)--In the wake of mounting protests in Egypt's countryside, Human Rights Watch in a letter sent calls on the Egyptian authorities to cease their suppression of peaceful political protest against a controversial law which, when it goes into effect in October, will lift rent control and ease evictions of tenants on agricultural land.
Human Rights Watch urges the government to release protest organizers detained under counter-terrorism legislation, including a human rights activist, three lawyers and a journalist, and to investigate and prosecute instances where detained activists have been beaten and otherwise abused. The organization also demands the government halt its harassment of the relatives of protest leaders.
A copy of the letter is attached.
August 23, 1997
His Excellency Hosni Mubarak
President of the Arab Republic of Egypt
c/o His Excellency Ahmed Maher El Sayed
Embassy of the Arab Republic of Egypt
3251 International Court, N.W.
Washington, DC 20008
Human Rights Watch is increasingly concerned about measures taken by Egyptian authorities to thwart peaceful protests against Law No. 96 of 1992. This law, scheduled to go into effect in October, abolishes rent control on agricultural land and permits landowners to evict tenant farmers. Farmers themselves, and various opposition groups, have organized protests against the law.
Protests have occasionally been violent; several government-owned agricultural cooperatives have been burned. According to the independent Land Center for Human Rights, thirteen people have been killed and over sixty have been injured in rural unrest. However, those who have protested peacefully have also been targeted for intimidation, arrest and harassment. Hundreds of tenant farmers and supporters have been detained, over 150 of whom remain in detention. Farmers interviewed by Human Rights Watch in July described a campaign led by State Security Investigation (SSI) personnel, local police, and landowners to suppress protest by forcing farmers to remove black flags symbolizing opposition to the law, detaining local activists without charge, interfering with peaceful demonstrations by rounding up leaders ahead of planned days of protest, and threatening farmers if they involved themselves in protest activities.
Human Rights Watch has on two occasions in recent months written Your Excellency about the arrest and ill-treatment of activists peacefully protesting this law. On May 15, we sent a letter protesting the detention of Cairo University Professor Ahmed al-Ahwany, arrested on April 24 after photocopying a paper critical of the reform law. Al-Ahwany was charged under provisions of the Penal Code prohibiting the dissemination of "false or biased news" and "inciteful propaganda," and ordered held by the State Security Prosecutor for thirty days.
On June 27, we again wrote Your Excellency, this time regarding the arrest of four other agrarian activists. In the early morning hours of June 17, in a coordinated operation, separate groups of SSI officers in Cairo and in Qalyoubiya province arrested journalist Hamdin Sabbahi, director of Al-Watan Al-Arabi Information Center, lawyers Hamdi Haikal and Muhammad Fayad, and veterinarian Muhammad Abdu. They were charged under Articles 86(bis) and 86(bis)(a) of the Penal Code--provisions introduced by 1992 counter-terrorism
legislation--for "promoting ideas intended to incite a social class to use violence against other classes," "acquiring printed materials prepared for distribution" furthering those ideas, and related charges. These activists remain in detention more than two months after their arrest.
Human Rights Watch thus received with concern the news that Sayyid Ahmad Al-Toukhi, a twenty-nine-year-old lawyer and researcher at the Egyptian Organization for Human Rights (EOHR), was arrested on August 9 at Cairo International Airport, apparently for his involvement in opposing the land law. Egyptian authorities first attempted to arrest Al-Toukhi on June 17, the day that Sabbahi and his colleagues were arrested. According to our information, Al-Toukhi was for several years a member of the Nasserist party and a leader of its youth movement, and has recently been involved in the campaign against Law 96. For example, last June, Al-Toukhi attended a political conference in Banha in Qalyoubiya province to discuss the impact of Law No. 96.
According to the EOHR, which is monitoring the case, State Security Prosecutors issued a fifteen-day detention order for Al-Toukhi, also charging him under Article 86(bis) of the Penal Code. Human Rights Watch has previously protested arrests of activists on the basis of vaguely worded charges such as those that appear in Article 86(bis), which we find in conflict with the right of freedom of expression guaranteed in Article 19 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, to which Egypt is a party.
According to testimony that we obtained, SSI targeted Al-Toukhi's family--detaining two of his brothers, and beating one of them--in the weeks before his arrest as a means of discovering Sayyid's whereabouts and pressuring him to give himself up. Human Rights Watch has extensively documented this particular practice of SSI, and we are disturbed to learn that it continues.
Al-Toukhi Ahmad Al-Toukhi, the brother of the detained activist, told Human Rights Watch that on June 17, the night of the arrest of Sabbahi and his three colleagues, a group of three plainclothes officers of the SSI, accompanied by about twenty armed conscripts, broke down the door to the family home at 2 am. The frightened family members awoke to find strangers in their home asking, "Where is Sayyid?" Though Sayyid was not at home at the time, SSI officers searched the house and took several documents belonging to him. After Sayyid's brother Al-Toukhi Ahmad asked to see an arrest warrant, the officers arrested him and took him outside. They blindfolded him, detained him for two hours in the Qalyoubiya SSI office, and then transferred him to the Gabr ibn Hayyan SSI office in Giza. While interrogating him about Sayyid's whereabouts, Hamdin Sabbahi's activities, and his own political role in the agrarian protest movement, guards beat him on the head with shoes and on different parts of his body with a belt.
A week later, about fourteen security force members entered the family home at 1:00 a.m. looking for Sayyid. Al-Toukhi Ahmad's mother, who attempted to resist this force, was pushed to the ground. Her screams alerted neighbors and the force withdrew hastily from the scene, taking Sayyid's eleven-year-old brother whom they detained overnight. When his elder brother Al-Toukhi Ahmad went to fetch him the following morning, the child was released in exchange for Al-Toukhi, who was held for another twelve hours and then released.
Human Rights Watch is also concerned about reports that some of the detained activists have been abused while in prison. In our letter of June 27, we wrote that on June 18 a large number of security personnel under the supervision of police officer Muhammad Muhammad Salim beat the four activists mentioned above (Sabbahi, Haikal, Fayad, and Abdu) for four hours with sticks, fists and boots, according to Sabbahi. Prosecutor General Raga Al-Arabi has opened a file on the beatings, which included an official forensic medical examination of the four and the questioning of the victims and witnesses. Though two months have passed since the incident, Human Rights Watch has received no information about the outcome of the prosecutor general's investigation or about steps taken to bring those suspected of abuse to justice.
More recently, Human Rights Watch has received reports that prison guards in Mahkoum Al-Tora prison, where Sayyid Al-Toukhi was held for a number of days, shaved his head and locked him in a cell full of rubbish during the night of August 12. Two days later, the State Security Prosecutor denied the EOHR permission to visit Al-Toukhi. Al-Toukhi is currently in Tora Mazra'a prison, where an EOHR representative was finally able to visit him on August 20.
Human Rights Watch is also concerned that Egyptian authorities may have intentionally misled lawyers for Sabbahi, Haikal, Fayad and Abdu in order to prevent their appearance at an August 14 court hearing to extend their clients' detention order for another forty-five days. Defense lawyers followed instructions to appear at the North Giza Court. However, the lawyers later learned that the South Giza Court--which according to EOHR Secretary-General Mohammad Monieb did not have jurisdiction over the case--had ruled in favor of the prosecution without the attendance of any defense lawyers at a hearing held before regular court hours.
Human Rights Watch respectfully urges Egyptian authorities to respect international human rights standards that guarantee freedom of expression, including the right of citizens peacefully to protest government policies. We condemn the continuing attempts by the state to intimidate activists and tenant farmers who seek to challenge in a peaceful manner the implementation of Law No. 96. Human Rights Watch calls for the release of lawyers Sayyid Ahmad al-Toukhi, Hamdi Haikal and Muhammad Fayad, journalist Hamdin Sabbahi, and veterinarian Muhammad Abdu. We further recommend a full, prompt, and transparent official investigation of the beating and other ill-treatment of these detainees in prison, and prosecution of all security personnel involved in ordering or carrying out the abuse. We further call upon Egyptian authorities to investigate SSI's practice of harassing family members, including hostage-taking of children, detentions, and beatings, meant to put pressure on relatives to turn themselves in, and to bring these practices to an immediate halt.
We thank you for your consideration and welcome your comments.
Acting Executive Director
cc: His Excellency Farouq Sayf Al-Nasr, Minister of Justice
His Excellency Hassan Al-Alfi, Minister of Interior
Prosecutor-General Raga Al-Arabi
Ms. Naela Gabr, Human Rights Department, Ministry of Foreign Affairs
Ambassador Ahmed Maher El Sayed