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Egypt and Libya: A Year of Serious Abuses

Human Rights Messengers Remain Particularly Vulnerable in Both Countries

(Cairo, Egypt) - Egypt should revoke its draconian Emergency Law and revamp its abusive security forces as top priorities in 2010, Human Rights Watch said today in its comprehensive World Report 2010. Libya should free unjustly detrained prisoners and reform laws that criminalize free speech and association, Human Rights Watch said.

The 612-page report, the organization's 20th annual review of human rights practices around the globe, summarizes major human rights trends in more than 90 nations and territories worldwide. Human rights records for countries in the region were reviewed, including Egypt and Libya. Egyptians suffer torture, abuse, and arbitrary imprisonment at the hands of the security forces, Human Rights Watch said. The organization called upon the Egyptian government to lift the state of emergency under which the country has exercised severe restrictions on the rights of Egyptians to assembly and speech, and to significantly revamp the operational methods and accountability of the country's security forces.

For Libya, Human Rights Watch also called on the Libyan government to immediately release unjustly detained prisoners, reveal the fate of disappeared prisoners, provide justice to the families of victims of the killings of 1,200 inmates in 1996 in Abu Salim prison, and reform laws that criminalize free speech and association.

"Both Egypt's and Libya's human rights records will come under intense scrutiny by the UN Human Rights Council in 2010, " said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. "Egyptian security services need to understand that their thuggery confirms the international image of Egypt as a police state, while Libyan security forces continue to dominate political space in Libya in an atmosphere of fear."

The government has repeatedly broken promises to revoke the notorious Emergency Law, under which it authorizes arbitrary detention without warrant and unfair trials before security courts. The government has never confirmed the number of those detained under the law, but Egyptian human rights organizations estimate that between 5,000 and 10,000 people are held without charge. Authorities use state security courts to try high-profile cases. Police and security forces regularly engage in torture and brutality in police stations and detention centers, and during arrest.

"It's appalling that the security services get away with abusing the country's citizens under an absurd veneer of a ‘permanent' state of emergency, and with nary a word of criticism from its primary patron, the US government," Whitson said.

Critics of the abusive practices of the security services and the government are arrested and harassed, including bloggers and journalists. 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 President Hosni Mubarak and the Al-Azhar religious institution. Hany Nazeer, a blogger who voiced opinions critical of Christianity and Islam, has been in Borg El Arab since October 3, 2008, and is denied visitors.

On January 15, 2010, security officers arrested a group of bloggers and activists who had travelled to Nag' Hammadi to pay their condolences to the families of six Coptic Christians shot and killed on the Coptic Christmas Eve. They were charged with chanting slogans against the state.

There was a marked increase during 2009 in the harassment of human rights activists at Cairo airport. Airport security officials detained bloggers such as Wael Abbas and human rights activists such as Kamal Abbas from the Center for Trade Union and Workers Services. They also denied entry to Egypt to two foreign journalists who had written about labor activism and participated in protests.

"As a first demonstration of its good faith, Egypt should release Kareem Amer and Hany Nazeer, and let Egyptians freely speak their minds," Whitson said. "The best way to demonstrate its respect for its citizens is to stop abusing them."

The year opened with a distressing display of the growing religious intolerance in the country, illustrated most recently by the killing of six Coptic Christians in Nag' Hammadi on January 6. The police arrested three suspects, whom the North Qena prosecutor charged with "premeditated murder."

Over the past years, the government has failed to investigate properly and prosecute those responsible for the increasing number of incidents of sectarian violence, Human Rights Watch said.

Authorities have often responded to incidents of sectarian violence between Muslims and Copts by arresting those involved, but prosecutors have often failed to prosecute and punish those involved, and there are reports that security forces have not protected those vulnerable to attack. The government has also failed to support a much needed campaign of respect and tolerance for religious diversity to counter negative stereotyping and incitement to religious hatred in school curricula, the media, and religious institutions.

In a positive development on March 9, the Interior Ministry 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.

Egyptian authorities also violated international refugee laws during 2009, including episodes in which border guards shot dead at least 17 migrants attempting to cross the Sinai border into Israel, and Egypt denied officials of the United Nations High Commission for Refugees the required access to detained refugees and migrants.

There were important developments during 2009, including proposed reform of the penal code, official acknowledgment of the death of the hundreds of disappeared prisoners in 1996, and greater tolerance for public protest by the victims' families seeking disclosure and redress. But the government continues to imprison individuals for criticizing the country's political system or its leader, Mu`ammar al-Gaddafi, and maintains harsh restrictions on freedom of assembly and expression, including penal code provisions that criminalize "insulting public officials."

"This year Libya has formally recognized the death of hundreds of disappeared prisoners and made proposals to reform the penal code and associations law," Whitson said. "It needs to protect the rights of Libyans to speak their minds without threat of punishment, and to associate peacefully with other Libyans and foreigners as they see fit."

The organization called for revision of the penal code to remove criminal sanctions for critical speech. While a revised draft of the code reduces the penalty for  some offences from death to imprisonment, it leaves untouched the provisions that criminalize speech and association that go against the "principles of the revolution."

Libya is detaining a number of political prisoners for their public comments. In December, security officers arrested Jamal el Haji, a former political prisoner, for publicly criticizing human rights violations. Abdelnasser Al-Rabbasi is serving a 15-year sentence imposed in 2003 for writing a novel about corruption and human rights. In May, Fathi al-Jahmi, Libya's most prominent political prisoner, died in a Jordanian hospital at age 69, after six and a half years in prison.

"The very first thing the Libyan government should do is release El Haji and Al-Rabbasi," Whitson said. "Their imprisonment is a serious set-back on Libya's professed path of reform."

Violations by security forces dominated human rights concerns for the year, generating unheralded criticism of their conduct by both the country's justice secretary and the Human Rights Society at the Gaddafi Foundation, headed by the ruler's son. The Head of Internal Security confirmed to Human Rights Watch in December that his agency is detaining 330 prisoners who have completed their sentences or been acquitted by Libyan courts, with no apparent legal authority. The agency, under the jurisdiction of the General People's Committee for Public Security, controls two prisons, Ain Zara and Abu Salim, where it holds "security" detainees. It has refused to carry out judicial orders to free these prisoners, despite calls from the secretary of justice for their release.

The country also faces a major test over the extent to which the government will finally investigate the killing at Abu Salim prison on June 29, 1996. Over the past year, Libyan authorities started informing the families about the deaths and issuing death certificates, but without identifying the cause or date of death. Many families have demonstrated in Benghazi, the home city of many of the prisoners, insisting on a public accounting of what occurred on that day and the prosecution of those responsible.

"Libyan courts have ordered the government to tell the truth about what happened, but government promises to investigate have led nowhere," Whitson said. "This should be the year that the Libyan government gives its people what they want: truth and justice."

Human Rights Watch held a public news conference in Tripoli on December 12 to release its report "Libya: Truth and Justice Can't Wait." The report examined developments in Libya over the past five years, concluding that there had been some expansion of the space for free expression despite severe criminal penalties for free speech and association and an attempt to address the Abu Salim massacre issue, by acknowledging the death of the prisoners for the first time in 13 years and offering compensation, but no investigation or prosecutions.

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