Prominent Rights Group Raided; Activists Facing Prison for Peaceful Protest
(New York) – Egyptian security forces have expanded their harassment of political activists, raided a human rights organization, and used their new protest law to arrest scores of peaceful protesters.
Just after midnight on December 19, 2013, police forces raided the offices of the Egyptian Center for Economic and Social Rights, a prominent domestic rights group. Ministry of Interior officers arrested six of the staff, blindfolding and detaining them for nine hours at an undisclosed location, only releasing five of them the next morning.
The police, who are part of and take instructions from the Ministry of Interior, have in the past three weeks gone after four of the most prominent activists of the Egyptian protest movement – Alaa Abdelfattah, Ahmed Maher, Ahmad Douma, and Mohamed Adel.
“The Ministry of Interior’s pursuit of these four activists is a deliberate effort to target the voices who, since January 2011, have consistently demanded justice and security agency reform,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East and North Africa director. “It should come as no surprise that with the persecution of the Muslim Brotherhood well underway, the Ministry of Interior is now targeting leaders of the secular protest movement.”
Maher is the founder of the April 6 youth movement, one of the groups behind the protests in 2011 that led to the ouster of former President Hosni Mubarak. He was a 2011 nominee for the Nobel Peace Prize. Along with Adel, a founding member of the group, and Douma, he is on trial on charges relating to a protest on November 30, with a verdict scheduled for December 22.
Prosecutors also recently referred Abdelfattah, one of the most vocal critics of the police and the military, to trial on false charges of organizing a demonstration without notification, along with 24 protesters who participated in the peaceful demonstration. The group faces imprisonment because prosecutors also charged them with illegal assembly under laws used by Mubarak to criminalize peaceful protest. In Alexandria, prosecutors referred seven protesters including human rights lawyer Mahienour al-Massry to court for participation in a December 2 protest outside a court.
The police have used the new, deeply repressive, Law 107 of 2013 on the Right to Public Meetings, Processions, and Peaceful Demonstrations, to arrest scores of political activists on grounds that they failed to seek advance permission for their demonstrations, Human Rights Watch said. The government claims that, instead of criminal penalties, the new law sets fines – of 10,000 - 30,000 Egyptian Pounds (US$ $1,500 - 4,300) under article 21– for failing to get advance permission. Yet the new law incorporates the existing restrictive assembly laws, including Law 14 of 1923, which carries with it a prison sentence for participation in an unauthorized demonstration.
Under international human rights law, governments have the right to regulate the use of public space for demonstrations by requiring reasonable advance notification. However, as the UN special rapporteur on the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and of association stated in his May 2012 report, “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 special rapporteur said:
Should the organizers fail to notify the authorities, the assembly should not be dissolved automatically and the organizers should not be subject to criminal sanctions, or administrative sanctions resulting in fines or imprisonment… Most importantly, “assembly organizers and participants should not be considered responsible (or held liable) for the unlawful conduct of others… [and, together with] assembly stewards, should not be made responsible for the maintenance of public order.”
“The Egyptian government has sent a strong signal with its attack on a human rights group, and these arrests and prosecutions, that it is not in the mood for dissent of any kind,” Whitson said. “Almost three years after the nationwide protests that brought down Hosni Mubarak, security agencies feel more empowered than ever and are still intent on crushing the right of Egyptians to protest the actions of their government.”
Raid on the Human Rights Organization
At 12:15 a.m. on December 19, about 50 armed police officers from Abdin and Azbakia police stations and the National Security Agency surrounded the building where the Egyptian Center for Economic and Social Rights (ECESR) is based in downtown Cairo.
Human rights lawyer Mahmoud Belal told Human Rights Watch he was heading to the office late to prepare for a planned news conference on steel worker rights the next day, when the police blocked his access to the building. He said that he saw the police roughly bringing five of his colleagues down the stairs. When he objected and asked to see their arrest and search warrant, the police slapped and arrested him along with the other five. The group’s director, Nadim Mansour, told Human Rights Watch that police seized three computers during the raid.
One of those arrested, Mostafa Eissa, a filmmaker, told Human Rights Watch that the police then drove them to a place they could not identify, blindfolded them, and made them stand for nine hours. Human rights lawyer Malek Adly said that he and other human rights lawyers went to the Azbakia and Abdin police stations to look for the detainees, and that police officers told them to “check with National Security,” the secret police division of the Ministry of Interior which is not authorized to detain people.
Among those arrested in the raid was Adel, the April 6 leader who is currently on trial in connection with a protest on November 30, and who is a volunteer for the human rights group. The police had not previously detained him despite a warrant for his arrest. This apparently was the pretext for the raid, but the Ministry of Interior did not explain why they carried out the raid at the organization’s office rather than Adel’s home; why they detained the other staff members; or why they seized the computers.
The police released the other five at 9 a.m. but continued to hold Adel. Mansour told Human Rights Watch that the police returned the seized computers the following morning.
The rights group, founded by a former presidential candidate, Khaled Ali, is one of the most active Egyptian human rights groups. It has defended workers’ rights, litigated against the government on economic and social rights issues, and provided legal aid to protesters. It has also documented police killings of protesters through its project, Wikithawra, which lists the names and numbers of people the police have arrested and killed over the past two years.
This is not the first raid on a human rights organization. During the period of military rule following the downfall of Mubarak in February 2011, military officers raided the offices of the human rights group, the Hisham Mubarak Law Center, arresting 28 of the human rights defenders who were working out of the premises at the time to document police and military abuses against protesters. In December 2011, police and military officers also raided the offices of six Egyptian and international organizations.
Targeted Arrests of Leading Activists
This raid on a human rights group comes in the same three-week period when police arrested four of the most prominent activists from the protest movement, and charged them with participation in protests that took place without prior notification to the police.
On November 27, 2013, prosecutors issued an arrest warrant for Ahmad Maher on charges of organizing a November 26 demonstration, despite the fact that he was not one of the organizers. Maher, who as the founder of April 6 was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize in 2011, turned himself in to prosecutors on November 30, accompanied by a group of supporters, outside the Abdeen courthouse.
The crowd outside turned into a protest, which police dispersed with teargas. Prosecutors subsequently charged Maher with participation in an illegal protest, disturbing public order, and hampering traffic for the November 30 protest. On December 5, prosecutors referred Maher, Adel, and Douma to trial on charges of illegal assembly on November 30. Prosecutors also accused them of “assaulting police officers as they were attempting to enter Abdeen court.”
On the evening of November 28, about 20 armed policemen, some masked, broke down Abdelfattah’s door, arrested him, and confiscated laptops and mobile phones. His wife, Manal, said that when Abdelfattah, a well-known activist and vocal critic of the police and military, asked to see an arrest warrant, they beat him and slapped her. Abdelfattah’s lawyer, Mahmoud Belal, told Human Rights Watch that prosecutors later confirmed to him that they had not issued a search warrant nor ordered the seizure of laptops or phones, but had nevertheless allowed the Ministry of Interior to keep and examine the machines.
Arrests Under New Protest Law
The No-To-Military-Trials campaign group called for the November 26 demonstration outside the Shura Council, where the constituent assembly was meeting, to protest a provision that would allow the military to try civilians before military tribunals. The police violently broke up the demonstration, saying that organizers had failed to notify the authorities in advance, as required by the new protest law. The police arrested at least 72 protesters, including 13 women and several human rights lawyers. Human Rights Watch confirmed later that evening that prosecutors released all of the women but detained 24 of the male protesters, releasing them eight days later on bail of 5000 Egyptian pounds each (US$723).
A news release from the Public Prosecutor’s Office said that investigations had established that a group of 350 people had illegally assembled on Kar Aini street and “chanted against state authorities, held up placards with slogans inciting against the authorities,” and that security forces had “advised and asked them to leave but they had insisted on illegally assembling, blocking traffic, and impeding citizens’ interests.” It said that the police had arrested 24 of the “perpetrators of the crime.”
In another episode in Alexandria on December 2, the police dispersed a peaceful demonstration outside the downtown courthouse where a retrial was being held for police officers accused of torturing and killing Khaled Said in June 2010. Said became one of the iconic torture cases of the 2011 protests. Police officials announced that they had arrested four protesters that day, including Loay al-Qahwagy, Mohamed Islam, and Amr Hazeq. On December 9, police officials told the daily al-Masry al-Youm that they had arrested Nasr Abul Hamad on charges of participating in an illegal demonstration in connection with the December 2 protest.
On December 4, prosecutors issued an arrest warrant for Mahienour al-Massry, a human rights lawyer, and Hassan Mustafa, a political activist, both members of the Revolutionary Socialists group, who had participated in the peaceful protest. Al-Massy told Human Rights Watch that she and other lawyers had discovered when they went to the prosecutor’s office to follow up on al-Qahwagy’s arrest that prosecutors had referred all seven protesters to trial on charges of participating in an illegal demonstration. The court has not yet set a trial date.
On November 27, police in Assiout arrested Hossam Hassan, a senior member of the Egyptian Social Democratic Party (ESDP), at al-Hamama square during a demonstration of around 20 people against the new protest law. Zyad Eleimy, the group’s lawyer and a former member of parliament, told Human Rights Watch that prosecutors had sentenced Hassan to four days in detention and then another 15, and issued arrest warrants for nine others in connection with the peaceful demonstration.
Hassan’s lawyer, Hany Sayed, told al-Masry al-Youm that prosecutors had ordered Hassan’s detention on charges of protesting without notification, insulting the Ministry of Interior, illegal assembly, and jamming traffic, and had issued arrest warrants for nine other members of the party who had participated in the demonstration.
On December 9, in Cairo, at around 5 p.m., after a day of protests at al-Azhar University, police raided a café in Nasr City, arrested 10 students, and ordered them detained for 15 days on charges of protesting without notification, possession of fireworks, disturbing public security, jamming traffic, attacking the police, capturing a journalist, and stealing his camera. Sara Hamdy, 21, a student at al-Azhar, told Human Rights Watch that she had been on the phone that afternoon with Mohammed Mokhtar, the head of the April 6 student movement in al-Azhar, who told her he was at a café in Nasr City with other students to discuss the protests on campus.
Abdelrahman Gad, 21, an al-Azhar student, told Human Rights Watch he had left the café 30 minutes before the arrests: “I was with other students at the café in front of the dormitory discussing what was happening on campus. Things were calm by then; even police trucks were parked in front of the café. Right after I left, I found out that my friends were arrested.”
The students’ lawyer, Ahmed Abdelnaby, told Human Rights Watch that during the interrogation, prosecutors had questioned the students about their political affiliations and that some had said they were members of April 6, the al-Dostour party, and Masr al-Qawiya party.