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The Egyptian government’s abrupt extension by two years of the country’s decades-old state of emergency shows contempt for the rule of law, Human Rights Watch said today. Parliament rushed through the extension on May 26 with little debate and despite vociferous objections from the opposition and rights groups.

Egypt has been governed under emergency law almost continuously since 1967, and without interruption since Hosni Mubarak became president in October 1981 after the assassination of president Anwar Sadat. The law has been repeatedly renewed since then. The law gives the executive – in practice the Ministry of Interior – extensive powers to suspend basic rights such as prohibiting demonstrations, censoring newspapers, monitoring personal communications, and detaining people indefinitely without charge. Egyptian defense attorneys and human rights groups say about 5,000 people currently remain in long-term detention without charge or trial. Some prisoners held under the emergency law have been in jail for more than a decade.

“By extending the state of emergency, Cairo has once again run roughshod over the rule of law,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East and North Africa director at Human Rights Watch. “The emergency today in Egypt is a government that refuses to govern without routinely resorting to extreme measures that deprive people of basic freedoms.”

On May 20, 2008, Egypt’s official National Council for Human Rights said in a statement, “Nothing any longer justifies the extension of the state of emergency, all the more so as Egypt is experiencing a period of stability.”

Top government officials, including Mubarak, have repeatedly said that they would not seek to renew the state of emergency beyond its expiration on May 31, 2008. Since Mubarak’s 2005 election campaign promises that the law would be replaced by new counterterrorism legislation, his government has renewed the law twice, in May 2006 and again this week.

Emergency Law No. 162 was first passed in 1958 but not implemented until 1967. It permits the executive to refer civilians to military or exceptional state security courts, whose composition is determined by the president and where the accused has no right of appeal, in violation of international fair trial standards. In February 2006, days after a civilian court dismissed all criminal charges against Khairat al Shatir, deputy supreme guide of the Muslim Brotherhood, and 15 other senior members of the group, President Mubarak, acting in his capacity as commander-in-chief, transferred their cases and those of 24 other persons to a military tribunal. On April 15, 2008, the military tribunal sentenced Shatir and 24 other civilians to prison terms of up to 10 years.

The emergency law allows authorities to prohibit strikes, demonstrations and public meetings; censor or close down newspapers and other media, and monitor private letters and phone calls. On April 6 and 7, 2008, security forces prevented textile workers from striking in the Nile delta city of Mahalla, violently dispersed protests against rising costs of food and basic goods, and detained scores, including many online activists who had promoted the strike. When Egypt’s prosecutor-general ordered the release of 20 detainees a week later, the Interior Ministry invoked the emergency law to re-arrest them, according to news reports.

The government of President Gamal Abd al-Nasser drafted the emergency law to be used during war, internal disturbances or natural disasters that endanger public security or public order.

On Monday, Prime Minister Ahmed Nazif told the Egyptian parliament that “Ordinary laws are not sufficient to resist terrorism,” adding that the government had not had time to prepare counterterrorism legislation. Six months earlier, in December 2007, the counterterrorism law’s drafting committee told Human Rights Watch that it was near-complete.

Human Rights Watch has called for the planned counterterrorism law to abolish the administrative detention regime provided for under emergency rule, as well as guarantee the protection of basic rights of speech, association, assembly, and the right to a fair trial. The government in March 2007 held a hastily scheduled referendum to approve constitutional amendments which effectively waive protections against arbitrary search and seizure in cases the government designates as terrorism-related.

“If and when Cairo finally introduces its long-awaited counterterrorism legislation, it should allow time for a full parliamentary and public debate,” Whitson said. “It shouldn’t resort to its usual practice of railroading the law through a compliant parliament that owes its large government majority to tainted elections.”

A day after the extension, on May 27, Egyptian authorities reportedly arrested up to 18 members of the Muslim Brotherhood on charges of belonging to a banned group.

As a state party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), which it ratified in 1982, Egypt is obligated to ensure that everyone has the right to liberty and security of person. The covenant says that, “No one shall be subjected to arbitrary arrest or detention. No one shall be deprived of his liberty except on such grounds and in accordance with such procedure as are established by law.” Egypt also has a legal obligation to ensure that, “no one shall be subjected to arbitrary or unlawful interference with his privacy, family, home or correspondence.”

In November 2002, the United Nations Human Rights Committee recommended that Egypt lift its “permanent state of emergency.” That same month, the UN Committee Against Torture concluded that “the fact that a state of emergency has been in force since 1981” hindered “the full consolidation of the rule of law in Egypt.”

In a May 14, 2008 joint statement, 14 Egyptian human rights organization called for “an end to the epoch of emergency,” and warned that the lack of legislative supervision or judicial review over the executive branch’s powers under the emergency law had eroded “the legal foundations of the state.”

Egypt was elected to the UN Human Rights Council in May 2007, after making 31 specific pledges relating to “the full realization of human rights and fundamental freedoms for all, emphasizing, in this respect, the promotion of democracy, rule of law and good governance.” Egypt’s pledges included ”lifting the current state of emergency upon the completion and adoption of a new anti-terrorism legislation, the objective of which is to achieve the delicate balance between protecting the security of the society and the respect of human rights,” and “preserv[ing] the freedom of the press [and] the independence of the judiciary.”

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