By William Fisher
Major international human rights groups are demanding that Egypt’s new military rulers immediately release all political prisoners, or charge them with a criminal offense, bring them before an independent judge, and try them before a court that meets international fair trial standards.
On February 13, 2011, the ruling High Military Council ordered the suspension of the constitution and the dissolution of parliament, and promised free and fair elections, but said nothing about prisoners and their fate.
There are thousands of political prisoners in Egypt’s jails. Of these, 1500-2000 were taken into custody during the pro-democracy demonstrations. Egypt has released 34 of these in Cairo and 16 protestors who were arrested in North Sinai province.
The release of the 34 political prisoners was ordered by the newly appointed Interior Minister, Mahmoud Wagdi. These prisoners were among those turning themselves in to the authorities after escaping from custody during the wave of prison-breaks sparked by a state of lawlessness after the massive demonstrations that started on January
25. Thousands of prisoners reportedly escaped from jails amid the nationwide uprising.
Pro-democracy protesters arrested by the police of the Ministry of the Interior told journalists of the serious abuse they suffered in custody. They were eventually turned over the Military Police.
Joe Stork of Human Rights Watch said that "Protesters initially greeted the military as their protector from the abuses of the interior ministry. While the military may have promised not to shoot protesters, it must also respect their right to freedom of assembly and their right not to be arbitrarily detained."
“The first priority of Egypt’s military authorities should be to create a government that respects human rights and establishes the rule of law,” said Kenneth Roth, executive director of Human Rights Watch. “A good place to begin would be for the Higher Military Council to end the state of emergency and demonstrate zero tolerance for the abusive practices of the past.”
T. Kumar, Amnesty International’s Director of International Advocacy, told us, “The military council needs to release these prisoners immediately or charge them with a crime. If they simply hold them incommunicado, they will be doing exactly what President Mubarak did.”
He added that Amnesty has been demanding an honest penal system for years under Mubarak’s rule. “We’re not saying anything different now.”
In its communiqué number five on February 13, the Higher Military Council announced that it was setting up a committee to draft a new constitution to be submitted to referendum. Human Rights Watch urged the council to ensure that all bodies tasked with drafting the constitution and planning the transition to democracy are inclusive, credible, transparent, and accountable.
Human Rights Watch (HRW) recommend that military authorities should take the following six steps “to build confidence.”
· Immediately release all detainees still in military custody or charge them with a recognizable criminal offense under the regular criminal law, bring them immediately before an independent judge, and try them before a court meeting international fair trial standards;
· Ensure an independent, thorough, and transparent investigation of all credible allegations of torture by the military police over the past two weeks, including six cases reported to Human Rights Watch;
· Repeal the Emergency Law that gives the Interior Ministry broad powers to arrest and detain people arbitrarily and that limits the rights to freedom of association and peaceful assembly;
· Ensure the right to freedom of assembly by allowing for peaceful public protests as well as the right of workers to organize independent trade unions and conduct peaceful strikes;
· Publicly announce a policy of zero tolerance regarding torture or ill treatment and enforced disappearance by State Security Investigations and other ministry of interior officers as well as military officers. Instruct all security forces and members of the armed forces to refuse to obey any order to carry out such abuse and warn that they will face criminal prosecution;
· Instruct the Public Prosecutor to initiate investigations against ministry of interior officials, including senior officials, who have ordered, condoned, or carried out torture in the past, and in particular investigate State Security Investigations officers who allegedly “disappeared” detainees and subjected them to torture.
“The Egyptian military command says they intervened to guarantee the wishes of the people,” Roth said. “The paramount desire of a people who had long suffered under authoritarian rule is to uphold the rule of law and protect fundamental human rights.”
But the Council refused, for now, demands to release political prisoners and overturn Egypt's state-of-emergency law, “a legal measure [ousted President Hosni] Mubarak relied on for three decades to arrest dissidents.”
Before Mubarak’s resignation, Vice President Omar Suleiman appeared to have won the blessing of both the Mubarak and Obama administrations as the leader of a political transition toward democracy in Egypt.
But the New York Times reported that “human rights advocates say that so far Mr. Suleiman, who also is in charge of Egyptian intelligence, has shown no sign of discontinuing the practice of extra-legal detention of political opponents — a hallmark of President Hosni Mubarak’s nearly 30-year rule that is a central grievance of the protesters in the streets.”
The Military also appeared to gain widespread approval from the protesters, though many knowledgeable observers pointed out that the military police had committed more than their share of brutality and abuse of prisoners in detention.
The Guardian newspaper reported that “the Egyptian military has secretly detained hundreds and possibly thousands of suspected government opponents since mass protests against President Hosni Mubarak began, and at least some of these detainees have been tortured, according to testimony gathered by the newspaper.”
It went on to say, “The military has claimed to be neutral, merely keeping anti-Mubarak protesters and loyalists apart. But human rights campaigners say this is clearly no longer the case, accusing the army of involvement in both disappearances and torture – abuses Egyptians have for years associated with the notorious state security intelligence (SSI) but not the army.”
Who are Egypt’s “political prisoners”?
Several hundred are believed to be demonstrators who were arrested during the Tahrir Square demonstrations. The UK’S Guardian newspaper reported that journalists, human rights defenders, and youth activists were arrested “to intimidate reporting and undermine support for the Tahrir protest.”
The paper noted that “These arrests and reports of abuse in detention are exactly the types of practices that sparked the demonstrations in the first place.”
Joe Stork, deputy director of the Middle East and North Africa division at Human Rights Watch, said the Egyptian government tortured at least five of them.
He added that, in the cases Human Rights Watch has documented, those detained, who have since been released, said that they were held incommunicado, did not have access to a lawyer, and could not inform their families about their detention.
Among the political prisoners still in detention are bloggers, journalists and political activists. Many have been convicted for insulting the president or writing articles that would negatively affect Egypt’s “image.” Both are crimes under Egyptian law.
But the majority of political prisoners are thought to be members of the Muslim Brotherhood. Among those, there are several hundred who were arrested in the period immediately preceding the Parliamentary election, which was held in November and December of 2010. The election has been widely condemned inside and outside Egypt as having been rigged.