Monday, November 22, 2010

Egypt’s Flawed Election

By William Fisher

Egypt’s authoritarian government ramped up its crackdown on journalists and opposition politicians ahead of the November 28 parliamentary elections and rebuffed a U.S. call for international observers to monitor “free and fair” balloting.

At the same time, the U.S. and its principal Middle East ally appeared to be headed for a rhetorical brawl over Egypt’s alleged religious discrimination.

“Egypt is capable of monitoring the upcoming polls to prove to the entire world we are able to manage completely impartial elections,” Prime Minister Ahmed Nazif told journalists.

He dismissed as interference, calls to allow foreign observers to monitor the country's parliamentary elections next week, an official said.

According to press reports, “It is as if the United States has turned into a caretaker of how Egyptian society should conduct its own politics.”

“The National Democratic Party (NDP) and legal opposition groups reject any such interference," said Sawfat al-Sharif, the secretary-general of the NDP.

Some 250 candidates from the Muslim Brotherhood (MB) party have been arrested and many detained. The MB, whose candidates must run as “independents” because the MB is not recognized as a political party, h controls about 20 per cent of the seats in Parliament. It claims that some political parties have done deals with the NDP to exclude Brotherhood candidates from the elections.

The program of Mubarak's ruling party includes such objectives as combating poverty and corruption, raising the standard of living, working towards social justice and strengthening national security. Critics charge that the 82-year-old president has announced similar goals each time there is an election, but claim that it is difficult to see any major changes taking place.

The NDP is expected to maintain majority control in the 518-seat People's Assembly for the new, five-year term. Mubarak is expected to run again for the presidency next year.

The U.S. has been seen by some observers as slow to speak out forcefully regarding the election. But last week State Department spokesman Philip Crowley told reporters, "The United States remains committed to supporting free and impartial elections in Egypt," holding the Egyptian government to its own commitment to "fair and transparent elections."

Crowley called on Egypt to ensure peaceful political gatherings, unhindered voter education and participation campaigns, as well as balanced media coverage for all candidates.

But in Egypt, some election observers found it significant that these announcements came from relatively mid-level personnel rather than U.S. President Barack Obama.
Michele Dunne, a former State Department Middle East specialist and analyst with the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, said the elections pose major challenges.

"The signs are not very positive for having free elections. There have been a lot of steps that the Egyptian government has taken recently to cut down the size of opposition, to diminish the number of opposition candidates who can run, to encumber their freedom to campaign, to control media coverage of the elections and prevent the opposition from using technological means like text messages and so forth to mobilize for the elections," she said.

Meanwhile, government security apparatus continued its political persecution of journalists and Egypt and the U.S. appeared headed for a confrontation regarding religious discrimination.

An Egyptian criminal court began the trial of an opposition journalist accused of libeling Foreign Minister Ahmed Abul Gheit. The minister had filed a complaint alleging that he was insulted in an article in the independent daily Shorouk last May.

In other journalism-related developments:

An Egyptian citizen, Usama Mishref, was detained in Saudi Arabia. Mishref is the coordinator of the Saudi branch of an Egyptian group, the National Assembly for Change, which supports a presidential run for Mohamed El Baradei, retired chairman of the International Atomic Energy Agency.

Mishref was on his way from Riyadh to Mecca to launch the campaign "You Are The Only Way Out" in support of democratic reform in Egypt. He had posted a video on YouTube urging Egyptians not to be afraid of the security police and to support demands for change and democratic reform in Egypt.

Reporters Without Borders condemned blogger Ahmed Hassan Basiouny’s trial by court martial, and called for the immediate withdrawal of the charges against him. He is the second blogger to face a court martial in Egypt.

Basiouny is being prosecuted for creating a Facebook page in 2009 that offered advice and information to young people thinking of enlisting in the Egyptian army. He is charged with disseminating defense secrets online and “disclosing information about the Egyptian armed forces.”

And Amnesty International issued a new report, 'Shouting slogans into the wind': Human rights concerns ahead of the parliamentary elections’. It said, “The rise in the number of voices calling for reform has been met with increasing repression by the authorities, using the very emergency powers that many Egyptians have been urging them to abolish. Many such critics, in fact, have faced arrest, detention, prosecution on trumped-up criminal charges and unfair trials.”

In developments relating to alleged religious discrimination in Egypt, the State Department released its annual report on religious freedom in the world and outlined several problematic areas in Egypt. The report described ways in which religious minorities like Coptic Christians, Shia, and Baha'i face unfair institutional and legal difficulties in addition to individual discrimination.

"The status of respect for religious freedom by the government remained poor, unchanged from the previous year," the 2010 report said.

Meanwhile, 10 houses owned by Copts in the village of Al-Nawahid in Qena province, some 465 kilometers south of Cairo, were burned down when rumors circulated that a Coptic resident was having an affair with a Muslim woman.

Last year in Qena, a Coptic man was accused of kidnapping and raping a 12-year-old Muslim girl. The alleged assault led to widespread protests by the Muslim community and increased tensions between the two religious groups, which culminated in the murder of six Copts and one Muslim security guard at a church on Jan. 6.

Coptic Christians make up about 10 percent of Egypt's population of 80 million. Copts and Muslims generally live in peace, though tension and violence occasionally flare.

Human rights groups say attacks on Copts are on the rise, underscoring the government's failure to address chronic sectarian strains in a society where religious radicalism is gaining ground.

On Saturday, the government dismissed the complaints from the United States. It said Washington has no right to hand down judgments.

"The report is rejected on principle because it has been issued by a party which has no right to make such an evaluation," the foreign ministry spokesman said in a statement in reaction to the State Department’s report. The government insists Christians enjoy the same rights as Muslims.

ICE Deporting the Wrong People

By William Fisher

While U.S. immigration authorities are “understandably eager to trumpet the overall number” of people they deport, close to one in three deportations recommended by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) is being rejected by Immigration Courts, according to an analysis of case-by-case government data.

During the last three months of FY 2010, the rejection rate of ICE requests for deportation was nearly one out of three or 31 percent. This turndown rate is up from what it was — one out of every four — 12 months earlier.

For all of FY 2010, some courts turned down ICE removal requests more than half of the time. Among them were the Immigration Courts in New York City (70% turned down), Oregon (63% turned down), Los Angeles (63% turned down), Miami (59% turned down) and Philadelphia (55% turned down). In criminal prosecutions, the typical conviction rate in recent years for immigration cases is 96 percent.

These findings are based on analysis of recent information obtained by the Transactional Clearing House at Syracuse University (TRAC) under the Freedom of Information Act.

The TRAC analysis says that the poor targeting of government removal efforts documented by the Immigration Court data shows that “scarce resources such as the investigative time of ICE agents are being wasted and that the ability of the government to deport those who should be removed from the country therefore has been reduced.”

Attorney Alison Parker, who directs the U.S. domestic civil rights program for Human Rights Watch, told IPS, “ICE is under huge pressure to show that it is deporting the undocumented. As a result it is casting its net far too wide. Secondly, the current law allows ICE to go after everyone – from turnstile-jumpers to serial killers. There are far too many turnstile-jumpers being deported. ICE should concentrate its resources on people who have committed serious crimes.”

The analysis shows that in the fiscal year 2006-2010 period, unsuccessful ICE filings affected almost a quarter of a million individuals (246,721) who were not subject to deportation because they were entitled to reside in the United States. The count is even higher (313,244), however, if all other reasons given by the judges for not granting ICE removals and deportation are counted.

Lena Graber of the National Immigration Forum agrees that the TRAC analysis shows that “ICE casts a very wide net and pursues targets indiscriminately, despite their claims about enforcement priorities.”

She told IPS, “The growth in cases dismissed for having ‘no grounds for removal’ -- from under 5% a few years ago to nearly 12% in 2010 -- demonstrates that ICE is pursuing removal against people who should not be forced to go through proceedings at all.”

She also expressed concern about the distribution of these dismissal rates. She pointed out that most of them occur in urban areas with large immigrant populations. There, she said, “the proportion of cases dismissed or granted relief is noticeably higher than average. This is likely because the vast majority of people in removal proceedings are not represented by an attorney, but those in urban areas with large immigrant populations are the most likely to have access to immigration attorneys and particularly immigrant defense organizations and pro bono networks.”

She added, “This underscores the injustice of having most of our immigration detention centers in remote rural areas in the south, far from access to legal representation.”

The documents analyzed track what happens to ICE cases where the law requires the agency to obtain the concurrence of an immigration judge before an individual is deported from the United States. ICE has refused to release more detailed data to better explain the growing rejection rates and the possible reasons behind these important shifts.

TRAC says the questions the public has “might be answered with the more extensive data that the agency has sought to withhold from the public.”

One question involves the effectiveness of the agency: is it targeting the individuals for removal who in fact should be deported? The second concerns the fairness of the process: What is the impact on those individuals the agency has wrongly sought to remove who were entitled to remain in the United States?

TRAC suggests that one reason may be the “growing pressures to increase the volume of illegal immigrants the agency catches and removes from the country.” The administration of U.S. president Barack Obama has announced new priorities targeting aliens with particularly serious criminal records.

But other studies have shown that a large proportion of those deported to not have such criminal records, and in fact have been arrested for petty crimes and traffic violations. ICE has also focused increasing resources on new initiatives such as Secure Communities while de-emphasizing large scale raids on businesses.

According to HRW’s Alison Parker, ICE’s new priorities “have yet to be transformed into action.” She suggested that reform at ICE “requires a cultural change” from ICE’s predecessor, the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS).

TRAC says that “because ICE is withholding data that would track cases from their origins to disposition we are prevented from determining which particular initiatives may account for the sharp increase in ICE's turndown rate.”

TRAC adds that “It seems unlikely that these changes can be attributed to changes in the Immigration Courts.” During this past year there has been little change in the makeup of judges serving on the court.

TRAC’s findings are based upon a detailed analysis of 3.4 million records covering each proceeding filed in the Immigration Courts for fiscal years 1998 — 2010.

The group says that, over the past five years court records indicate there were a total of 94,949 cases that the judges said they had terminated because there were no grounds for removal. In addition, there were 151,682 cases where the judges granted relief.

In some areas of the country the court turns down ICE's removal request over half of the time. These include courts in New York, Oregon (which also covers Idaho, Montana and Alaska), Los Angeles, Miami and Philadelphia.

TRAC found that larger Immigration Courts regardless of the region of the country were seeing an increase in the rejection rates on ICE removal actions. The three courts that disposed of the largest number of cases during FY 2010 were courts in Los Angeles, New York City and Miami.

TRAC concludes that “poor targeting that weakens the government is inefficient. In addition, however, poor targeting imposes real personal and financial burdens on the individuals who have been wrongfully selected for removal. It is unfair.”