Human Rights Watch writes to express our grave concern over the continued imprisonment of Ashraf Ibrahim, an engineer and antiwar activist, and the decision of the acting Higher State Security Prosecution Office Attorney General Osama `Abd al-Mon`im Ali on August 7, 2003, to bring his case before a Higher Emergency State Security Court. We are concerned that Ibrahim, and four other defendants who have been charged in this case but not yet detained, are being persecuted for attempting to exercise their basic rights to freedom of expression, and association, and to receive and share information concerning the defense of human rights and freedoms. We are particularly disturbed that these five defendants will be subjected to a trial that violates internationally recognized standards of due process.
We urge you to take immediate steps to ensure that Ashraf Ibrahim is released without delay, and that the charges against him and the four other defendants are dropped. We also urge your government to repeal or amend those provisions of Egypt's penal code, specifically articles 80 (d) and 86 bis, in order to bring Egyptian laws into compliance with Egypt's international human rights obligations. Finally, we urge that you seek the repeal of Egypt's emergency rule legislation and the attendant system of Emergency State Security courts.
The Prosecutor General's referral of these defendants to a Higher Emergency State Security Court can only be taken as confirmation that your government uses these courts primarily to punish political activism and dissent, even when that dissent is peaceful. The Higher Emergency State Security Courts are a product of the state of emergency under which Egypt has been governed, with only sporadic interruption, since the passage of Law No. 162 of 1958. That law, which gives the government extensive powers to suspend basic liberties, including arresting suspects at will and detaining them without trial for prolonged periods, permits the referral of civilians to military or exceptional state security courts. The government's use of Emergency State Security Courts, a parallel judicial system highly susceptible to government influence with no right to appeal to a higher judicial body, violates article 14 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which guarantees to every defendant the right to trial before a competent, independent, and impartial court, as well as the right to judicial review of verdicts.
State Security agents raided Ashraf Ibrahim's home, in his absence, on April 17, 2003. They seized his computer and other electronic equipment and papers, after searching the premises without presenting a warrant. (Reportedly, the warrant ultimately produced in the case file was actually dated April 18.) On April 19, Ashraf Ibrahim surrendered himself to State Security Investigations. He has been jailed since, and is now in Mahkoum Tora prison. For over three and one-half months, State Security prosecutors regularly renewed his detention without calling witnesses for questioning or preferring formal charges. During his interrogations, prosecutors reportedly told Ibrahim that he was being investigated for downloading information on human rights from the Internet and downloading material from the website of the al-Jazeera news service. On July 30, Ashraf Ibrahim began a hunger strike to protest the prolongation of his detention. No doctor visited him for the first five days of his hunger strike; the office of the prosecutor, mandated by law to confirm and monitor hunger strikes, did not visit him until the seventh day. During his hunger strike, Ibrahim was reportedly held in an inadequately ventilated and vermin-infested punishment cell, in solitary confinement. While he has reportedly abandoned his hunger strike now that charges have been brought, Human Rights Watch remains extremely concerned about his state of health, and urges that Ibrahim be transferred immediately to a facility that can provide him with appropriate medical care and that independent medical experts be allowed to visit him to evaluate his physical and mental condition.
On August 14, prosecutors pressed charges against Ibrahim and also against four other defendants: Nassir Faruq al-Bihiri, a researcher for the Land Center for Human Rights; Yahya Fikri Amin Zahra, an engineer; Mustafa Muhammad al-Basiuni, unemployed; and Remon Edward Gindi Morgan, a student. All defendants were charged under article 80 (d) of the Penal Code, which imposes a prison sentence of up to five years on any Egyptian who "deliberately discloses abroad false or tendentious news, information, or rumors about the country's internal situation," or who "carries out any activity aimed at damaging the national interest of the country." They were also charged under article 86 bis of the Penal Code, which punishes anyone who founds or joins an organization or association "the purpose of which is to call by any method for interrupting the provisions of the constitution or laws, or preventing any of the state's institutions or public authorities from carrying out their duties, or encroaching on the personal freedom of citizens or other freedoms and public rights as guaranteed by the constitution or the law, or impairing the national unity or social peace." Specifically, the first three defendants were accused of "holding leadership as members of the steering committee of the revolutionary socialists' group," while the fourth and fifth defendants are charged with joining such a group. Ashraf Ibrahim is also accused of "holding and possessing publications disseminating advocacy and propaganda for the group's purposes," and of "sending false information to foreign bodies-foreign human rights organizations-which include, contrary to the truth, violations of human rights within the country, the content of which weakened the position of the state."
These charges, and the provisions under which they are pressed, clearly violate the basic rights of these individuals and endanger fundamental freedoms. The breadth and vagueness of the laws in question place most forms of peaceful dissent from government policy under the pall of potential criminality. The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), to which Egypt became a party in 1982, guarantees, in its article 19, the right to freedom of expression, including "freedom to seek, receive and impart information and ideas of all kinds, regardless of frontiers, either orally, in writing or in print, in the form of art, or through any other media." It guarantees the rights of assembly and association in its articles 21 and 22. The prosecution of these defendants for their alleged political expression and activity egregiously violates all these provisions.
Particularly disturbing is the charge that Ashraf Ibrahim communicated with "foreign human rights organizations." The right to receive and share information concerning human rights is essential not only to the defense of individual liberties but to the functioning and survival of civil society. The United Nations' Declaration on Human Rights Defenders (adopted by the General Assembly in 1999) holds, in its article 5, that "Everyone has the right, individually and in association with others, at the national and international levels: (a) To meet or assemble peacefully; (b) To form, join and participate in non-governmental organizations, associations or groups; (c) To communicate with non-governmental or intergovernmental organizations." It also guarantees, under article 6, the right "to know, seek, obtain, receive and hold information about all human rights and fundamental freedoms;" " to publish, impart or disseminate to others views, information and knowledge on all human rights and fundamental freedoms;" and "to study, discuss, form and hold opinions on the observance, both in law and in practice, of all human rights and fundamental freedoms and, through these and other appropriate means, to draw public attention to those matters". The charge against Ashraf Ibrahim flouts all these principles.
Egypt's emergency legislation, which must be renewed every three years, had been due to expire in May 2003. Your government employed its overwhelming majority in the People's Assembly to force its early renewal on February 23, with little warning and only a day's debate. Since that time, your government has proposed, and the People's Assembly has approved, the elimination of State Security Courts created under Law 105 of 1980. However, the elimination of these courts leaves unchecked the operation of Emergency State Security Courts, whose verdicts are not subject to judicial appeal and can only be reviewed by the office of the president of the republic.
We urge you therefore to use your authority to ensure that the government immediately ends the prosecution of Ashraf Ibrahim, Nassir Faruq al-Bihiri, Yahya Fikri Amin Zahra, Mustafa Muhammad al-Basiuni, and Remon Edward Gindi Morgan for their attempts to exercise their fundamental rights to association and expression. Human Rights Watch also urges your government to repeal or amend articles 80(d) and 86 bis of the Penal Code to ensure that Egyptian laws are in compliance with international human rights provisions protecting the freedoms of expression and association, and the rights to seek, receive, and impart information and ideas. Human Rights Watch also urges your government to repeal Law No. 162 of 1958, and to bring to an end the state of emergency and the attendant system of Emergency State Security Courts.
We look forward to your response regarding these important matters.
Middle East & North Africa Division