June 21, 2005

Most of those still in detention are being held without charge, and others have been charged with offenses that stem solely from their efforts to exercise their right to freedom of expression, freedom of association, and freedom of assembly.

We are writing to you with regard to the recent large-scale arrest and detention of members of the Muslim Brotherhood. Most of those still in detention are being held without charge, and others have been charged with offenses that stem solely from their efforts to exercise their right to freedom of expression, freedom of association, and freedom of assembly. We urge you to take immediate steps to release those individuals still in custody without further delay. If any of these individuals are suspected of committing an act of violence or other cognizable criminal offence, the authorities should promptly charge them and ensure that they are tried in a court of law in accordance with international fair trial standards.

The government ordered the arrests following a decision of the Muslim Brothers, an illegal but tolerated organization, to support the Kifaya (“Enough”) movement’s call for direct competitive presidential elections and other structural political reforms. The Brotherhood staged large public rallies in a number of Egyptian cities in early May, and according to press accounts the authorities arrested more than 800 persons. In recent weeks, in a positive step, the authorities reportedly released more than 400 of those detained, although at least two persons have since been rearrested. Police sources quoted in the media reported that as of June 14, 349 persons remained in custody on account of their ties to the organization. According to a June 19 statement by Mahdi Akef, the head of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, a total of 306 members remain in custody.

Those still being held include the group’s secretary-general, Mahmud `Izzat, arrested on May 22, and prominent activist `Issam al-Irian, arrested on May 6. On June 18 and June 19, the prosecutor general again renewed the detention orders for `Issam Irian and Mahmud `Izzat, respectively, for a further fifteen days.

Hafiz Abu Seada, who is representing `Issam al-Irian, told Human Rights Watch that the prosecutor general was investigating al-Irian and others on charges of membership in an illegal organization, preventing state institutions from carrying out their activities, possession of publications promoting the aims of the illegal organization, spreading propaganda of a nature to disturb public security and damage the public interest, and promoting the use of force to breach the Constitution. Abu Seada, who is also secretary-general of the Egyptian Organization for Human Rights, said that the last charge, based on allegations that the Muslim Brothers were urging demonstrators to attack police, was groundless, but that it allows the prosecutor to refer the cases to a military court under the country’s counter-terrorism laws.

These charges appear intended to punish persons solely for exercising their rights to freedom of expression, association, and assembly in violation of Egypt’s obligations under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. Also relevant are the Johannesburg Principles on National Security, Freedom of Expression and Access to Information, which was drafted in 1995 by international law and global rights experts and endorsed by the U.N. special rapporteurs on freedom of expression and on the independence of judges and lawyers. The principles, which are drawn from international legal standards, provide that “[a]ny restriction on expression or information that a government seeks to justify on grounds of national security must have the genuine purpose and demonstrable effect of protecting a legitimate national security interest.” To establish that a restriction on freedom of expression is necessary to protect a legitimate national security interest, a government must demonstrate that: the expression at issue poses a serious threat to a legitimate national security interest; it is the least restrictive means possible for protecting that interest; and the restriction is compatible with democratic principles.

We understand that the prosecutor general has also included “acts of violence” among the charges lodged against some of those detained. Muslim Brotherhood spokesperson `Abd al-Mun`im Abu al-Futuh told Human Rights Watch that these charges refer to alleged attacks on police and property that occurred during some of the May demonstrations. He said that violence did take place at some demonstrations, particularly in Zagazig and Fayum, but that it was perpetrated by security forces rather than demonstrators.

Human Rights Watch is not in a position to assess culpability for acts of violence that may have occurred. The government has the responsibility to protect persons and property from violence and threats of violence. Those arrested for violent acts should be promptly charged and prosecuted in accordance with international fair trial standards.

All persons being held solely for exercising their rights to freedom of speech, association, and assembly should be released without delay. If members of the police or other security forces were responsible for attacks on demonstrators or on property, we urge you to ensure that they be held accountable and be disciplined or prosecuted as appropriate.

Thank you for your prompt attention to this important matter.

Sincerely,

Sarah Leah Whitson
Executive Director
Middle East & North Africa Division

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