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Egypt: Pledge Serious Human Rights Reform

Treat UN Human Rights Council Review as an Opportunity for Progress

(New York) - The United Nations Human Rights Council's first review of Egypt's human rights record on February 17, 2010, is an opportunity for the government of Egypt to show its willingness to transparently discuss human rights and to pledge to end serious abuses, Human Rights Watch said today.

Human Rights Watch, in a submission to the council as part of the review process, called for Egypt to lift its longstanding abusive emergency regulations; to hold security forces accountable for serious human rights abuses such as arbitrary arrest and incommunicado detention; and to end systematic torture and unfair trials before state security courts. The Universal Periodic Review (UPR) is the mechanism by which member states in the Human Rights Council review Egypt's and all other states' human rights records. The three-hour review in Geneva on Wednesday morning forms part of this process.

"Egypt says that it is taking the review seriously, so this is a perfect time to announce an end to the state of emergency and a return to judicial supervision of arrest and detention," said Joe Stork, deputy Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. "This is all the more urgent because parliamentary elections are scheduled this year."

On February 10, the Egyptian daily Al Shorouk quoted Mufid Shehab, the country's minister for legislative affairs, as saying, "Any one of us would love Egypt to function under the penal code, but all indications urge us to extend the state of emergency given the sectarian tensions and violence that surround us on all sides in Iraq, Sudan, Lebanon and Palestine."

Human Rights Council members taking part in the review should insist, however, that Egypt end the state of emergency, which has been continuously in effect for nearly 29 years, without further delay, Human Rights Watch said.

In recent weeks, Egypt has used the emergency law to arrest leaders of the Muslim Brotherhood and scores of its members, a crackdown that is typical of election years. The long-outlawed Brotherhood is the country's largest opposition movement, and its members won twenty percent of seats in the last parliamentary elections in 2005. The government has never confirmed the number of those arbitrarily detained under emergency law orders issued by the interior minister, but Egyptian human rights organizations estimate that between 5,000 and 10,000 people are held without charge.

"The periodic review is the forum where the Human Rights Council can and should insist that Egypt reveal how many persons are detained under the emergency law," Stork said.

The continuing reliance on state security courts, whose proceedings do not meet international fair trial standards and do not allow for appeal, is also of major concern, Human Rights Watch said. A trial of 25 men accused of membership in a terrorist group before a state security court that opened on February 14 was preceded by serious procedural violations, including incommunicado detention, torture allegations, and limited access to lawyers. Reports of pervasive torture, the failure to investigate properly and prosecute those responsible, and even reinstatement of police officers who are tried and found guilty, are all indicators that the government is not seriously trying to prevent or deter torture, Human Rights Watch said.

Human Rights Watch also called on the council to urge Egypt to halt its systematic arrest and harassment of peaceful political activists, as well as bloggers and journalists. On January 15, security officers arrested a group of bloggers and political activists who had travelled to the southern town of Nag' Hammadi to pay their condolences to the families of six Christians shot and killed on January 6, the Coptic Christmas Eve. 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.

In its own report to the Human Rights Council, the Egyptian government said that it had retained criminal penalties "for certain offences against the state and its institutions and for acts damaging to an individual's honor or a family's good name." Human Rights Watch called on the governments taking part in Egypt's human rights review to urge Egypt to stop arresting bloggers, journalists and activists for expressing their opinions and to repeal penal code articles that allow the government to imprison journalists for their writing, including Article 308 and Article 179.

The Human Rights Council should also address Egypt's policy of using lethal force to stop African migrants and asylum seekers from crossing the Sinai border into Israel, Human Rights Watch said. Since June 2007, Egyptian border guards have shot dead at least 59 African migrants, including five since the beginning of the year, and wounded scores of others trying to cross into Israel. Egyptian security forces have arrested hundreds of migrants, including children, and Egypt denies these refugees and migrants their right to make asylum claims, which under Egyptian law should be made to the United Nations High Commission for Refugees.

The Human Rights Council should press Egypt to order border police to use lethal force only as a proportionate and necessary response to a threat to life, and to guarantee the UN refugee agency unhindered access to all asylum seekers and refugees in official custody, Human Rights Watch said.

The Egyptian government said that it views the Human Rights Council review as "an opportunity for constructive discussion and dialogue focused on the development of the human rights system in Egypt." The official statement also said that in its submission to the Council "it is necessary to acknowledge the challenges and problems which citizens continue to face in exercising their rights, whether they be political, civil, economic, social or cultural rights, and to do more to confront these challenges and to resolve these problems."

Contributions by states taking part in the review debate will only be meaningful if they do not shy away from addressing Egypt's core human rights challenges, Human Rights Watch said.As part of the review process, governments can voluntarily pledge to make human rights reforms. Egypt's pledges in its national report to "review the definition of torture in Egyptian law in order to ensure consistency with the Convention against Torture;" and to "review the proposal by the National Council for Human Rights on the enactment of a unified law on the construction of places of worship," are especially significant, Human Rights Watch said.

"Pledges to improve Egypt's law are important," Stork said, "but they will be meaningless unless accompanied by pledges to ensure that security services respect the rule of law and to provide accountability for those who don't, and to make sure the promises are actually carried out."

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