(New York) – A draft law on assembly awaiting ratification by the interim president would effectively give the police carte blanche to ban protest in Egypt. The bill would ban all demonstrations near official buildings, give the police absolute discretion to ban any other protest, and allow officers to forcibly disperse overall peaceful protests if even a single protester throws a stone.
The bill would also require organizers to notify the police in advance of any public meeting of more than 10 people in a private or public place. It would allow the police to ban these meetings, which could severely restrict the freedom of assembly of political parties and nongovernmental groups, Human Rights Watch said.
“This draft law would effectively mandate the police to ban all protests outright and to use force to disperse ongoing protests,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “The final law will be an important indicator of the extent to which the new government is going to allow for political space in Egypt.”
Human Rights Watch reviewed the October 21 draft of the Law on the Right to Public Meetings, Processions and Peaceful Demonstrations. As it stands, the draft law falls far short of Egypt’s obligation to respect freedom of assembly under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), Human Rights Watch said.
On October 10, 2013, the cabinet approved the assembly law drafted by the Justice Ministry and sent it to the interim president for ratification. Under the July 8 Constitutional Declaration, the interim president, Adly Mansour, has full legislative powers.
After a week of rare public criticism of the draft law from political parties and human rights groups, Prime Minister Hazem Beblawy said in an interview on Egyptian CBC TV on October 20 that the government was open to amending the law and had sent it to the National Council for Human Rights for comments. However, Beblawy also said that the right to assembly must not “disturb the authorities” or threaten security, and that the “police today enjoy more popular respect and support than any other time previously.”
The draft law is a revision of the assembly law the Shura Council discussed for four months during the presidency of Mohamed Morsy. Human Rights Watch and others had criticized that draft as deeply restrictive.
The new draft includes a few small improvements, limiting the way in which police could use force to disperse protests and requiring the force used to be proportionate to the threat. But those provisions also state that the police could use lethal force in “legitimate self-defense,” which under Egyptian law is broadly defined to grant police discretion to use lethal force in circumstances other than those strictly necessary to protect life.
However, the draft law also includes many provisions that are more restrictive than in previous drafts, including requiring organizers to give advance notification of any public meeting of 10 people or more, or any public protest. The draft law would also allow police to disperse an assembly on vague grounds, such as that those gathered are trying to “influence the course of justice” or are impeding “citizens’ interests.” This means that political parties and other groups wishing to hold open meetings in the privacy of their offices would have to notify the Interior Ministry and risk an outright ban on the meeting.
“One of the few rights protections in the 2012 constitution was a ban on security agents appearing at private meetings,” Whitson said. “This law would reverse that, and truly strangle what’s left of independent political life in Egypt.”
Under the new law, organizers of protests or meetings of 10 or more people would have to inform the Interior Ministry at least a week in advance. The ministry could then ban the protest or meeting without providing any justification. Although article 11 of the draft law states that protest or meeting organizers could appeal a police ban before the courts, no time frame is specified, meaning that the court could hear the appeal after the scheduled date of the event.
The law would include an outright ban on sit-ins and on any demonstrations that come within 100 meters of any official executive, legislative, or judicial building in the country, effectively moving protesters out of the sight and hearing of the officials they seek to influence, Human Rights Watch said.
It also includes vague language on prohibited types of assembly, including those that would “impede the interests of citizens,” or seek to “influence the course of justice,” which could be interpreted to ban meetings of many groups.
Most problematically, article 6 of the draft law would allow police to disperse a protest by force, even if one protester commits a crime, which in effect would amount to collective punishment of protesters, Human Rights Watch said. Article 6 would also ban protesters from wearing masks or covering their faces. That would clearly discriminate against Egyptian women who wear the niqab, a garment worn by some Muslim women that covers the face.
In February, Human Rights Watch submitted a letter to the Justice Ministry with recommendations to bring the earlier version of the draft law in line with international law, but the ministry did not make the suggested changes before submitting the law for approval. The draft grew more restrictive during discussions in the Shura Council. In one of the council’s final sessions, on June 24, the drafting committee changed a requirement for the interior minister to seek an order from a judge if he wished to ban a demonstration, giving the minister the right to ban or postpone a demonstration without providing justification.
Egypt’s current protest laws, the Illegal Assembly Law of 1914, Law 10 of 1914, and Public Assembly Act No. 14 of 1923, are very restrictive and effectively allowed the police under former President Hosni Mubarak to ban public protests. Under the emergency law currently in force, the authorities have the right to ban protests, though they have not thus far invoked these provisions. Egypt’s current state of emergency will expire on November 14 and cannot be extended except through a popular referendum.
For more detail about problematic provisions in the draft law, please see the following.
Key Concerns in the Draft Assembly Law
Under international law, any restriction on the right to peaceful assembly must be limited to what is necessary and proportionate: the manner and intensity of state interference must be necessary to attain a legitimate purpose, and the prohibition or forceful dispersion of an assembly may only be considered when milder means have failed.
Scope of Application
One of the most problematic aspects of the draft law is the stipulation in article 2 that the law, including the notification requirements and the right for police to disperse assemblies, shall apply to “public meetings,” which it defines as “every assembly of individuals in a public or private place to which anyone can enter without a previous personal invitation.” This effectively prohibits political parties or other groups from holding meetings, news conferences, or seminars on their premises unless they notify the police a week in advance. Articles 3 and 4 state that the provisions of the law shall apply to any non-political procession or any political protest of more than 10 people.
Overly Broad Restrictions on Legitimate Assembly
The UN Human Rights Committee, which interprets the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, has stated that, “In adopting laws providing for restrictions … States should always be guided by the principle that the restrictions must not impair the essence of the right ... the relation between right and restriction, between norm and exception, must not be reversed.” Egypt’s draft assembly law goes well beyond any permissible restrictions on public assembly under international law.
Article 5 would ban public assembly in places of worship “for any purpose other than prayer,” and would ban processions leading toward places of worship. This provision is overly broad, covering a whole host of social gatherings that take place on the grounds of churches and mosques in Egypt, and, as worded, could even affect religious ceremonies such as funeral processions.
Article 16 would ban any protests from taking place within a 100 to 300-meter radius of any government building, legislative council, any police or military building, court, hospital, airport, educational institution, public facility, embassy, museum or any other place designated by local governors.
Article 22 would establish a penalty of imprisonment and a fine of 50,000 to 100,000 Egyptian pounds (US$7,200 to $14,500) for any violation of this provision.
The long list of buildings set out in this provision, along with the 100 to 300-meter-radius requirement, and the stipulation that the government may add any other buildings to the list, is not consistent with international law because it sets overly broad limitations on the right to peaceful assembly. These restrictions are neither narrowly construed nor proportionate. While in some circumstances banning a demonstration within 200 meters of a particular building might be appropriate, such as in the case of a protest near a sensitive military building, it is unlawful for governments to impose blanket bans of the type envisaged under article 16 to prevent public gatherings or demonstrations outside such a wide range of government and public buildings.
Governments may take measures to protect the security of public buildings and those who work in or use them and to ensure access to hospitals and places of worship. But a notification requirement should be sufficient to facilitate such measures, and would allow the authorities to require demonstrators to alter their route if there are clear, specific, and proportionate grounds to do so.
The UN special rapporteur on the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and association said in his May 2012 report that demonstrations must be facilitated within “sight and sound” of the demonstration’s object and target audience, and that “organizers of peaceful assemblies should not be coerced to follow the authorities’ suggestions if these would undermine the essence of their right to freedom of peaceful assembly.” He warned against limiting the venue for a demonstration to the outskirts of the city or a specific, out-of-the-way square, where its impact would be muted.
Vague Language as Basis for Dispersal
Article 7 says that the right to public assembly could not include sit-ins, “impeding the interests of citizens,” or “influencing the course of justice.” The use of these terms is conspicuously overly broad and open to wide interpretation: “influencing the course of justice” could lead to the dispersal of any protests calling for the release of political prisoners or the prosecution of security officials. In addition, anoutright ban on all sit-ins would be a violation of the right to peaceful assembly.
Article 7 also lists crimes including assault and the destruction of public or private property as limitations on public assembly. While laws can stipulate that the right to assembly is limited by “public order,” it is redundant to list crimes such as “attacks on individuals or their properties” in this context because such acts of violence are already clearly criminalized in the penal code.
Article 11 states that the Interior Ministry could ban an assembly if it received information that any of the organizers or participants planned to commit any of the acts set out in article 7.
Article 12 further states that the police would be allowed to disperse a demonstration if any participant in the assembly committed an offense under this law.
Article 6 would ban protesters from “carrying weapons or explosives or firecrackers,” or “any tools or substances that could endanger or harm individuals or buildings.” Article 19 would set out a penalty of 10 years in prison and 300,000 to 500,000 Egyptian pounds ($43,500 to $72,500) for anyone who “obtains or carries a weapon, explosives, ammunition, or flammable substances while participating in a meeting, procession or demonstration.” Article 20 would establish an additional penalty of imprisonment and a fine of 100,000 to 300,000 Egyptian pounds ($14,500 to $43,500) for anyone who provides funding or support to organize protests with the intention of committing the offenses listed in article 6.
Excessive Notification Requirement
Article 8 would require organizers to notify the local police station in writing seven days ahead of any planned public meeting, demonstration, or procession involving more than 10 people. An earlier draft of the law required notification only 24 hours in advance.
Article 10 states that the police shall “establish measures and guarantees to secure public meetings and demonstrations,” without stipulating that the measures may not include further restrictions on assembly.
The government has the right to regulate the use of public space for demonstrations by requiring reasonable advance notification. However, seven days is excessive, and the provision should also include a procedure for exceptions in cases of urgent and spontaneous assembly, or when the number of demonstrators is unlikely to impede traffic or public order. For example, when a US-led coalition of military forces attacked Iraq in March 2003, many Egyptians gathered spontaneously in Tahrir Square in central Cairo to voice their protest.
The UN special rapporteur on the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and of association stated in his May 2012 report that, “A notification should be subject to a proportionality assessment, not unduly bureaucratic and be required a maximum of, for example, 48 hours prior to the day the assembly is planned to take place.” The requirement for notification a week in advance is worse than the three-day requirement under the current assembly law No. 14 of 1923, which dates back to British occupation.
Police Discretion to Ban Assemblies
Article 11 would give Interior Ministry officials full discretion to ban a public assembly, merely on the basis of “serious information” that the organizers intended to commit” one of the offenses listed in article 7 or any other crime.” The provision would impose no limitation on police officials’ right to ban assemblies, nor would it require them to justify their decision.
Under international law, any notification system must not restrict the essence of the right to assembly. Giving the Interior Ministry absolute discretion to object to any public assembly on the basis of secret information would be tantamount to turning a notification system into a requirement for permission. To fully protect the right to assembly, the law should require the authorities to apply to a court to prohibit any demonstration and to provide evidentiary reasons that meet the narrow requirements of international law, rather than requiring organizers to give notification, Human Rights Watch said.
The article would place no requirement for a timely response by a judge hearing an appeal on a decision to ban a protest or assembly within the seven-day period, creating further uncertainty about the legal status of a demonstration. The law would also fail to provide exceptions for smaller demonstrations that would not cause disruption, or for urgent and spontaneous demonstrations in response to news, Human Rights Watch said.
Discrimination against Women Who Cover Their Faces
Article 6 would ban wearing masks or any face covering, and article 22 would set out a penalty of imprisonment and a fine of 50,000 to 100,00 Egyptian pounds ($7,250 to $14,500) for anyone who attended a meeting, protest, or procession wearing a mask or face covering. This provision was first included in earlier versions of the draft protest law under Morsy. When asked about this in a live interview in January on the Egyptian TV station CBC, Justice Minister Ahmed Mekki responded that women who wear the niqab should “stay at home.” This provision would discriminate against women who choose to wear the niqab, preventing them from participating in public meetings or protests, Human Rights Watch said.
Germany and other countries have laws that prohibit demonstrators from “wearing masks or covering the face,” but in all cases any such measure imposed on grounds of promoting public order must be both necessary and non-discriminatory. In Egypt, where many women wear the niqab lawfully in public, the government cannot legitimately impose such a broad prohibition, as this would inevitably have a discriminatory impact. It would prevent many women from exercising their right to participate in peaceful demonstrations, and also contravene their rights to freedom of opinion, religion, and expression. Discriminating against women who wear the niqab would outweigh the public order limitation in this case, and such a restriction should not be imposed.