10 Downing Street
November 4th, 2015
Dear Prime Minister,
We write to you ahead of President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi of Egypt’s official visit to the United Kingdom. In our judgement, President al-Sisi presides over the worst human rights crisis in Egypt in decades. Given the scale and gravity of these human rights violations in Egypt, we urge you to press President al-Sisi, privately and publicly, to take immediate and concrete steps to end them and to ensure that Egypt adheres to its international legal obligations.
We recognize that Egypt faces a serious threat from an affiliate of the armed extremist group Islamic State and other actors, and that ongoing attacks on members of the security forces in North Sinai governorate have also killed and injured civilians. Yet it is false, as Egypt’s leaders often claim, that all those who express opposition to the government are terrorists or threats to national security. Moreover, it is deeply counter-productive to Egypt’s purported counter-terrorism efforts.
The Egyptian leadership’s continuing heavy-handed and abusive measures have included arbitrary arrests, forced disappearances, travel bans, possible extrajudicial killings, military trials, hundreds of death sentences and a counterterrorism law that defines terrorism so broadly as to encompass civil disobedience. It is clear that al-Sisi’s government is using the threat of terrorism as an excuse to stifle political opposition and further erode rights. The democratic freedoms that you personally supported in Egypt after 2011 will not return until al-Sisi’s government allows the free and peaceful exercise of opposition and ends these serious violations of human rights. We set out some of our principal concerns below.
Accountability for the mass killing of protestors
After al-Sisi orchestrated the ousting of former president Morsy on July 3, 2013, security forces killed an estimated 1,150 demonstrators in five incidents that July and August. The worst of these occurred on August 14, when Egyptian police, supported by the army, crushed the main pro-Morsy sit-in at Cairo’s Rab`a al-Adawiya Square. Using armoured personnel carriers, bulldozers, ground forces and snipers, they opened fire on demonstrators, including women and children, killing at least 817 people. These killings amounted to probable crimes against humanity. Yet nearly two years on, the Egyptian authorities have not charged a single officer or official with a crime or taken other measures to ensure meaningful accountability. The government-appointed fact-finding committee that published its report on the killings in November 2014 completely exonerated the government. Your government should support the establishment of an international inquiry at the United Nations Human Rights Council, to look into these crimes and identify those responsible for them.
Mass arrests and detention and abuses in detention
The Egyptian security forces detained, charged or sentenced at least 41,000 people in cases connected to the political upheaval between Morsy’s ousting in July 2013 and April 2014, many because of their alleged support for or association with the Muslim Brotherhood, according to the most thorough research undertaken by activists on the ground. Many arrests were merely for acts such as attending peaceful protests or membership in the Muslim Brotherhood or other political groups. These arrests have strained Egypt’s prisons and aggravated the already highly overcrowded conditions in the police stations and other facilities where the Interior Ministry now holds detainees, many of them without trial. At least 124 people have died in the custody of the security services between July 2013 and June 2015, including lawyers and former members of parliament, according to a credible account by an Egyptian human rights group. Local human rights groups continue to allege the regular use of torture by police and members of the Interior Ministry’s National Security Agency. In January of this year, a major human rights law firm said that its lawyers had handled 465 cases of torture between October 2013 and August 2014, including 129 beatings that led to death.
Egypt’s judges have regularly approved lengthy periods of pre-trial detention for accused Muslim Brotherhood members and activists who oppose the government, while readily granting release on bail to members of the security forces and supporters of al-Sisi accused of human rights and other crimes.
Mass trials, military trials of civilians, and death sentences
The harsh crackdown and arrest campaign that began after July 2013 has sent numerous secular activists to prison, including human rights lawyer Mahienour al-Masry, April 6 Youth Movement co-founder Ahmed Maher, and blogger Alaa Abdel Fattah. Other secular activists have been sentenced to long prison terms in mass trials. In February 2015, a judge sentenced activist Ahmed Douma, women’s rights defender Hend al-Nafea, and 228 others to life imprisonment for participating in a December 2011 protest.
Many members of the Muslim Brotherhood, including its leaders, have also been prosecuted under al-Sisi’s rule. Judges have handed down at least 670 death sentences and as many or more sentences of life imprisonment, many after mass trials involving alleged Brotherhood supporters and other Islamists. In separate decisions on June 16, a criminal court recommended the death penalty for 115 people, including Morsy, the academic Emad Shahin, and several top Brotherhood officials.
In October 2014, al-Sisi issued a decree expanding military court jurisdiction to all “public and vital facilities” for two years. Since then, at least 3,700 civilians have been charged or sentenced in these courts, which typically deny defendants the rights to be informed of the charges against them, access a lawyer and be brought promptly before a judge following arrest.
Clampdown on civil society
The Sisi government has stepped up its repression of civil society organisations and severely restricted their ability to operate, while 18 journalists are behind bars, a record number according to the Committee to Protect Journalists. On June 9, Social Solidarity Ministry employees tasked by a judge overseeing an investigation into the foreign funding of local NGOs visited the Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies to request information about their finances and registration. On July 30, Egyptian NGOs announced that the judge had ordered investigators to inspect the Hisham Mubarak Law Center as well. The Ministry employees had visited the Egyptian Democratic Academy earlier this year, after which several Academy staff were banned from travel outside Egypt. In November 2014, al-Sisi approved an amendment to the penal code allowing for a sentence of up to life in prison for anyone who receives foreign funding with intent to harm the country. In June 2014, the Social Solidarity Ministry presented a draft law on associations that would give the government’s security forces veto power over NGO activities as well as their registration and funding. In face of this ongoing government clamp down on civil society, several high-profile independent groups have either closed down sensitive aspects of their operations or relocated their operations outside Egypt.
In October 2014, following an attack on an Egyptian army checkpoint in the Sinai Peninsula by the insurgent group Ansar Beit al-Maqdis, which would later pledge loyalty to the Islamic State, Prime Minister Ibrahim Mehleb ordered the eviction of a 79-square-kilometre zone on the border with the Gaza Strip, encompassing the town of Rafah. An 84-page report released by Human Rights Watch in September 2015 documented how evictions in Rafah actually began in July 2013, following Morsy’s removal, and dramatically accelerated in October 2014 after the attack, resulting in at least 3,200 families losing their homes, farmland and much of their property.
The Egyptian authorities provided residents with little or no warning of the evictions, no temporary housing, mostly inadequate compensation for their destroyed homes – none at all for their farmland – and no effective way to challenge their eviction, home demolition, or compensation. These actions violated protections for forcibly evicted residents that are laid out in United Nations and African conventions to which Egypt is a party, and may also have violated the laws of war, Human Rights Watch found.
We urge you to raise these issues in your upcoming meeting with President al-Sisi and in other contacts with the Egyptian government and to press Egyptian officials to address them. We hope that you can also impress on the President that the establishment of closer relations between the United Kingdom and Egypt are critically dependent on his government achieving real progress in these areas.
UK Director of Human Rights Watch