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Egyptian authorities should drop threats to dismiss two senior judges protesting election fraud and investigate the violence and fraud that plagued elections last year, Human Rights Watch said today.

The organization also expressed grave concern about a police attack against peaceful demonstrators outside the Judges Club in the early hours of Monday morning. An eyewitness told Human Rights Watch that a large number of men, apparently plainclothes police, attacked around 40 persons who had been holding a round-the-clock vigil in support of the two judges threatened with dismissal. They beat 15 demonstrators and Judge Mahmud `Abd al-Latif Hamza, who came out from the club. The authorities detained 12 demonstrators for 15 days for investigation on charges of destroying public property.

“The government is punishing judges just for doing their job,” said Joe Stork, deputy director of the Middle East and North Africa division at Human Rights Watch. “It should be investigating the widespread evidence of voter intimidation, not shooting the messengers who reported the fraud.”

On April 16, Minister of Justice Mahmud Abu al-Lail ordered two judges, Mahmud Makki and Hisham al-Bastawisi, to appear before a disciplinary tribunal that will rule on their “competence,” ostensibly following a complaint from a fellow judge accused by the two of being complicit in vote-rigging.

Under Egypt’s Constitution, judges must certify election results. The Judges’ Club, the quasi-official professional association for members of the judiciary, refused to endorse the parliamentary elections in November and December after more than 100 judges reported irregularities at polling stations. Makki and al-Bastawisi, members of the Court of Cassation, Egypt’s highest appellate court, have been among the most vocal critics of electoral fraud.

The latest escalation in the conflict between the executive and the Judges’ Club prompted 50 judges to launch a sit-in protest at the club in central Cairo on April 18. They say they will maintain the protest until April 27, when Makki and al-Bastawisi are scheduled to appear before the disciplinary tribunal.

Earlier, on February 15, the Supreme Judicial Council stripped four judges of their judicial immunity, to allow State Security prosecutors to question them. The government has since charged the four - al-Bastawisi, Mahmoud Makki, his brother Ahmad Makki, and Mahmoud al-Khodairi, president of the Alexandria Judges’ Club - with “defaming the state.”

“These crude attempts to intimidate judges underscore the urgent need for judicial reform in Egypt,” Stork said.

The Cairo Judges’ Club has complained that the legislative committee working on drafting a new Judicial Authority Law is unaccountable and secretive. The club twice proposed legislation to grant the judicial branch more autonomy from the Ministry of Justice.

At present, the Ministry determines the composition of the Supreme Judicial Council, the body that nominates promotes, and assigns judges, by directly appointing eight of the council’s 15 seats. The executive also appoints three of the other seven members - the Attorney General, the Minister of State for Justice, and the head of the Court of Cassation.

The club’s proposed legislation would broaden the number of council members to include four more judges, to be elected by the judges of the courts they represent. Their proposal would also establish an independent budget for the judiciary, and allow members of the Court of Cassation to elect the chief justice, who would also serve as the chair of the Supreme Judicial Council. The proposed legislation designates the Judges’ Club as the official body representing Egyptian jurists.

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