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Egypt: Hundreds Still Held Over Gaza Protests

Blogger Who Criticized Israeli Policies Detained Incommunicado for Almost 3 Weeks

(New York) - Egyptian authorities should immediately charge or free Diaa Eddin Gad, a blogger held since February 6, 2009, Human Rights Watch said today. Gad is among a number of bloggers and activists arrested in relation to protest in Egypt since the beginning of the Gaza offensive in late December 2008.

"Apparently it's not enough for the Egyptian government to imprison its own critics," said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East and North Africa director at Human Rights Watch. "It is now intent on silencing Egyptians who criticize Israel as well."

Gad, a 23-year-old student whose writings on his blog, "An Angry Voice," had been critical of Egypt's tacit support of Israel's attacks on Gaza and of Egypt's decision to close its Rafah crossing into Gaza, had attended a demonstration in Cairo protesting  the Gaza offensive. On February 6, four State Security Intelligence (SSI) officers seized him outside his family's home in Qutour, in Gharbiyya province.

Gad's mother, Amal Abdel Fattah Taha, told Human Rights Watch how she heard him shout for her and saw a police car driving away, followed by a private car. She spent 18 days trying to locate him and contacted a lawyer, who filed a complaint before the public prosecutor on February 9 against arbitrary arrest and incommunicado detention. On February 23, the assistant public prosecutor told his mother to go to the SSI headquarters in Lazoughli, where they would allow her to take her son home. When she got there, the officers told her that her son was writing criticisms of President Hosni Mubarak and that he was "being taught a lesson."

"They told me, ‘When we finish with him, we'll give him to you,'" Abdel Fattah said. The following day, the office of the public prosecutor told her that Gad was in the Qata prison, in Giza.

"The recent release of Ayman Nour is no veil for the fact Egypt continues to detain bloggers and others, in violation of both Egyptian law and international standards," Whitson said, referring to an opposition leader who was freed on February 18. "Torture and other abuse typically occur during this sort of secret detention."

The Egyptian authorities have had little tolerance for any form of criticism over its stance on Israel's offensive in Gaza. The government also has been under a great deal of international pressure to control the smuggling trade through the tunnels at Rafah. It has cooperated with Israel's 20-month-long closure of Gaza by keeping its Rafah crossing closed for most of that time.

With the disproportionate powers granted to them under an emergency law, the SSI have arrested a number of bloggers and activists who have been critical of the war in Gaza and the closing of the Egyptian  border with Gaza, among other things.

The Muslim Brotherhood, technically a banned organization, organized the largest of the street demonstrations, especially those outside of Cairo, in Alexandria and Tanta. Muslim Brotherhood representatives told Human Rights Watch that 711 of their members arrested since the start of the Gaza conflict remain imprisoned.

Public protests are illegal under the Egyptian emergency law. But a blanket ban on demonstrations is incompatible with Egypt's obligations to respect the right to freedom of expression and assembly under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR).

On February 6, SSI arrested Philip Rizk, a 26-year-old Egyptian-German graduate student at the American University in Cairo, as he and 14 others were on their way back to Cairo from a peaceful march over Gaza. SSI detained him incommunicado for six days while his family tried to find him and his lawyer filed a complaint with the general prosecutor at Cairo's High Court. On February 9, SSI officers went to Rizk's family home in Maadi, a Cairo suburb, to search his room. The family later found out that the agents had also searched the rented apartment where Rizk lives, entering with the key he had with him when they arrested him, and had taken away several books, a camera and a laptop. 

Rizk said that security agents had kept him blindfolded and interrogated him for four days. He told Human Rights Watch that there was no physical abuse, but that he had heard screaming. He said that an officer told him: "We don't want to have to do the same to you. We have doctors here who can take people apart, like dissecting a frog." The officer also told him, "I have the power to release you or keep you here for the rest of your life," said Rizk. On February 11, SSI released Rizk and dropped him off at his home. No charges have been brought.

In an earlier case, on November 20, in a café in downtown Cairo, plainclothes security officers arrested Mohamed Adel, a 20-year-old blogger who is also member of the opposition umbrella movement Kifaya and the Youth Movement for Change. Adel, who was also editor of Ikhwanweb, the English website of the Muslim Brotherhood, had traveled to Gaza in January 2008 with a relief convoy and had continued to be involved in Gaza-related activism. 

The day after the arrest, SSI officers searched his house without a warrant and took away his computer. Unable to find where the police were holding him, his family filed two complaints before the public prosecutor on November 23. It was only on November 24 that the prosecutor issued a formal arrest warrant. On December 8, the public prosecutor finally informed his father that Adel was in Tora prison and that he had been charged with membership in an illegal organization and attempting to cross into Gaza illegally. On February 22, Adel announced that he was going on hunger strike after the public prosecutor extended his detention by a further 15 days.

Under the Egyptian emergency law, the government can hold an individual for up to 30 days without charge, but it must immediately inform the person of the reasons for the arrest and allow the person to make a phone call (paragraph 3 of Law 162 of 1958). Egypt routinely violates this 30-day limit, and thousands of detainees have been imprisoned in Egypt without charge for more than a decade. 

As party to the ICCPR, Egypt is under an obligation to respect individuals' rights to liberty and security and their freedom from arbitrary arrest. Egypt's Constitution also provides in Article 41 that "[e]xcept in cases of flagrante delicto no person may be arrested, inspected, detained or his freedom restricted or prevented from free movement except by an order necessitated by investigations and preservation of the security of the society. This order shall be given by the competent judge or the Public Prosecution in accordance with the provision of the law." Article 44 states that "[h]omes shall have their sanctity and they may not be entered or inspected except by a causal judicial warrant prescribed by the law."

The majority of arrests over Gaza have been at demonstrations or just before planned demonstrations. Others have been in connection with fundraising efforts for humanitarian aid to Gaza. One Muslim Brotherhood representative told Human Rights Watch that this was "part of the usual attempt by the regime to crack down on the Brotherhood because they know we can mobilize thousands onto the streets."

State security prosecutors brought a number of them before the Higher State Security Court and charged them with membership in an illegal organization, while they extended the pretrial detention of others by 15 days. Some remain detained by order of the minister of the interior exercising his powers under the emergency law. The court ordered the release of some of them after a couple of weeks in detention - most recently, a group of 12 on February 21.

"It is at times of public outrage that the heavy hand of the security apparatus in Egypt becomes most apparent," said Whitson. "Behind the façade presented to the West lies a repressive security regime that continues to regard any form of peaceful protest as a security threat that must be clamped down upon."

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