April 4, 2014

The Honorable John F. Kerry
U.S. Department of State
Washington, DC 20520

Dear Secretary Kerry,

We are writing with regard to the FY14 Omnibus Appropriations Bill, which requires the Secretary of State to certify that Egypt is meeting its commitment to a democratic transition and taking steps to govern democratically prior to the release of certain military assistance. 

At a congressional hearing on March 12, you said that you hoped “in the coming days” to make “the appropriate decision” with regard to restarting some US assistance to Cairo. In the view of Human Rights Watch, the Egyptian authorities continue to violate basic rights essential for the functioning of democracy.

We share your hope that Egypt will embark on a democratic transition, but the government continues routinely to violate the rights of its citizens to free expression, association, and peaceful assembly – all essential components of a democratic transition. Egypt’s failure to consolidate any progress on these important issues runs the risk of further destabilizing the country by significantly eroding the potential for Egyptian citizens to resolve their differences peacefully and within the framework of a pluralistic society. Resuming assistance without concrete reforms putting an end to these violations would inevitably link the United States to ongoing repression by the military-backed government.

In recent months, authorities have arrested, according to their own figures, at least 16,000 Egyptians, many on charges relating to their efforts to exercise peacefully their basic rights or solely for membership in the Muslim Brotherhood. Prosecutors routinely renew pretrial detention orders on the basis of little evidence that would warrant prosecution, effectively detaining them arbitrarily for months on end. Many of the cases that have gone to trial have been riddled with serious due process violations, including mass trials that have failed to assess the individual guilt of each defendant, yet resulted in lengthy sentences or even the death penalty. A criminal court in Minya, for example, sentenced 529 people to death on March 24, making it possibly the world’s largest recent mass death sentence, without allowing defendants the right to mount a meaningful defense or ascertaining their guilt individually or even whether they had counsel or were in the courtroom.  

Meanwhile, authorities have made no effort to investigate or otherwise hold accountable police and army officers and other officials who are responsible for the repeated use of excessive lethal force and indiscriminate and deliberate attacks on protesters that have left at least 1,000 people dead since the military-backed interim government took power on July 3. While we are encouraged by Interim President Adly Mansour’s March 19 request to the Justice Ministry to open a judicial investigation into the Raba’a dispersal, no indication has been made that the body will have the authority to prosecute those responsible for the use of excessive force.

The new constitution, prepared by a body appointed by the interim government, has language that appears to protect basic rights, but security officials and courts continue to routinely violate those rights, including the rights to assembly, speech, and religion. Those targeted are not only the Muslim Brotherhood and allied Islamist groups. In the days just prior to the constitutional referendum in January 2014, security forces arrested members of the Strong Egypt party who attempted to put up posters and hand out leaflets calling for a “no” vote. Courts have sentenced several of those individuals to multi-year prison terms.

In one of its first major legislative acts, on November 24, 2013, the military-backed government demonstrated its intent to sharply restrict peaceful assembly when President Mansour issued a law granting the Interior Ministry the right to ban any protest, forcibly disperse protests, and arrest demonstrators on vague grounds such as “attempt[ing] to influence the course of justice” or “imped[ing] citizen’s interests.” Two days later, Human Rights Watch observed police use water cannons, teargas, and batons to violently disperse several hundred activists peacefully protesting military trials of civilians.

Authorities then arrested leading secular opposition activists, including Ahmed Maher and other prominent members of the April 6 Youth Movement, and sentenced them to three-year prison terms for allegedly violating the new law. In a recent court appearance to appeal their convictions, Maher and the others complained that prison guards had beaten them, and, in a letter smuggled out of prison in early March, Maher wrote that torture and abuse of political detainees was rife.

Separately, on November 28, security forces broke into the home of Alaa Abdelfattah, another prominent secular activist, beating him and his wife as they took him into custody, even though he had publicly announced that he would respond to a prosecutor’s summons for his alleged role in organizing a protest without prior authorization. Abdelfattah, released on bail on March 23 after over 110 days in detention, including a period of over two months without appearing before a judge, continues to faces criminal charges based on these allegations.

Security forces have closed down numerous TV and print media affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamist currents and launched a far more wide-ranging assault on free expression. As you know, authorities detained three Al Jazeera English journalists in late December on scarcely credible charges of disseminating “false information” and belonging to a “terrorist organization.” Their case also involves 17 other journalists and opposition figures. In several court hearings to date, the state has been unable to produce a shred of credible evidence to support these charges, but the court has refused to dismiss the charges or even to release the journalists on bail. These arrests and prolonged detentions are but one small element of the Egyptian government’s expanding crackdown on the freedom of expression.

Also in January prosecutors referred 25 people to trial on charges of “insulting the judiciary.” The charges against academic and former Member of Parliament Amr Hamzawy related to a June 2013 Twitter message in which he criticized the “politicization” of the judiciary following the conviction of 43 staff members of pro-democracy organizations. In a separate case in January, authorities charged another prominent academic from the American University in Cairo, Emad Shahin, along with senior Muslim Brotherhood leaders, with alleged espionage and conspiring with foreign organizations to harm national security. Both Shahin and Hamzawy had been critical of President Mohamed Morsy’s government, but they also criticized the repression of the Brotherhood after the military removed Morsy from power.

Mr. Secretary, we could enumerate numerous other instances where the current Egyptian authorities have shown  little, if any, respect for their  obligation to uphold and protect the fundamental political rights that underlie any meaningful democracy. Even the one election that the authorities have held – the constitutional referendum – was marred by violations of the right to peaceful dissent.

As you know, the legislation to re-instate US funds to Egypt requires a certification that Cairo is “taking steps to support a democratic transition... and for the development of…basic freedoms, including civil society and the media.”  Under these circumstances, it is clear to us that an accurate appraisal of Egypt’s record since the military-backed government took control would conclude that, far from developing these basic freedoms, the Egyptian authorities are doing just the opposite. Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, who recently declared his candidacy for president, has made no indication that he intends to reverse course should he be elected.     

At a minimum, we suggest the Egyptian authorities would need to take the following steps to demonstrate any meaningful effort to develop basic freedoms:

  • issue a moratorium on the use of live ammunition against demonstrators and issue a directive calling on security forces to act in accordance with international human rights law and standards on the use of force;
  • release and drop charges against all those detained solely for exercising their rights to free expression, association, and peaceful assembly, including national and international media personnel arrested in the context of performing their duties as journalists and those detained solely for membership in the Muslim Brotherhood;
  • provide detainees with full due process rights, including establishing a clear evidentiary basis for finding any individual detainee guilty, regular access to counsel and family visits, and the opportunity to review evidence and mount a meaningful defense;
  • initiate investigations into security officials  suspected of torture or abuse of detainees;
  • provide a complete list of all those charged since July 3, their place of detention, and the charges against them, and provide international organizations with access to places of detention to conduct interviews with detainees;
  • amend Law 107 of 2013 restricting freedom of assembly to bring it in line with international standards on freedom of assembly and association, in particular abolishing provisions that give the Interior Ministry wide latitude to ban protests and forcibly disperse or arrest protesters;
  • cease harassment and persecution of opposition activists exercising their right to freedom of expression and peaceful assembly, including defamation campaigns and threats;
  • revoke the designation of the Muslim Brotherhood as a terrorist organization, particularly in the absence of any evidentiary basis on which such a designation has been made and any fair hearing to challenge these designations;
  • allow Muslim Brotherhood and Freedom and Justice Party affiliated candidates to peacefully contest and participate in forthcoming elections;  and
  • initiate independent criminal investigations into the apparently unlawful use of lethal force by security forces, particularly those responsible in the chain of command, in any killings since June 30, 2013, including at least 1,000 protesters killed in July and August 2013.

Each of these steps is an essential component for any determination that Egypt has taken meaningful steps to a democratic transition. Minor gestures that do not address these significant lapses in democratic governance, such as the release or dropping of charges of a few high-profile detainees, would only be cosmetic. Thank you for your consideration.

Sincerely,

Kenneth Roth

Executive Director

Human Rights Watch