1999 World Report Entry Human Rights Organizations Under Attack
Human Rights Defenders In Egypt Under Attack
Documentation of Torture Is Not a Crime Against State Security
(6 December 1998)-- As the 50th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights is being celebrated around the world, Human Rights Watch is deeply concerned about the harsh steps that Egyptian authorities have taken in recent days against the Egyptian Organization for Human Rights (EOHR), an independent Cairo-based nongovernmental organization. The actions are clear violations of the internationally recognized rights to freedom of expression and association. They appear designed to intimidate human rights activists throughout the country, and to silence investigation and reporting about the pattern of grave human rights abuses in Egypt.

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The accusations against Hafez Abu Sa'da constitute gross state interference in essential aspects of EOHR's work, and represent a direct threat to the entire human rights community in Egypt. Any human rights organization must be able to monitor, document, and freely disseminate information about rights violations if it is to carry out its mandate and function as an independent nongovernmental organization.

Virginia N. Sherry
Associate Director of the Middle East and North Africa Division of Human Rights Watch

On December 1, 1998, the state security prosecutor accused the secretary-general of EOHR, lawyer Hafez Abu Sa'da, of three criminal offenses: disseminating information abroad that harmed Egypt's national interests; accepting funds from a foreign country with the goal of carrying out acts harmful to Egypt; and receiving donations without government permission. He had been summoned to appear that day as a witness in the investigation opened on November 24 of the EOHR report published in September 1998, entitled "Collective punishment in al-Kosheh village: Random arrest, torture and degrading treatment of citizens." The investigation was launched in the wake of continuing publicity and controversy inside Egypt and internationally concerning police abuse of hundreds of mainly Christian residents in al-Kosheh, near Sohag in Upper Egypt, following the murder there of two Christians in August 1998. The investigation also included examination of financial support that EOHR received from abroad, based on allegations made in the Egyptian press that these funds financed the September report.

Abu Sa'da was questioned on December 1 in the presence of some but not all of his defense team, and then was ordered held for fifteen days in preventive detention while prosecutors continued the investigation. He was held incommunicado until December 5, when his wife was finally permitted to visit him in prison. He was released on bail on December 6, in the wake of mounting condemnation of his arrest in Egypt and international protests and publicity. As of this writing, the investigation of Abu Sa'da is not only continuing, but on December 6 the state security prosecutor summoned another EOHR lawyer, Mustafa Zeidan, for questioning. Zeidan conducted the fieldwork in Sohag that was the basis for EOHR's September report. Human rights defenders in Egypt believe that the stage is being set for a sustained and systematic state campaign to cripple and silence the country's growing human rights movement

A Direct Threat to the Human Rights Community in Egypt

The accusations against Hafez Abu Sa'da constitute gross state interference in essential aspects of EOHR's work, and represent a direct threat to the entire human rights community in Egypt. Any human rights organization must be able to monitor, document, and freely disseminate information about rights violations if it is to carry out its mandate and function as an independent nongovernmental organization. Human rights groups must be able to focus domestic and international attention on policies and practices of governments that depart from internationally recognized human rights standards, including the right to liberty and security of person, and the prohibitions against arbitrary arrest, torture, and cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment. A parallel aspect of the work is to press for accountability and an end to the impunity of abusive police and security forces and other violators of human rights. In EOHR's September report, it called on Egyptian authorities "to conduct impartial and independent judicial investigations into all allegations of torture" reported by residents of al-Kosheh village, and "to bring those responsible to justice." Human Rights Watch endorses this recommendation.

It is unconscionable that the state security prosecutor has lodged accusations against the head of a leading human rights organization for investigating and reporting police abuse of hundreds of citizens, including women and children. The reported abuse occurred during police operations following the murder of two Kosheh residents in August 1998. As a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), Egypt is obligated to respect and to ensure to all individuals within its territory the rights recognized in the covenant, including Article 19, which guarantees freedom of expression. Article 19 protects the right of individuals, including individuals who have joined in free association with others, to enjoy the freedom to receive and impart information and ideas of all kinds. The right to disseminate freely information about human rights abuses -- both domestically and to the international community -- is a critical component of freedom of expression, and should never be suppressed in the name of national security, public order, or harming the image of a state.

Human Rights Watch is also deeply concerned about mounting evidence that Egyptian authorities are seeking to control and restrict not only the activities of independent human rights organizations but also their sources of funding. The draft law on private associations that circulated earlier this year -- and is expected to be sent to the parliament later this month -- contained numerous provisions giving the executive branch of government virtually unlimited power to control the finances and budgets of independent NGOs. It required that NGOs obtain prior approval from administrative authorities before obtaining funds from abroad, and likewise permitted groups to solicit donations inside Egypt only after securing approval from the same authorities. The right to freedom of association guaranteed in Article 22 of the ICCPR includes the right to seek and obtain funds that would allow the functioning of an association and the carrying out of its mandate. While the state is entitled to ensure that NGOs conduct their activities and fundraising in a transparent and accountable manner, such regulation should be reasonable and not interfere with the exercise of the rights to freedom of association or expression. The accusations against Hafez Abu Sa'da are dangerous precedents which fundamentally imperil both of these rights.

The Broader Context: A Persistent Pattern of Rights Violations in Egypt

The state's attempt to intimidate and silence human rights defenders in Egypt is particularly troubling in light of the larger pattern of wide-ranging human rights abuses. The government of President Hosni Mubarak rules under a quasi-permanent state of emergency, which currently is in force until May 2000. Authorities have shown no sign of loosening the tight grip of Egypt's security apparatus, and documentation of its impunity -- including torture, deaths in custody, "disappearances," and abysmal prison conditions -- have filled the pages of reports published by EOHR and other Egyptian human rights organizations in 1998 and past years. Nor did the government take any significant steps to provide additional space to independent institutions, or peaceful political opponents and critics. The circulation earlier this year of a draft law governing private associations raised fears that the state sought to impose significant curbs on the activities of independent nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), and the Egyptian human rights community mobilized vigorously in 1998 to meet the challenge.

The practice of torture by police and security forces in Egypt is pervasive. Torture is employed routinely to obtain information and coerce confessions in cases ranging from ordinary criminal offenses to egregious acts of political violence. In addition, as the United Nations Committee against Torture observed in 1996 in the published conclusions of its inquiry on Egypt, torture is also used "as a form of retaliation to destroy the personality of the person arrested in order to intimidate and frighten the family or the group to which the person arrested belongs." Egyptians throughout the country, irrespective of gender, age, religious belief, and political orientation continue to fall victim to indiscriminate brutality at the hands of state agents, which in some cases has led to deaths in custody.

At least twice in 1998, deaths of ordinary Egyptians in police custody under torture led to violent confrontations with police. On April 9, for example, residents of Belqas, in Daqahliyah province, clashed with police following the death of twenty-four-year-old Wahid el-Sayid Ahmed Abdallah, who was arrested on suspicion of theft. He was brought to the local police station, bound, and then "whipped and beaten with sticks and the butt of a machine gun," and electric-shocked on "the ears, nipples and penis," according to a detailed EOHR report. An officer and other policemen returned the body to the family, saying only that Wahid had lost consciousness. When the family realized that he was dead, they brought the body back to the police station, where authorities initially refused to accept it and prepare a report. Family members, including Wahid's grandmother and three aunts, were arrested before police permitted the body to be buried under tight security. During the burial, several hundred residents assembled at the police station, calling for the prosecution of the officer who had ordered the torture. Angry citizens threw stones at the police and public buildings and burned tires in the streets. Security forces shot rubber bullets and tear gas and beat residents with clubs and gun butts. One man was killed, others, including police, were injured, and at least thirty-three were arrested.

In the EOHR report issued in May 1998, following the violence in Belqas, it charged that "torture and ill-treatment have become systematic and widely practiced by policemen during the interrogation of suspects....The most widespread acts of torture are the use of electric currents and hanging the victim in the position of a slaughtered animal." EOHR also noted that police abuse also included the detention and torture of relatives both to obtain information and force the surrender of suspects. Human Rights Watch documented this practice of "hostage-taking" in a report published in January 1995, and called upon the Egyptian government to take immediate action to put a stop to this egregious human rights abuse.

The files also remain open on tens of cases of individuals who "disappeared" in the 1990s, most of them taken into custody by security forces and never seen again. In August 1998, both EOHR and the Human Rights Center for the Assistance of Prisoners issued reports on the subject, documenting individual cases. The only official response to families who submitted written inquires has been that their relatives are not being held in any Egyptian prison.

Recommendations Human Rights Watch calls upon Egyptian authorities to cease immediately the harassment of the human rights community in Egypt, and to redirect the attention of prosecutors and the judicial apparatus to expeditious and effective investigations of allegations of acts of torture. We specifically recommend that the Egyptian government:

  • Cease the arrest and detention of human rights lawyers and activists for work related to the defense of universally recognized human rights standards.
  • Halt state security prosecutors' investigations into the legitimate and internationally recognized work of Egyptian human rights defenders, and close the files of these investigations.
  • Uphold and protect the right of Egypt's human rights defenders to exercise fully freedom of expression and association, in particular the right to seek, receive and impart information about human rights abuses.
  • Refrain immediately from all forms of intimidation and harassment of human rights organizations.
  • Refrain in the future from equating the exercise of freedom of expression -- particularly in the form of human rights research, information dissemination, and advocacy -- with crimes against state security.
  • Ensure that any proposed legislation governing nongovernmental organizations does not place unwarranted or unreasonable restrictions that would constitute interference with the exercise of the right to freedom of association.
  • Fulfill the state's obligations under international law to prevent acts of torture by police and security forces; to conduct prompt and impartial investigations of alleged acts of torture; and to prosecute and punish perpetrators of and accomplices to acts of torture, with penalties that reflect the grave nature of these crimes.
*** This report was written by Virginia N. Sherry, associate director of the Middle East and North Africa Division of Human Rights Watch.
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