An Egyptian emergency court today acquitted antiwar activist and political dissident Ashraf Ibrahim of all charges, including sending “false information” about Egypt’s human rights violations to foreign organizations, Human Rights Watch said today. This judicial victory underscores the need for Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak to repeal the country’s emergency legislation.
“Ashraf Ibrahim spent almost a year in prison simply because the government didn’t like his political views or activities,” said Joe Stork, acting executive director of Human Rights Watch’s Middle East and North Africa division. “If President Mubarak is serious about political reform, he should make sure that this was Egypt’s last emergency court trial.”
Ibrahim was arrested on April 19, 2003, under Egypt’s emergency legislation, which allows indefinite arbitrary detention. The state’s indictment in August charged him and four others not in custody with leading a banned “Revolutionary Socialists Group” and with “possessing printed material relating to the Revolutionary Socialists intended for distribution.”
The indictment charged Ibrahim specifically with “harming Egypt's reputation by spreading abroad false information regarding the internal affairs of the country to foreign bodies—foreign human rights organizations—which includes, contrary to the truth, violations of human rights within the country.”
Unlike Ibrahim, the other four defendants were not in custody, but were also acquitted today in the High Security Court. They are Nasr Farouq al-Bahiri, Yahya Fikri Amin Zahra, Mustafa Muhammad al-Basiuni and Rimon Edward Gindi Morgan.
Ibrahim’s defense team argued during the trial that prosecutors had targeted him because he monitored police brutality in Cairo against anti-war protestors who demonstrated in March 2003 against the U.S-led invasion of Iraq. He was also active in a solidarity committee that collected food and medical aid for Palestinians in the Gaza Strip, and organized peaceful protests against Israeli policies in the Occupied Territories.
During Ibrahim’s trial, prosecutors failed to present evidence to substantiate the charge that he had passed information to international human rights organizations. As a state
party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, Egypt is obligated to protect the right to exchange information freely.
Ibrahim’s legal defense disputed the credibility of evidence alleged to have been collected during a search of Ibrahim’s home in April 2003. A panel of court-appointed computer experts testified that police had accessed the hard drive of Ibrahim’s computer when it was in their possession, raising the possibility that the state had tampered with evidence that it claimed was on the computer. The experts said the computer that was presented as evidence in the trial could not have been the computer described in the prosecution charge sheet.
Throughout Ibrahim’s trial, the prosecution relied heavily on unnamed sources to support its allegation that Ibrahim was a leader of a secret “Revolutionary Socialists Group” calling for a socialist government in Egypt. At the same time, the government alleged that Ibrahim was planning to form such a group, suggesting that such a group did not currently exist.
Defense lawyers noted that the Egyptian Constitution stipulates in Articles 1 and 4 that Egypt is “democratic and socialist state,” and that Article 59 considers “safeguarding, consolidating and preserving the socialist gains” a “national duty.”
On February 29, the Egyptian Ministry of Interior implied in a memo to Human Rights Watch that other human rights activists in Egypt may face charges similar to those leveled against Ibrahim. The memo accused the Egyptian Association Against Torture, a nongovernmental organization, of “an attempt to sabotage the Ministry’s efforts and its applied policy and defame it in front of public opinion at home and abroad.” The memo said that this organization had joined Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International in a “suspect organized campaign against the country in the field of human rights, especially if the politicization of human rights is taken into account.”
The Egyptian Association Against Torture was formed in 2003 to combat the spread of torture in Egypt’s criminal justice system. On September 24, 2003, the Ministry of Social Affairs wrote to the association explaining its earlier decision to reject the group’s application to register as a nongovernmental organization. Interior Ministry officials claimed that Egypt’s Constitution does not permit civil associations to engage in advocacy on legislation. The letter also stated that “joining international networks under any pretext or name as well as the formation of pressure groups to lobby decision-makers is considered a breach of public order first and the law second.”
“Despite today’s acquittal, Ibrahim’s lengthy detention on politically motivated charges and the veiled threat against Egypt’s anti-torture campaigners show that basic political rights in Egypt are still at risk,” Stork said.
Egypt has been governed by state of emergency legislation almost continuously since 1958. The emergency law gives the government extensive powers to suspend basic liberties, including powers to arrest suspects at will and detain them without trial for prolonged periods, and to refer civilians to military or exceptional state security courts. These tribunals allow no appeal to a higher judicial body. Their verdicts can only be overturned or modified by the President of the Republic.
Article 80(d) of Egypt’s Penal Code imposes a minimum sentence of six months and up to five years on “any Egyptian who deliberately disclosed 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.”
Article 86(bis) of the Penal Code, passed as part of antiterrorist legislation in 1992, sets criminal penalties for any person who established, ran, joined or possessed and distributed publications of any organization or association or group that calls for suspending the constitution or laws, preventing one of the state institutions or a public authority from fulfilling its activities, or “impairing the national unity or social peace.”