In a statement made today, six international human rights organizations condemned the referral of prominent human rights defender Hafez Abu Sa'ada before an (Emergency) Supreme State Security Court (ESSSC) which denies defendants the most basic right -- the right to a fair trial.
"The case of Hafez Abu Sa'ada, General Secretary of the Egyptian Organization for Human Rights (EOHR), clearly suggests that the Egyptian authorities are trying to muzzle human rights defenders in Egypt," the international human rights organizations said. They further noted that this alarming development occurs as Egyptian human rights organizations await with concern the implementation of the controversial NGO law of 1999 regulating status and activities of nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) in Egypt.
Hafez Abu Sa'ada has been charged with accepting a check of about $25,000 from the British embassy in 1998 without giving required notification to the authorities. According to official sources, he will be charged under military decree No. 4/1992, which was issued by the prime minister in 1992, carrying imprisonment of at least seven years.
"The charges against Hafez Abu Sa'ada appear to be connected to EOHR's critical reporting on cases of human rights violations in Egypt," the human rights organizations stressed.
First investigations into the case took place a few weeks after EOHR had published a highly sensitive report on human rights violations which had occurred in the summer of 1998 in the predominantly Coptic Christian village of al-Kushh, Upper Egypt.
The initial charges against EOHR were based on "accepting funds from a foreign country with the aim of carrying out acts that would harm Egypt, receiving donations without obtaining permission from the competent authorities, [and of] disseminating false information abroad that would harm the country's national interests."
Investigations led to Hafez Abu Sa'ada's detention between 1 December and 6 December 1998, when he was released on bail after widespread protest by human rights organizations in Egypt and abroad. At the World Conference in Paris to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in December 1998, he arrived after five days' detention in Tora Prison, Cairo. He was held in a cell of 2m by 2m with his head shaved and in prison clothes.
Amnesty International, the Euro-Mediterranean Human Rights Network, Human Rights Watch, the International Federation of Human Rights, the Observatory for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders, and the World Organization Against Torture are calling upon the Egyptian authorities:
- to drop the criminal prosecution against Hafez Abu Sa'ada.
- to stop the use of exceptional (Emergency) Supreme State Security Court (ESSSC) - which allows no right of appeal.
- to ensure that human rights defenders in Egypt can work in an environment without interference and harassment in accordance with the spirit of the UN Human Rights Defenders Declaration of 1998.
Military decree No. 4/1992 is based on the state of emergency legislation and prohibits the collection or receipt of donations without prior approval of the authorities. Article 2 of that decree stipulates imprisonment of at least seven years for violations of the decree. Egypt has been ruled under a state of emergency since 1981. The state of emergency, which has been regularly extended by presidential decree, expires in May 2000.
EOHR has been operating under difficult conditions for many years. Since its establishment in 1985, the organization has not been able to obtain official registration and has continued to operate "in formation." EOHR has recently applied for official registration under the new NGO law of 1999.
EOHR reported in January 2000 that it had learned by coincidence of an administrative decree issued in September 1999 which imposes a ban on the organization's journal "Huquq al-Insan" (Human Rights) as well as on several publications of other institutions. The ban on EOHR's publication has so far not been enforced, but became known while EOHR was preparing a report on an incident of sectarian violence which occurred in the village of al-Kushh at the beginning of this year and left more than 20 people dead.
In May 1999 the Egyptian Parliament passed a new law, Law No. 153/1999, regulating the status of civil associations and institutions in Egypt. The law was criticized by national and international human rights organizations for giving the authorities far-reaching controls over nongovernmental organizations' (NGO) activities, including the work of Egyptian human rights groups. Cause for serious concern included that the law provides a set of criminal penalties, including a maximum sentence of one year in prison, for offenses that might amount to no more than the exercise of freedom of association.
The UN Human Rights Defenders Declaration of 1998 recognizes the rights and responsibilities of human rights defenders and requires governments to create an environment in which they can work without interference and harassment. Article 6 of the Declaration states: "Everyone has the right, individually and in association with others:
(a) To know, seek, obtain, receive and hold information about all human rights and fundamental freedoms, including having access to information as to how these rights and freedoms are given effect in domestic legislative, judicial or administrative systems;
(b) As provided in human rights and other applicable international instruments, freely to publish, impart or disseminate to others views, information and knowledge of all human rights and fundamental freedoms."
For more information contact:
Virginia Sherry, Human Rights Watch (NY): 212-216-1231
Hanny Megally, Human Rights Watch (NY): 212-216-1230