(New York) - President Hosni Mubarak's meeting with President Obama on August 18, 2009 is an opportunity to call for human rights reforms in Egypt, Human Rights Watch said today. Egypt arbitrarily detains bloggers, activists and opposition members and convicts them in unfair trials. It also violates the rights of refugees and migrants, including shooting migrants trying to cross its borders and arbitrarily detaining many of them.
"President Obama needs to convey a clear message that human rights in Egypt are a central concern of his administration," said Joe Stork, deputy Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. "Egypt is approaching a time of transition and has the opportunity to make real reforms."
Mubarak's first trip to Washington in five years comes after a colder period in US-Egyptian relations. The US has tried various approaches to promote human rights in Egypt, at times more openly critical and at others preferring not to anger the Egyptians and jeopardize other vital areas of cooperation.
In a speech in Cairo on June 4, 2009, Obama set out some general principles of US policy toward the Muslim world, telling Egyptians that he has "an unyielding belief that all people yearn for certain things: the ability to speak your mind and have a say in how you are governed; confidence in the rule of law and the equal administration of justice."
Human Rights Watch said that Mubarak's visit will be a critical moment for the US to present its stance on human rights violations, especially in light of the fact that Egypt's human rights record has been widely criticized.
"President Obama should call for the release of all political prisoners," said Stork. "He should urge President Mubarak to end the State of Emergency and to respect the rights of migrants."
Egypt's 28-year-old emergency law allows authorities to detain individuals arbitrarily and to try them in special security courts, which do not meet international fair trial standards. The government renewed the Emergency Law (Law No. 162 of 1958) in May 2008 for two years, providing a continued basis for arbitrary detention and unfair trials, despite repeated promises not to do so by Mubarak and other top officials. A new draft counterterrorism law, if adopted, will codify several of the extraordinary powers the emergency law grants to the executive, effectively making permanent what had been presented as temporary measures.
Egyptian authorities detain people for expressing their opinions peacefully. Bloggers have been arrested, detained and harassed by security forces. Egyptian law also allows imprisonment of journalists for insulting public officials.
Kareem Amer, a blogger whose real name is `Abd al-Karim Nabil Suleiman, has been in Borg El Arab prison, in Alexandria, since November 7, 2006 for writing about sectarian tensions in Alexandria and criticizing Mubarak and the Al-Azhar religious institution on his blog. On February 22, 2007, a court sentenced him to four years in prison for "insulting the president," "spreading information disruptive of public order," and "incitement to hate Muslims."
Hany Nazeer, another blogger, is being detained without charge, also in Borg El Arab prison, under the emergency law and is denied visits. State Security officers arrested him at his home in Naga Hammadi, Qena, on October 3, 2008. Nazeer had expressed opinions critical of Christianity and Islam on his blog. Musad Abul Fagr, a novelist and rights defender who had been outspokenly critical of the violation of the rights of Sinai Bedouin, remains in prison under an emergency law order despite several court orders for his release. On July 17, prison officials transferred him to Borg El Arab prison under the 13th emergency law order extending his detention.
The Egyptian authorities have arrested a number of senior members of the Muslim Brotherhood over the past months and detained them under the emergency law. One of them, Abdelmenoim Abulfutouh, is detained in Kasr El Aini hospital under the emergency law and has been charged with membership in an illegal organization. Security forces arrested him on the morning of June 28, along with other senior Muslim Brotherhood members, most of them medical doctors. The State Security prosecutor renewed his detention order on August 9. Abulfotouh, secretary-general of the Arab Union for Medical Doctors, is a member of the brotherhood's executive bureau. His health is said to be suffering in detention, and Egyptian organizations have called for his release on humanitarian grounds.
The Emergency Law allows the authorities to try civilians before military and State Security Courts, in violation of international law. On July 26, Egypt's public prosecutor referred the cases of 26 men accused of plotting attacks on behalf of Hezbollah to a state security court.
In an earlier case, on April 15, 2008, a military tribunal convicted Khairat al-Shatir, the Muslim Brotherhood's deputy supreme guide, the second-highest officer, and 24 other civilians, sentencing al-Shatir to seven years in prison after a trial that did not comply with international due process standards. Seventeen of his codefendants had already been acquitted by a civilian court in Cairo in January 2007, but police re-arrested them moments after the verdict. The following month, Mubarak, in his capacity as commander-in-chief, transferred their cases to the military tribunal that ultimately convicted them. International human rights law says no one shall be retried or punished for an offense for which they have been acquitted.
With regard to violations of the rights of migrants, Egyptian border guards have shot dead seven migrants since May as they tried to enter Israel from Egypt and detained scores of others. In its report "Sinai Perils: Risks to Migrants, Refugees and Asylum Seekers in Egypt and Israel," Human Rights Watch called upon the Egyptian authorities to investigate the fatal shootings and to halt the use of lethal force against border crossers. Egypt arbitrarily detains refugees and migrants apprehended in the Sinai and tried them before military tribunals for illegal entry. Egypt denies these refugees and migrants their right to make asylum claims to the United Nations High Commission for Refugees.
There have been some positive reforms in recent years. In 2008, the government passed legislation banning female genital mutilation, and in 2009 new legislation provided more rights to people suffering mental illness. On March 9, the Ministry of Interior issued a decree allowing Baha'is and other adherents of "non-recognized" religions to obtain essential identification documents without having to misidentify themselves as Muslims or Christians.
"As the Egyptian authorities prepare for parliamentary elections in 2010 and presidential elections the following year, the focus should be on improving Egypt's human rights record," said Stork. "Arresting critics of the regime will only produce, yet again, discredited elections."