(New York) - The Egyptian authorities should immediately free Hany Nazeer, a blogger arbitrarily imprisoned since October 2008 under the country's decades-old emergency law, Human Rights Watch said today.
Despite an April 3, 2010 court order for his release, the Interior Ministry renewed his 19-month detention for the sixth time this week citing emergency law provisions that permit detention without charge. The only reasons given have been either a link on his blog to a controversial book on Islam or for "his own protection."
"Nazeer's renewed detention gives lie to the Egyptian government's claim that it doesn't use the emergency law to imprison people with dissenting views," said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East and North Africa director at Human Rights Watch. "The government is not addressing a national security emergency but persecuting a writer whose blog may have upset some people."
A high school social worker known for his critical views of established religion, Nazeer published a blog called "Karz El Hob" (Preacher of Love), which included a link to a novel with a cover photo that some in his village considered insulting to Islam. When rumors that Nazeer had cited this book on his blog spread in the village, angry crowds gathered outside his house and Nazeer left the village, fearing for his safety.
Rather than providing protection, state security officials tried to arrest him. When they failed to find him, they arrested and detained his brothers for three days as hostages and threatened to arrest his sisters. In response, on October 3, 2008, Nazeer turned himself in. He has been held ever since at Borg El Arab prison in Alexandria.
The Egyptian government has repeatedly stated that it does not use the emergency law to imprison bloggers for what they write. Most recently, during Egypt's review by the United Nations Human Rights Council, Mostafa Hanafy, vice president of the Egyptian Council of State, told the human rights body that the government had "made a commitment before parliament to use the emergency law only for terrorism and drug-related crimes and it has only implemented the rules of the emergency law in these cases."
Egypt accepted the Council's recommendation that "emergency powers should not be abused or used against journalists and bloggers in their exercise of their right to freedom of expression," but rejected as "factually inaccurate" the recommendation to "release bloggers and activists currently detained under the Emergency Law and cease its arrests and detention of political activists."
"Egypt keeps pointing to the prevalence of websites and newspapers in Egypt as evidence of its respect for free speech," Whitson said, "But its continued imprisonment of writers undermines this claim."
In a February 2010 letter to Human Rights Watch, the Foreign Affairs Ministry said that: "preventative measures were taken to protect Hany Nazeer Aziz's life in light of the anger and the strong uprising of the Muslims in Abu Tesht in Qena caused by his blog, which included pictures insulting to sacred Islamic symbols in addition to a novel that includes insults to Islam and the Prophet which Nazeer published."
"The right way to protect Nazeer is not by imprisoning him, but by prosecuting those threatening his security," Whitson said. "The government does nothing to foster an atmosphere of tolerance and respect for the views of others when it jails those who have controversial views."
Under the emergency law, the interior minister may order a person's detention without charge for 45 days, and indefinitely renew the order. After 30 days, a detainee can appeal before the state security court. The court can confirm the detention or order the person's release. The Interior Ministry may appeal a release order, but the court makes a final decision.
The Egyptian government repeatedly has cited the fact that emergency law detention orders are subject to judicial review as evidence that detainees have legal protections. Yet although the Emergency State Security High Court has ordered Hany Nazeer's release five times, on appeals filed through defense lawyers from the Arab Network for Human Rights Information, most recently on March 6, security officials continue to detain him. The court's April 3 order followed an Interior Ministry appeal of the March 6 decision.
A researcher from the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights told Human Rights Watch that after this decision, security officials moved Nazeer for a few days to a police station in Qena. But the Interior Ministry issued a new detention order and moved Nazeer back to Borg El Arab prison, where he remains.
"Security officials' disregard for court decisions shows that they operate outside the law and basically do whatever they want," said Whitson. "The government should immediately charge or release all of the thousands of administrative detainees who remain held under the emergency law."
As party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), Egypt is obliged under article 9 to ensure that there is no arbitrary deprivation of liberty and to provide an effective remedy for violations. Under article 19, it is bound to protect freedom of expression. Limited derogations from these articles are allowed in a state of emergency, but the state of emergency in Egypt does not meet the applicable criteria under international law.
In a report on his 2009 visit to Egypt, Martin Scheinin, UN Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of human rights and fundamental freedoms while countering terrorism, expressed concern about the abuse of the emergency law and said that a state of emergency must be a temporary tool. He said that the emergency law that has been "almost continuously in force for more than 50 years in Egypt is not a state of exceptionality; it has become the norm, which must never be the purpose of a state of emergency." He recommended that Egypt "abolish any legal provisions allowing for administrative detention and take effective measures to release or bring to trial all detainees currently subjected to that regime."
Since 2005, the Egyptian government has promised to end the state of emergency and repeal the emergency law, yet it now appears clear that the government will once more renew the state of emergency, which will expire in May. On February 10, the Egyptian daily Al Shorouk quoted Mufid Shehab, 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." Thousands of prisoners are detained without charge under the emergency law, many for over a decade. In April, security forces beat up and arrested a group of young demonstrators calling for an end to the state of emergency.
"The unfettered powers granted to the government to detain anyone they want, at any time, for just about any reason makes real political reform in Egypt impossible," Whitson said. "If the government renews this law once again in May, it will only perpetuate its abusive, unchecked rule over the people of Egypt."