention scheme (which I think would necessarily be unconstitutional, although not necessarily in violation of international human rights law) all GITMO detainees must be either charged or released.”

On the other hand, Sens. John McCain and Joe Lieberman have just introduced legislation mandating that Military Commissions be used exclusively to try GITMO deteinees. Their legislation would also authorize “detention of enemy belligerents without criminal charges for the duration of the hostilities consistent with standards under the law of war which have been recognised by the Supreme Court."
In other words, indefinite detention.

This is, perhaps, a hornet’s nest of problems that President Obama and his legal team may not have fully anticipated when, during the first week of his Presidency, he signed his executive order promising to close Guantanamo.

But the Pottery Barn is all his now and the rule is in effect.

This article was originally published inj

Egypt’s Blogger Wars

By William Fisher

Egypt’s war on bloggers suffered a major hit this week.

Caving to pressure from the United Nations and international human rights groups, a military court released a 20-year-old civilian university student accused of blogging false information about the army and insulting officers involved in recruitment at a military academy.

The trial of Ahmed Mustafa, an engineering student, would have marked the first time a civilian blogger had been tried in a military court under Egypt’s Emergency Law.

Two weeks earlier -- four days after Mustafa was arrested in his hometown of Kafr El Sheikh in the Nile Delta -- he stood before the court 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.

The Court, which convened behind closed doors, completed its investigation in less than two weeks. It denied Mostafa’s lawyers access to the prosecution’s “evidence.”

But Mostafa’s unexpected release from detention came after a scathing report by a United Nations Special Rapporteur and international condemnation by human rights groups including Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch.

The UN Rapporteur, Martin Scheinin, excoriated Egypt for applying its Emergency Law 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.

He also emphasized that when combined with a pending counter-terrorism law, Article 179 of the Egyptian Constitution would create a permanent legal state of emergency.

His report to the UN Human Rights Council also said 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 with Mostafa. His release was conditional – he agreed to apologize and remove the March 2009 posting from his blog, which is called “Matha Assabaka ya Watan” (What happened to you, oh nation?). This means that his case could be reinstated at any time in the future.

Egyptian military court rulings cannot be appealed or overturned.

Gamal Eid, director of the Arabic Network for Human Rights Information, said it was the first time a military court was convened for a blogger, although bloggers have been sentenced to prison by other courts.

"This should not have gone to a military court," he said, adding such trials are typically "unfair and speedy."

According to Moataz El Fegiery, Executive Director of the Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies, “The 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.”

That law, an amendment to Article 179 of the Egyptian constitution, 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.

El Fegiery told Truthout that Mostafa’s prosecution “was a serious precedent for intimidation.” He added, “We are also still concerned about other bloggers who are at risk.”

Human Rights Watch, the US-based rights group, called on the government to drop the charges. "The government should not be prosecuting Mustafa at all, much less before a military court, with no possibility of appeal," said Joe Stork, HRW’s deputy Middle East director.

Paris-based media rights group Reporters Without Borders said Mostafa’s trial was "designed to intimidate anyone who dares to criticize the army."

Amnesty International welcomed his release. The organization considered Mostafa to be a prisoner of conscience.

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.

“Emergency law is used regularly by the Egyptian government to harass and imprison journalists and human rights activists attempting to bring to public attention corruption and favoritism, as has occurred with the recent arrest and trial in military court of blogger Ahmed Mustafa,” said Daniel Calingaert, Deputy Director of Programs at Freedom House.

But Mustafa is far from the first blogger to be harassed by security police or put on trial for something he wrote. The roll of persecuted Egyptian bloggers has been growing longer every year.

Egyptian police started to crack down on Internet users in early 2001. By the end of 2003, improper Internet use was being used as a justification for the increased prosecution of individuals from several different political groups along with Islamists, journalists, homosexuals, and political activists.

A new specialized police unit was founded under the general department of Information and Documentation. Officially called the "Department to Combat Crimes of Computers and Internet," the unit is now known by its simpler title -- "Internet Police"

The first public appearance of the unit came in March 2004 in the pages of the semi-governmental newspaper Al-Ahram. It was mentioned in a news story about a computer programmer who was arrested for creating a web site defaming a famous official and his family. But the unit was well known to its victims long before its name was published.

One of those early victims was Shohdy Naguib Sorour, the son of the late poet Naguib Sorour. In June 2002, Al Sayda Zainab Misdemeanors Court sentenced him to a one-year prison term and a fine. Shohdy was condemned for the possession and dissemination of the political colloquial poem "Kosomiat" written by his late father in the early1970s. The court stated that the poem, which had been posted by Shohdy on his Web site, “transgressed public morality.”

The case was decided on the basis of Article 178 of the penal code, which criminalizes the possession of “materials violating public morality with purposes of distribution, trafficking, or breaching morality.”

During the police investigation of the case, it was found that not only was Shohdy's computer not connected to the Internet but also that its hard disk did not contain the poem he was accused of posting. The only piece of evidence found by the Vice Squad -- and the only evidence that it seems was required for the successful prosecution of the case -- was a hard copy of the poem in Shohdy's possession.

Perhaps the police didn’t realize that Shohdy was Naguib Sorour's son. As the author's son it was reasonable that he would have his father's poem, much like thousands of the poet's readers and fans possess this same poem by a poet renowned for his criticisms of the political situation.

Internet-based prosecutions – and threats of prosecutions -- grew amid an environment of manufactured hysteria.

Rafat Radwan, engineer and chairman of the Information Center in the Cabinet, said, “Net cafes must be monitored. Any activity has good and bad elements. There should be several restrictions such as a central control on material sent through the Internet that could be against Egyptian principles. The Vice Squad in the Ministry of the Interior should play a role in monitoring these net cafes.”

And, referring to a blogger who was sentenced to a four-year jail sentence for calling President Hosni Mubarak a “symbol of dictatorship,” and Al-Azhar University a “university of terror,” prosecutor Mohammed Dawud warned, “If we let people like him off without punishment, a wildfire will blaze up that consumes everything in its path.” He added, ”Exactly that is what civil rights activists dream of, many of whom pin their hopes on a grass-roots digital democratization initiated by the country’s bloggers.”

Harassment of bloggers has increased year by year since then. For example:

In 2007, blogger Kareem Amer, an Amnesty International prisoner of conscience, was sentenced to four years’ imprisonment for criticizing President Hosni Mubarak and Egypt’s al-Azhar religious authorities on his blog.

Hani Nazeer, another prisoner of conscience, has been held in administrative detention since October 2008 for posting on his blog the cover of a book deemed insulting to Muslims.

In October 2008, blogger Mustafa Mahmoud was summoned to State Security in Fayoum. There he met Abd Al Latif Al Hady Badran, State Security inspector, who threatened to throw him in jail along with his family, because of his blogging.

Blogger Abd Al Rahman Fares was kidnapped in April 2009, in front of Fayoum cultural palace in a van, prior to a strike. He was detained and charged with inciting to strike, “using the prevailing democratic atmosphere to overthrow the regime,” and distributing flyers and other publications for the 6th April and Kefaya political movements. He was released by State Security days later, without charge.

Bloggers Mohamed Khairy and Khalifa Ebeid were arrested on in October 2008 because they participated in a "break the siege of Gaza" demonstration and also because of critical writings on their blogs. They were released after 15 days.

Marawan Mazen, a state security inspector, broke into blogger Ahmed Mohsen’s home in April 2009, and “turned every thing upside down.” Ahmed was not at home -- he was at work as a radiologist. He was accused of “using the prevailing democratic atmosphere to overthrow the regime and hindering the law and constitution.”

Mohsen was put in solitary confinement, served one meal a day, subjected to timed usage of restroom, and denied visits from his lawyer and family. He started a hunger strike.

He was held in one prison for 15 days and then transferred to another to end his strike. He was detained an additional 30 days before his unexplained release.

In November 2009, blogger Wael Abbas was sentenced to six months in jail for cutting an Internet cable, a verdict that was considered "ridiculous" by Reporters Without Borders.

In Alexandria, blogger Abdel Karim Nabil Suleiman, a 21-year-old law student at al-Azhar University, was taken from his home and detained by State Security agents. His family believes Karim’s political opinions and writings for several outlets, including Copts United, were behind the arrest.

Copts are a Christian minority, making up about ten per cent of Egypt’s population. Human rights observers say they are subjected to many forms of discrimination.

Al-Azhar University is the center of Arabic literature and Sunni Islamic learning in the world and the world's second oldest surviving degree granting university. Among many other disciplines, Al-Azhar trains Egyptian government-appointed preachers in proselytization.

Egypt-watchers say the country’s war on bloggers is simply a newer phase of the Mubarak regime’s relentless crackdown on freedom of expression. After promising reforms, the 81-year-old authoritarian continues to regularly put journalists in jail.

These days, the government increasingly uses the “war on terrorism” to justify its political repression. At the same time, Egypt has successfully promoted its image as one of the “moderate Arab states.”

But human rights advocates say there is nothing moderate about current-day Egypt. The country has a well-documented history of torture and death in detention and a full panoply of other human rights abuses.

Nonetheless, Mubarak has managed to sell himself to the West – particularly to the U.S. – as a dependable partner. For many years after he signed a treaty normalizing the country’s relationship with Israel, Egypt was the recipient of billions of dollars in economic and military aid, second only to Israel.

Marina Ottaway of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace has eloquently summed up the current situation in Egypt. Commenting on the “travesty of democracy” likely to play out in the country’s upcoming elections, she writes:

“Politically, Egypt has become a one-dimensional society where there is no true alternative to the present ruling establishment.”

“In the face of the unrelenting closure of the political space in Egypt and the outright repression exercised by the security apparatus not only against the Muslim Brotherhood but also against liberal opponents who attract some support or even call attention to themselves, the United States and the international community more broadly have been largely silent.”

“After a rhetorically strong beginning, the Bush administration dropped efforts at democracy promotion in Egypt and in the wider Arab world following the 2005 parliamentary election in which the Muslim Brotherhood won twenty percent of the seats. The Obama administration has kept curiously silent about democracy -- other than for passing references in President Obama’s speech to the Muslim world in Cairo in June 2009 and more recently in Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s speech in Qatar in February 2010.”

“In light of the growing stifling of political activity in Egypt, the Obama administration cannot continue to remain silent, even if it can do little to alter the situation in practice. The normal tools of the democracy promotion kit -- including pressure on the regime, assistance to make the electoral process more honest, assistance to domestic election monitors, and the deployment of international observers -- are unlikely to make a difference. Even assistance to political parties will not help when, just a few months before the elections, the liberal and leftist parties are moribund and the Muslim Brotherhood is deeply divided, with many of its top leaders in jail and even some of the strongest advocates of political participation calling for a participation moratorium.”

“Yet by not speaking out, the Obama administration is sending a message that the United States accepts the travesty of democracy this election cycle represents.”

This article was originallypublished in