(Cairo) - Egypt's transition to a democracy that respects the rule of law and human rights is at risk unless the military transition government carries out a number of immediate human rights reforms, Human Rights Watch said today.
The Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) should lift the state of emergency and repeal the Emergency Law, ensure the prosecution of security officials responsible for serious abuses, repeal laws that restrict free expression, association and assembly, and end trials of civilians before military tribunals, Human Rights Watch said. On June 7, 2011, Human Rights Watch concluded three days of meetings with Egyptian officials and members of civil society, including a member of the SCAF, prime minister Dr. Essam Sharaf, justice minister Counselor Mohamed Abdel Aziz El Guindy, and the assistant interior minister, General Marwan Mostafa.
"At this critical period of transition, the military should make a clear break with the repressive policies of the past, and this means ending military trials, repealing the emergency law, and laws that restrict freedoms," said Kenneth Roth, executive director of Human Rights Watch, who led the meetings in Cairo for Human Rights Watch. "Egypt has started to try some former officials, but unbroken impunity for the systematic torture of Egyptians over the past decades will only invite reoccurrence of abuse."
The Human Rights Watch delegation also included Hassan Elmasry, an international board member; Sarah Leah Whitson, the Middle East and North Africa director, and Heba Morayef, the Egypt representative.
The Egyptian authorities have made some progress in a number of areas, Human Rights Watch said. These include revising the Political Parties Law to allow the establishment of new political parties and independent trade unions, opening trials of some senior security and political officials on charges of corruption and of killing unarmed protesters, and creating consultative committees for dialogue with the political opposition and civil society.
However, the military government has yet to end the discredited state of emergency and to abolish the Emergency Law (Law No. 162 of 1958), which allows authorities to detain people without charge and to try them in special security courts that do not meet international fair trial standards, provide no right of appeal, and have been notorious for relying on confessions obtained under torture. On June 4, in the first outright use of the Emergency Law since the revolution, the public prosecutor referred 48 suspects arrested after the sectarian violence at a church in Imababa, Cairo, on May 7, to an Emergency High State Security Court.
"The current levels of crime and threats to security don't amount to a public emergency that threaten the life of the nation, the only permissible criteria for imposing emergency rule," Roth said. "Mubarak used the Emergency Law to put security officials above the law and subject Egyptians to arbitrary arrest and detention; these practices have no place in a new Egypt."
With parliamentary elections scheduled for September, the government should move quickly to abolish immediately a number of laws that restrict essential freedoms and preclude the possibility of a fair and free election, Human Rights Watch said. These include penal code provisions that criminalize free expression, such as Article 184 on "insulting public authorities," Article 179 on "insulting the president," and Article 102 on "spreading false information."
The government should also rescind the new strike and demonstration law, which bans protests that "obstruct" state institutions, or "harm societal peace," in violation of the narrowly permitted grounds for limits on public assembly under international law.
The government should also revoke the Assembly Law of 1914, which requires any gathering, defined as five or more persons, to disperse if the authorities order them to, and the 1923 Law Assembly and Meetings (Law 14), which requires advance approval from the interior ministry to organize a demonstration. It also sets penalties for those who plan, organize, or participate in an unannounced or unapproved demonstration.
Finally, the transitional government should amend the Associations Law to allow nongovernmental organizations to be established without government approval, to repeal provisions authorizing government interference in the operation of these groups, and to eliminate criminal penalties for participation in unregistered organizations. The government should abolish restrictions on civil society, which needs to be free to organize itself as it sees fit, Human Rights Watch said.
Under international human rights law, free and fair elections require guarantees of free expression, including for the media, and free access to information. These guarantees are essential to generate the open discussion and debate about critical policy matters needed by Egyptians to cast informed votes, as well as to allow political groups to organize and demonstrate freely during the period leading up to the elections.
The government also needs to reform the interior ministry to make sure it does not repeat past abuses by security services under its jurisdiction, and to initiate investigations of torture and other abuses by leading security officers. The need to move forward with investigations into the actions of officers from the now-dissolved State Security Investigations (SSI) division of the ministry is especially urgent, Human Rights Watch said. The division was notorious for using systematic torture and enforced disappearance to obtain information.
To prevent torture, government officials should establish civilian oversight of the police force, permit independent monitoring by civil society groups of detention sites, and create an internal unit to investigate torture complaints transparently, Human Rights Watch said. The transitional government also should amend Article 126 of the penal code, in line with the definition of torture under international law, to broaden the definition of torture to include psychological abuse and to include torture and other cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment used as punishment, and not just to extract a confession. The justice ministry also should reform the process used by the public prosecutor to investigate police abuse, Human Rights Watch said.The vast majority of torture complaints never reach court because of police intimidation of victims and witnesses who file complaints, an inadequate legal framework, and delays in referring victims for medical examination. The government also should end the practice of relying on police from the same unit as the alleged torturer to gather evidence and summon witnesses. Instead, the prosecutor's office should control all aspects of these investigations, and bar police involvement in gathering evidence and summoning witnesses.
"Egyptians deserve a clean break from the entrenched practice of torture that characterized Mubarak's reign," Roth said. "Police abuse and torture played a central role in inspiring the revolution and there is therefore an urgent need for the transitional government to come up with concrete and effective measures to address SSI's abuses."
Human Rights Watch also called on the military government to stop trying civilians in military courts and to investigate allegations of torture and virginity testing at the hands of the military. Human Rights Watch has interviewed 16 men and women who testified that military officers tortured, beat, and whipped them - and sometimes tortured them with electroshocks - in Cairo on March 6, in Lazoughli Square, and on March 9, in the grounds of the Egyptian Museum, adjacent to Tahrir Square.
Human Rights Watch also has obtained and reviewed statements of four women arrested with other protesters on March 9, who described how they were detained at a military base and how military personnel subjected seven detained women to virginity tests on March 10. A military official confirmed to CNN on May 30 that the military had performed the virginity tests, which constitute unlawful assault under both Egyptian and international law.
"The military should investigate these torture cases, even in the absence of a formal complaint by the victims," Roth said. "It is important to show that it has a zero-tolerance policy toward torture and sexual assault, starting with its own officers."
Since coming to power, the transitional government has relied on military courts to sentence 5,600 civilians, in addition to 1,300 other trials that were still in process on May 1, when General Adel al-Morsy spoke to the daily Al Ahram. The military has said that it is relying on the Code of Military Justice to prosecute civilians, which in Article 5 and 6 allows for such trials under specified conditions, such as when the crime takes place in an area controlled by the military or if one of the parties involved is a military officer. Those tried by the courts include not only Egyptians charged with ordinary criminal offenses, but also protesters and journalists.
Military courts should never be used to try civilians, Human Rights Watch said, because the proceedings do not protect due process rights or satisfy international legal requirements for court independence and impartiality. International human rights bodies over the last 15 years have determined that trials of civilians before military tribunals violate the due process guarantees in article 14 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR).
The Egyptian authorities should amend the Code of Military Justice to restrict the jurisdiction of the military courts to trials of military personnel charged with offenses of an exclusively military nature, Human Rights Watch said.
"Fundamentally unfair military courts have convicted at least 5600 civilians over the past four months," Roth said. "These convictions are unsound under human rights law and those imprisoned should be released or retried before regular civilian courts."